by Steven Travers
American Reporter Correspondent
San Francisco, Calif.
April 5, 2001
PHOENIX, April 4, 2001 -- He is the Paul Bunyan of baseball. In the modern day version of David vs. Goliath, he is Goliath. This guy is not Everyman. He is to pitching what Rommel was to desert combat, Chuck Yeager to aviation, Einstein to quantum theory. Randy Johnson's natural skills make him stand out above and beyond the normal, the average, and the humdrum.
Still, this Frankenstein of baseball, this 6'10+ millionaire wunderkind who is so different, so skilled, so gifted, is in fact very much like the rest of us.
It had been a few years since I last saw Randy Johnson, but I attend= ed the University of Southern California (U.S.C., or SC) with him, andwhen I approached him in the locker room and asked if he had a fewminutes, he said, "Of course I do."
Now, Johnson has a comfortable recliner next to his lo= cker at BankOne Ballpark in Phoenix, but he was not sitting in it.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" I inquired. He nodded, so I did. Apparently, the recliner is not available to just anybody. Pitcher Mike Morgan dropped by, opened a nearby refrigerator, and offered me a beer.
"No thanks," I said.Gee, what a nice guy.
"Can I get you a sandwich?" asks Matt Williams. Wait a minute! I am getting goofed on by the Diamondbacks. "I'm not supposed to be sitting in your chair, am I?" I ask the Big Unit.
He smiles. "You know what?" he says. "Us Trojans stick together. You can sit anywhere you like."
You gotta love the Good Ol' Boy network. I conduct the interview, which lasts the better part of 45 minutes, sitting in the recliner. It eventually got so comfortable I almost told Morgan that I had reconsidered that offer of a cold brew. The conversation centers not on Johnson's great career statistics, or "What is it like to be Randy Johnson?", which seems to rhe the semi-boring focus of 99 percent of modern-day sports interviews. At least not the Randy Johnson we see on tv. No, it is time to take a trip down Memory Lane, to The Big Unit's roots.
When the punditocracy of baseball talks about a guy's background, they often refer to the high school where he played.
High school baseball is very much a rite of passage, as American as apple pie. However, it may not be the place where a baseball player best hones his budding skills. The prep season usually starts when the weather is colder, wetter. The season goes about 30 games, give or take, and outside interests like school, girls, friends, and cliques can encroach on ones' concentration.
Summer ball is where progress is made. It can be American Legion, Connie Mack, Joe DiMaggio or Senior Babe Ruth League. Kids play more games than during the high school season. They travel, they face great competition, and the team itself often draws from a larger population base than the school, making for an "area all-star" concept.
The weather is warm. The players have fewer distractions in the summer. They are more skilled by August than they were in May.
Years ago, there was a team in Baltimore called Mama Leone's. The sponsor was, as you can guess, an Italian restaurant. Reggie Jackson played for Leone's. Sports Illustrated wrote an article about them. Today, if you are a top prospect in Southern California, you might travel 30 miles or so to play for Long Beach's Connie Mack team at Blair Field, orthe Orange County Dogs. In the 1970s and '80s, such a team played hard, fast baseball at Laney College in Oakland, and on dusty ball fields from one end of the BayArea to the other -- and beyond.
They were called Bercovich Furniture. If that name sounds familiar, it is because Mr. Bercovich, who ran a furniture store (and maybe a few other things) was a close, personal friend of Raiders' owner Al Davis. Whenever talk would break out about new stadium financing, or are shuffling of the ownership group, this guy Berkovich's name would pop up.
You never saw his picture. He was not a media dude, but he was a mover and a shaker.
Maybe he owned some land, or had some parking lots that could be converted into the Raiders' new football palace. Whatever. He had money, he loved sports, and he was connected to the powers-that-be. He also liked to see young athletes prosper.
Berkovich had the dough. Ray Luce knew the game.
Luce had a passion for it. Luce ran Berkovich Furniture for years. Often, they played double-headers -- in different cities. Maybe an afternoon game at Laney,then a nightcap in Walnut Creek, Calif., on the Pacific coast not far from Big Sur. Heck, they played triple headers. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Luce's team might play 120 games!
Luce loved baseball and kids. He liked to be around them. The guysw ho played for him swear by him.
One of those guys was a very tall, thin southpaw who had been born in Walnut Creek, and was pitching at Livermore High School. "Yeah, we'd play three games a day," recalled Johnson. "We'd playin Hayward, we'd play in Oakland. We'd play wherever there was a game and a team to play against. It was a Bay Area All-Star team. Jack Del Rio played for us. Don Wakematsu, Doug Henry, Kevin Maas. We had guys from Berkeley. Guys would travel to play, or move in from outside the area."
Wakematsu and Henry were stars at Tennyson High in Hayward who went on star at Arizona State. Henry, of course, has been a top relief pitcher for years, including productive seasons with the Giants.
Del Rio starred in baseball, basketball and football at Hayward High, and led Southern Cal to the 1985 Rose Bowl victory before playing linebacker fort he Minnesota Vikings.
Mass, from Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, played at the University of California and, for a couple of seasons at Yankee Stadium in the early 1990s, looked like the next Babe Ruth.
"It was the best team I've ever been on," says Johnson, obviously making this reference in context. "The caliber of ball was excellent, and it was a lot of fun."
Another Bay Area left-hander, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, once made a similar statement when he said the best team he ever saw was "either the 1968 U.S.C. Trojans, or any Taiwan Little League team." Space did concede that the 1975 Cincinnati Reds could compete in this league, as well. Speaking of U.S.C., that is where Mr. Johnson went next. You hear about these players who turn down millions of George Steinbrenner's or Ted Turner's dollars to play college ball at U.S.C. or Stanford. This must have been the case for Randy, right? Not quite.
"Johnson was not the best pitcher on the team," says former Berkovich teammate Bruno Caravalho, who also played with him at U.S.C. "Luce would have us travel all over the Bay Area," says Johnson, "and beyond the Bay Area. We'd go to the Wine Country, the Central Valley, anywhere. My dad would often drive me. It was a bit of a haul, but Dad would take me to the games. I really appreciate my Dad. He played mostly rec league softball, but he saw that I had potential ability.
"Luce was mostly a good organizer. He wasn't the greatest manager I ever played for, but there's no doubt he knew how to put a good team together."
Livermore, Calif., is a place known mostly for its laboratory, where nuclear weapons are developed by government scientists. Other than that, it is just down the road from Altamont, where The Rolling Stones held their infamous free concert in 1970 and a Hells Angel stabbing a fan.
Today, it has become a bedroom community, and BART -- the high=speed commuter train -- makes it easier for its residents to commute to San Francisco or Oakland.
"It was a small town," recalls Johnson. "At least, it seemed like a small town. It's 40-or-50,000, but it's a place where you are removed from city life. It was pretty rural."
The Big Unit was more of farm-boy type, not a sophisticate from the San Francisco Bay Area. He reflected what Livermore was all about. Still, little old Livermore has produced more Cy Young awards than any town of comparable size in America. Sure, Johnson has three, but Mark Davis, a left-hander out of Granada High, won one in 1989 at San Diego.
"I never thought about that," says Johnson. "I remember when Davis was at Granada, that was a few years before me, and I'd go to see him pitch."
Johnson went 4-4 at Livermore High in 1982, but the Cowboys did not give him much support. His 1.65 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings pitched in 1982 landed him All-East Bay Athletic League and All-County honors. Atlanta (yes, Turner's team) made him their fourth-round draft choice. U.S.C. came around with a scholarship offer.
Johnson discussed his future with his Dad. They both knew that he was a work in progress, a project.
Heck, this guy was the Hoover Dam. The Tennessee Valley Authority. The Pyramids.
Minor league baseball might have eaten him alive, so it was decided that the University of Southern California, a national powerhouse led by the greatest collegiate coach of all times, Raoul "Rod" Dedeaux, would be the best place for him to hone not just his diamond skills, but his life skills, too.
Dedeaux, winner of 10 National Championships, is to his sport what John Wooden is to his. This guy is a genius, right? He must be a coach who combined the discipline of Vince Lombardi, the tact of Mike Krzyzewski, and the strategic thinking of Napoleon.
"I thought he was kind of wacky," says Randy. Some guys just hang on too long, and that seems to have been Rod's case.
"He was the best baseball man I ever played for," said Lee, who starred at U.S.C. 15 years before Johnson arrived. "He didn't look like a ballplayer, but he had eyes in the back of his head. He knew every play that would happen before it happened. He was in the seventh inning when the game was in the third."
"Rod never really was on hand," says Johnson of the Dedeaux he played for. "[Assistant coach] Keith Brown ran the program. I mean, he surrounded himself with good baseball people, and he was a fun guy who I enjoyed playing for. I still run into Rod in LA and it's always nice to see him."
After playing a couple years of minor league ball, I was finishing up my degree at U.S.C. back then. While Dedeaux was at the top of his game during Spaceman's era, he was pushing retirement during the Unit's time. Dedeaux, a millionaire trucking executive who "moonlighted" as SC's coach for a dollar a year out of love, had never been a full-time collegiate coach. By the 1980s, I recall him showing up for games late, sometimes after attending a cocktail party. Still, the Trojans had one of the most talented college baseball teams ever assembled. Aside from Johnson, the Trojans had a first baseman named Mark McGwire.
In the entire history of this great game, it can be argued that the most intimidating offensive player ever is McGwire, and the most intimidating pitcher is Johnson.
So, naturally, facing mere college opponents wearing uniforms that read "UCLA," "Arizona State" and "Fresno State," these two larger-than-life diamond gods led Troy to unheard of heights of glory. Really?
Actually, they lost in the NCAA Regionals -- when they even made the play-offs.
"I wished I'd learned more," Johnson says of his college career(1983-85). "I was still a project when I left." The project was also a lefty. A California lefty. The connotations of this go back a long way. Rodeo's Lefty Gomez, aside from being a Hall of Famer with the Yankees, was known as "El Goofy". Spaceman was, well, Spaceman: the King of Flaky Lefties.
It is hard to pin Johnson down, but Dedeaux recalls him this way:" Randy was one of the most colorful personalities in college baseball," says the man who, now retired, is still a familiar figure at USC and Dodger games. "But he also had the ability to go along with it. He was an excellent competitor, and had a Major League fastball. He always provided an exciting performance."
Johnson may not have been Mark Fydrych, or even Turk Wendell, but he was a team cheerleader who attracted attention on the hill. He would talk to himself, frequently ran around the infield shouting encouragement to teammates, and congratulated himself for good pitches. Big Mac was all he was cracked up to be, a two-time All-American, College Player of the Year in 1984, and an Olympian. It was not just Mac and the Unit, either. Del Rio was a catcher on those teams, and a good ballplayer, too. Pitcher Sid Akins was an Olympian. Brad Brink would pitch in the big leagues. Randy Robertson and Mickey Meister were talented, hard-throwing right-handers. Phil Smith and lefty Bob Gunnarsson were tough pitchers.
Even the pitching coach, Bill Bordley, had pitched in the majors and had once been considered the best college pitcher ever (today, Bordley is a Secret Service agent who was assigned to Chelsea Clinton at Stanford). Aside from McGwire, SC had offense, in the form of third baseman Craig Stevenson, spray-hitting outfielder Alby Silvera, and power threats Reggie Montgomery and John Wallace.
With all this talent at his disposal, Dedeaux could not get his club into the NCAA finals in 1983, and they were blown out in the Regionals the next two seasons. After going 5-0 as a freshman, Johnson was statistically mediocre in 1984 and '85, and this reflected his team's enigmatic performance.
"I never gave that much thought to the fact that Mac and I were teammates," says Johnson, "and now we're so-called 'dominant' players. He's a home run threat now, and he was then. He has size, and ability. "The fact we didn't get into the College World Series was disappointing. You need pitching. We had talented pitchers -- Akins, Brinks, Meister, Gunnarsson -- but we didn't pitch well in the Regionals. We were not as outstanding as you have to be to win at that level. Pitching wins games. I had height and ability, but I was a long way from where I am now."
Johnson's professional career is well documented. He pitched forMontreal, and came into his own in Seattle. He has dominated the game in away few pitchers ever have, and he also had a connection with power pitchers of previous eras.
"I talk to Tom Seaver when the Mets come to town," says Johnson. Seaver starred at U.S.C. before becoming a superstar with the Mets, and now is a tv broadcaster in New York.
"I talked to Nolan Ryan a few times. I have rapport with guys like that. They have the same make-up that I do. As a pitcher, if you have the ability to talk to guys who've been there before you, that's just great. I've seen Sandy Koufax a few times, too, and admire him because his career has some parallels to mine."
Today, another Trojan lefty, Barry Zito, has hit the scene with the sudden impact not of the "project" Johnson, but more reminiscent of the 21-year old Vida Blue. The young pitcher who interests Johnson more, because of the parallel, is St. Louis' hard-throwing Rick Ankiel. "He's proven that he's a fine pitcher," says Johnson, "he pitched great until the post-season. It's nothing that can't be worked on." The Cardinals must be patient with Ankiel. Not everybody was so patient with Johnson when he was pitching at Jamestown, West Palm Beach, and Jacksonville. After going 0-4 at Montreal in 1989, the Expos decided he was expendable.
If they had been more patient, like the Dodgers were with Koufax, they could have reaped the benefits of having one of the game's greatest pitchers starring for them.
Still, hindsight is always 20/20. Johnson is in his zone now. He is happily married and raising his family in Paradise Valley, not far from the BOB. He is low-key and thoughtful.
He might even let you sit in his chair. If he does, make sure you tell his teammates that you only drink imported beer.