With the election of “The Big Unit,” Randy Johnson, into the Baseball Hall of Fame, I couldn’t help but reflect back on his tenure with the New York Yankees. I have a different take than most Yankees fans, when it comes to Johnson. Different in that it’s mostly positive. Sure there was the surly run in with photographers and reporters in the early going, the insistence on having John Flaherty as his personal catcher, rather than Jorge Posada and his not so memorable postseason starts. Yet, it was a lot better than you might think.
Johnson had been on the Yanks radar, going back to his Seattle Mariners days in 1998, when he was ultimately dealt to the Houston Astros and went 10-1 down the stretch. If the Yanks (through no fault of their own) hadn’t swooped in on David Wells in 2002, after his handshake agreement with Arizona, maybe they would’ve snagged Johnson in 2004 and the 2004 ALCS disaster never happens. If anything, the Yankees obtained Johnson a year too late and lost out because the Diamondbacks gave Curt Schilling to Boston for a bag of baseballs (remember Casey Fossum?) and held the Yanks for ransom.
Still though, the trade for the “Big Unit” was worth it. In his two season’s in the Bronx, Johnson won 34 games and all New York had to give up was a basket case Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey (whose claim to fame was starting the game where Derek Jeter dove into the stands against Boston) and Dioner Navarro, who has carved out a nice career but he didn’t become the next Posada. Plus, even when they sent Johnson back to Arizona, they got a decent year of relief out of Luis Vizcaino, until Joe Torre sucked the life out of his arm and Ross Ohlendorf, whom they flipped to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Damaso Marte, who was a valuable piece out of the bullpen, on the 2009 World Series winning squad.
Back to Johnson’s Yankee tenure though. In 2005, at age 41, Johnson won 17-games, pitched to a 3.79 ERA and fanned 211, essentially replacing the lefty they lost in Andy Pettitte. Additionally, from day one (or Opening Night) Johnson did what he was brought in to do. Beat Boston. In six starts against the Red Sox, Johnson went 5-0. How important was that? Well, that season the Yankees and Red Sox had identical records (95-67) but the Yanks wound up taking the division by virtue of a tie-breaker. His first start that season gave the Yanks a leg up and his final start at Fenway Park, provided the victory needed to clinch the AL East.
Granted the 2005 ALDS was not a pretty sight for Johnson, except for a stellar relief appearance in a too little too late outing in Game 5, oddly enough with Posada behind home plate.
In 2006, he’d win 17 games again, although along with a bloated 5.00 ERA. The 2006 ALDS ended with a thud as well. Lending more fuel to the fire as the ultimate Yankee killer in the postseason.
However, Johnson did pitch hurt, with a herniated disc in his back. He took the ball and he never complained. Didn’t pout like Mike Mussina or punch a wall like Kevin Brown. Wasn’t a hypochondriac or headcase like Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. Johnson was a gamer and he pitched through pain.
I was fortunate to have seen a pair of vintage Randy Johnson starts for the Yanks. Once in 2005 against Baltimore and again in 2006 against Seattle. You could hear the mitt pop from the upper deck of the old Yankee Stadium.
So, no his time in the Bronx wasn’t perfect. Yes, it was probably a year too late. Still, considering how the Yanks rotation was constructed at the time, there were some fun moments and it was still worth it in the end.