Everybody talks about getting better at his craft. For 20 years, ever since he showed up in the minor leagues with a fastball that clocked over 100 mph -- usually as it hit the backstop on the fly -- Randy Johnson has actually done it.
When he enters the Hall of Fame someday, testaments will be made to his talent and to the spectacular nights, such as the one last month when he pitched a perfect game in Atlanta. He can thrill the entire sport with his electric, intimidating 6-foot-10 presence.
However, a game like Johnson's 8-1 victory over the Orioles in Camden Yards on Tuesday night shows his most remarkable quality. He wasn't perfect. The Arizona southpaw didn't strike out 10 or more hitters as he already has four times this season, despite being 40 years old. There are still nights when the Big Unit shuts out the Padres on two hits or fans 10 Cubs while walking nobody. But he now has remarkable nights when he is not spectacular at all.
Against the Orioles, Johnson did something that would have seemed inconceivable when he was young, unnecessary in his prime and unlikely now in his dotage. He pitched. With precision, haughty command and veteran guile.
Though his fastball rarely topped 93 mph, the Orioles managed just three singles off him in seven innings, one a bloop, another an infield scratch. After fanning two of the first three hitters he faced, Johnson only struck out two of the next 22. Hard as it is to imagine, Johnson, perhaps the most intimidating pitcher ever, underwhelmed the Orioles for his eighth victory.
With luck, losing pitcher Sidney Ponson was taking notes. The 6-foot-1, 255-pound Ponson actually threw faster than Johnson, routinely clocking 96, while showing a fine slider, too. But Ponson, who continued a horrendous season after signing a $22.5 million contract, is as clueless about his craft at 27 as Johnson himself was at about the same age.
After battling weight problems and taking almost as many steps backward as forward in his seven years in the majors, Ponson must soon decide whether he will be one of the sport's gifted pitchers who is content to remain a rich nonentity. Or, like Johnson, will craft become a career-long passion?
"There was a day not too many years ago when if Randy started the game with a fastball that topped at 92 and an inconsistent slider, he might not have been around too long. But he's learned to get by with less than his best," said Diamondbacks Manager Bob Brenly. "He was extremely efficient, used all his pitches and changed speeds as well as he has all season. . . . He pitched to the ballpark [getting long fly outs to center field]. He doesn't need that much fastball anymore. He knows how to get hitters out."
Changing speeds? Using the ballpark? Coping with mediocre stuff? Who are we talking about here, Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer or Tom Glavine? It's enough to make Johnson, who is as hard on himself as anyone in the game, break out a smile. But not quite. Even perfect games are barely enough to make the Big Unit grin.
The jovial Ponson, in contrast, sometimes smiles on the mound in the middle of bad innings, as if bemused or disbelieving at his bad luck. When he does get animated, it is often after the fact, not before it. After giving up two runs in the third inning, Ponson threw his hat and glove against the back wall of the dugout, then stalked down the tunnel (perhaps for pizza).
"I take pride in everything I do. Since six years ago [when he was traded out of the American League and last faced the Orioles] I've gotten a little bit better at every part of my game, I hope," Johnson said after improving his record to 8-4. His notoriously bad pickoff move is now better. His ability to field his position -- he is still one of the few players with a career fielding percentage under .900 -- has moved up to adequate. Even his hitting, now that he must bat in the National League, is functional -- for a pitcher.
"It's not pretty when I go up there to hit," said Johnson, "but sometimes the results aren't bad. I try to work on every facet of my game."
Just one year ago, Johnson had the kind of injury-plagued season at 39 that always starts retirement talk -- 6-8 with a 4.26 ERA. "People said my career was over," said Johnson, his eyes narrowing. "Only the person himself knows when his career is over."
Sorry, Unit. You just decide that one on your own. For now, it looks like he'll be earning his $16 million deal in '05. And who know how long after that if he no longer needs his 96-mph nights to succeed.
The large legend does this diabolic "pitching" trick on a regular basis now. He's won all four of his starts since his perfect game in understated style, never fanning more than five. It hardly seems fair. But, since he's just learned the split-finger fastball, there's no reason why, in old age, he shouldn't get revenge for all the embarrassments that the game inflicted on him in his twenties when he once walked 416 men in three seasons and was only one game over .500 after six years in the big leagues.
Perhaps Ponson, and others who find the game tormenting, should stroll through the record book. Power pitchers often bloom late. Curt Schilling and David Wells, in addition to Johnson, were at the same general statistical level as Ponson at the same age. Wells wasn't nearly as good. But they were all students of the game, even the raucous Wells.
"It's a trademark of the great pitchers to want to improve," Brenly said. "There have been so many that have the gift, but that extra something is missing. Is it drive, pride in the job, confidence? I don't know. So many just disappear."
Or simply become comfortable with mid-career success and don't care about longevity. In his 300-strikeout-per-year prime, Johnson was so overpowering that he could have become content.
"When we were in Seattle," said Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo, who was with the Mariners at Johnson's strikeout height, "Randy was the most fun pitcher I have ever seen in my career. No one was as entertaining to watch. He makes hitters do things that make you say, 'Oh, my goodness.' [Manager] Lou Piniella and I would just sit on the bench and laugh.
"If a hitter took a hard swing, that just made Randy more determined to strike him out. And after he struck him out, he'd give him a wave off, like 'Get out of here.' The other teams hated it. But we loved it."
Now, Johnson has finished the portrait of himself. On one night, he may still be the Big Unit who gets half his outs with strikeouts or pitches a perfect game. But in his next start, he may be the consummate veteran craftsman. "I only walked one man, but you notice that's the inning they scored," said Johnson. "That's the kind of thing I always want to improve."
"Randy has rightfully taken his place with the greatest in history," said Brenly before Johnson's start. "He's comfortable with his position in the game."
But, even now, not too comfortable. Which may have been the key all along.