TRUE TO THE SPIRIT of his astounding longevity, Randy Johnson conducted an exhaustive 43-minute retirement news conference Tuesday, even joking near its conclusion that most people had probably hung up on his long-winded goodbye.
Doubtful, at least among media members who appreciate baseball history and true greatness in their midst, even if it's just over the telephone. Forty-three minutes is nothing when it comes to a player they'll be marveling at long after the last person who actually saw Johnson pitch breathes his last breath.
From an inauspicious start as a gawky 6-foot-10 kid from Livermore who threw the ball hard but didn't have much clue where it was going, Johnson evolved into one of the eternal legends of the game, certainly one of the top dozen pitchers ever and arguably the best to ever throw from the left side. Certainly, he is right there alongside Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn.
"I just feel there's not a lot left for me to do in this game," said the 46-year-old Johnson, who officially concluded his 22-year career on the eve of today's 2010 Hall of Fame announcement, something he'll take part in five years from now as a first-ballot selection and possibly a unanimous one.
What didn't Johnson do? You can spend hours — days even — poring over his career accomplishments, statistics and lore. He won 303 games. He threw a perfect game — at age 40. He won three games in one World Series, including a Game 7 against the Yankees in relief after winning Game 6 the previous day as a starter.
He captured five Cy Young Awards and finished second in the voting three times. He struck out 5,007 batters if you count the postseason. He made John Kruk look like he'd never picked up a bat. Even Barry Bonds felt like taking the day off when Johnson was on the mound.
The Big Unit had one season in which he struck out 290 batters and walked 44, again at age 40. Amazing. He had gaudy won-loss totals of 18-2, 20-4, 24-5 and 21-6 during his career. In a half-season with Houston, he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA. He won more games in his 40s than he did in his 20s and really didn't start launching his Hall of Fame case until age 29.
He recorded more strikeouts than any left-handed pitcher in baseball history. He recorded more wins than any left-hander from California, and the second-most throwing from either side. He gave up 411 home runs, and as he proudly recalled on retirement day, hit one of his own.
In a curious statistical oddity, one of the hitters the East Bay's best-ever pitcher dominated most was Rickey Henderson, the East Bay's all-time best position player. Rickey struck out against Johnson 30 times. Henderson had just seven hits in 59 at-bats against him, a .119 average and no homers.
The lore part? Johnson killed a bird with a fastball. He gave up what may have been one of the longest home runs ever hit, to the A's Mark McGwire, a former USC teammate, at the long-gone Kingdome. There was the long, grungy hair of his Seattle years, the cantankerous intensity of his Arizona years, the wise Methuselah of his final years, including his memorable last season with the Giants that we were so fortunate to witness and savor.
And you can't forget the 6-foot-10 part. It's what makes Johnson stand out from all the rest, and Randy himself acknowledged that part in his farewell.
"It took me awhile to understand that there's a reason why there's been maybe only a handful of pitchers over 6-8 or 6-9 that have had any type of success in this game," he said. "This isn't a tall man's sport. Pitching, you have to have all of your parts moving together and have a sense of rhythm, and early in my career I didn't have that. It was frustrating. I knew the ability I had, but I couldn't repeat it."
Two extraordinary aspects of Johnson that aren't documented by numbers are how hard he worked at mastering his raw physical gifts and how he learned to channel his intensity and prickly nature. If Johnson looked like he pitched angry, it's because he purposely worked himself into a nasty mood to match his nasty fastball and slider.
"I got the most out of myself by being intense, and it became an intangible I used to my advantage," he said. "I will miss having an outlet to be that competitive for the rest of my life."
Baseball fans are going to miss it just as much as Johnson does. Maybe more. Like one of his heaters, 22 years — including Tuesday's final 43 minutes — went by all too fast.
Contact Carl Steward at email@example.com.