Randy Johnson was an elite athlete who used his height to his advantage in both baseball and basketball. He turned down the Atlanta Braves after they drafted him in the fourth round in 1982, opting for a combination baseball/basketball scholarship at the University of Southern California.
But once Johnson began concentrating solely on baseball following his sophomore year, he was firmly on the path to Cooperstown.
Born Sept. 10, 1963 in Walnut Creek, Calif. – a San Francisco suburb – Johnson was drafted by the Expos in the second round in 1985 while at USC. This time, Johnson turned pro.
“I just enjoy baseball a lot more (than basketball),” Johnson said as a minor leaguer in the Expos system.
The control problems that plagued Johnson as a collegian also surfaced in the minor leagues, but Johnson displayed his 97-mph fastball as well – earmarking him as a big league prospect.
By 1988, the Expos had brought Johnson to the big leagues – making the 6-foot-10 Johnson the tallest player in big league history. But midway through the 1989 season, Montreal dealt Johnson to the Seattle Mariners in a trade that brought star lefty Mark Langston to the Expos. For the next three-and-half years, Johnson struggled to find his control – showing spurts of dominance (including his June 2, 1990 no-hitter against the Tigers) while leading the American League in walks three times.
In August of 1992, Johnson sought out the Rangers’ Nolan Ryan, who was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. Ryan suggested that Johnson make a few adjustments to his delivery, and on Sept. 27 Johnson faced Ryan in a game at Arlington Stadium. Johnson threw 160 pitches in eight innings, striking out 18 Rangers in a game Texas won 3-2.
From virtually that point on, Johnson was a different pitcher.
“I told Randy he could be the most dominating pitcher in baseball if he would just work on his game,” Ryan said in 1992. “He was a lot like me when I was younger. He was just pitching and not doing a lot of thinking.”
In 1993, Johnson went 19-8, led the AL with 308 strikeouts and finished second in the league’s Cy Young Award voting. After a 13-6 record in the strike-shortened 1994 season (when he again led the AL in strikeouts with 204), Johnson went 18-2 in 1995 while striking out 294 batters, leading the league with a 2.48 earned-run average and winning the Cy Young Award.
Johnson missed most of the 1996 season after undergoing back surgery, but rebounded in 1997 to go 20-4 with 291 strikeouts. But with his contract up following the 1998 season, Johnson was traded midway through ’98 to the Astros – where he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts, leading Houston to a playoff berth.
As a free agent following the playoffs, Johnson was one of the most sought-after players in the game. But at 35 years old, some thought Johnson’s best days were behind him.
Instead, they were just beginning.
Johnson signed a four-year deal with the Diamondbacks, and the second-year club instantly gained credibility – not to mention a legitimate ace. From 1999-2002, Johnson captured four straight National League Cy Young Awards, three ERA titles and struck out at least 334 batters each season. The ultimate triumph came in 2001 when Johnson was 21-6 in the regular season, then posted a 3-0 record in the World Series – sharing the Most Valuable Player honors with Curt Schilling and leading Arizona to a seven-game series win over the Yankees.
Johnson remained with the Diamondbacks through the 2004 season before Arizona traded the 41-year-old fireballer to the Yankees. Johnson won 34 games in two seasons with New York before heading back to the Diamondbacks for two more seasons. He finished his career in 2009 with the Giants, where he won his 300th career game.
After he signed with Arizona prior to the 1999 season, Johnson posted more than half – 160 – of his 303 career victories.
In 22 seasons, Johnson led his league in strikeouts nine times, earned four ERA titles and recorded 100 complete games to go along with 37 shutouts. He was named to 10 All-Star Games, earning four starts – the second-best total of all-time. Only four left-handed pitchers (Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Eddie Plank and Tom Glavine) have ever won more games.
His 4,875 strikeouts rank No. 2 all-time behind Ryan’s 5,714.
Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.