Beyond Golf — 28 July 2012 by Jim Street
M’s HOF welcomes Big Unit, Wilson

Except for their competitiveness, the newest inductees into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame were as different as night and day.

Catcher Dan Wilson was quiet, clean-cut and smiled constantly. Randy Johnson had hair so long in the back that it occasionally would get in his eyes when he threw a pitch. He snarled almost as often as he smiled, threw harder than anyone in the game and made some of the best hitters in the world look foolish trying to make contact with his pitches.

They were the team’s odd couple during their time with the Mariners – from 1994-98. But when it came down to success, no battery in franchise history was better. None were even close.

The Mariners had a 74-29 record (a .720 winning percentage) when Randy and Dan played pitch-and-catch – and that’s just what it was during their heyday. Johnson struck out at least 10 batters almost routinely with Wilson behind the plate. Wilson caught the final pitch Johnson threw in the AL West Division playoff game against the Angels in 1995 and promptly jumped into the pitcher’s arms.

Randy made a clean catch of his catcher that afternoon at the Kingdome, sending the Mariners to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The scene remains among to top videos in Seattle sports history.

The duo was center stage again on Friday at Safeco Field, where several hundred fans attended a luncheon honoring the fifth and sixth inductees into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame. The actual induction ceremonies are set for Saturday afternoon.

Each former player received standing ovations before and after the ceremony that included comments from former teammates Mike Blowers and Rich Amaral and coach Lee Elia. Alvin Davis, the original Mr. Mariner and first member of the HOF, welcomed Johnson and Wilson to the elite club that also includes the late Dave Niehaus, Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. Jay could not attend because his son was playing in a baseball tournament in Spokane.

Recorded film clips from Dodgers manager Don Mattingly (a Big Unit strikeout victim in his final MLB at-bat of Game 5 of the 1995 AL Division series), former Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds, future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., whom Johnson called, “the best hitter I’ve ever seen”, and John Kruk, thanking Johnson for “not hitting me in the head” with a pitch in the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore, were included in the 45-minute luncheon.

The All-Star Game film clip was vintage Johnson, the before and after he became a star and first-ballot Hall of Fame selection that he’s sure to be three years from now.  As you know, the first pitch to the left-handed hitting Kruk sailed high over the batter’s head, beginning one of the most humorous at-bats in Midsummer Classic history.

Kruk took a called strike and then swung meekly at two more pitches, happily ending the plate appearance and tossing his batting helmet aside. Funny stuff.

But Randy never laughed. He didn’t even grin. To him, it was strictly business as usual.

Wilson noticed.

“As a player you kind of understand that intensity, but after you’ve been out of the game for a while, to see Randy’s intensity, the fire, is the thing that struck me,” he said of the videos. “I had kind of forgotten about that.”

That fire and intensity are things Johnson brought with him to Seattle midway through the 1989 season, when the Mariners swapped ace left-hander Mark Langston and a player to be named later (local product Mike Campbell, a right-handed pitcher) to the Montreal Expos for Randy and right-handed pitchers Brian Holman and Gene Harris.

Johnson said he knew little about Seattle and the Mariners before the trade, other than the Mariners didn’t have a winning season in franchise history – 12 seasons at the time.

“I wasn’t much of a pitcher, either, so it was a good fit,” he said. “The thing I knew is that I was going to get an opportunity to pitch every fifth day, sink or swim, and that’s what I needed.”

Randy was as wild as his hairdo during the early years, when he was just as likely to walk eight or nine batters in a game as he was to strike out 10 or 11. It was a learning process and once he was able to harness his wildness, he became the most dominating pitcher in the game.

“On the days Randy pitched,” Wilson said, “we came to the park expecting to win.”

Former manager Lou Piniella used to joke that when he was upset with the way the team was playing, he always called a team meeting on the day Johnson was scheduled to pitch. The team usually responded just as Lou had hoped.

Randy still holds club records for shutouts (19) and strikeouts (2,162). He pitched the Mariners’ first no-hitter. He pitched the game that clinched the franchise’s first division championship. He was to the pitching staff what Griffey Jr., was to the offense – the main attraction.

Johnson had an interesting way to describe his 10 years with the Mariners.

“My time here was a lot like Seattle weather,” he said. “When you woke up in the morning, and it was a nice day, that was the day I struck out 15. If it was raining, that was the day I was walking seven batters and couldn’t get out of the third inning.”

During the afternoon press conference at Safeco, he went off course a bit, explaining in  detail his take on the final half-season with the Mariners. He had a 9-10 record and 4.33 ERA in 22 starts with the M’s and then went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts for the NL West champion Astros.

It was the best of times (in Houston) and the worst of times (in Seattle). Many questioned his attitude leading up to the trade.

“The one thing that bothers me, to this day,” he said, “is people thinking I tanked it. I’ll be the first to say, on my dad’s grave, I never tanked it. Now, did I get sidetracked because of contract negotiations and I wasn’t as focused? Absolutely. But if anyone knows me – that’s the same person that volunteered to come out of the bullpen 24 hours after pitching here and later in my career. I loved the game, I gave everything I had, and I loved Seattle. Things didn’t work out in 1998. There’s different levels of my success. I went on to Houston, pitched 11 games and went 10-1. I never did that in Arizona. I never had two months in my career. Why? I have no idea. I won four Cy Youngs in Arizona; I never went 10-1 in any stretch in the four years in Arizona.

“I always wanted to stay here. I didn’t want to leave. But when I left here, it was like a ton of bricks off my back. Some athletes, it doesn’t affect that much. It affected me. I’m sorry I got so hung up on that.”

Johnson’s greatest overall success, including a World Series championship in 2001, came when he was with the Diamondbacks. But he says Seattle was, and always will be, special.

The good days outweighed the bad ones during Johnson’s tenure in Seattle and the best ones are the ones he now remembers the most.

“Since I retired (two years ago), I have had time to reflect on my career,” Johnson said. “Before Dan got here, I had a lot of low points in my career. . .a lot of failing. It took me awhile to become the consistent pitcher I wanted to be.”

Mariners fans were able to watch a refined Johnson for about five seasons and it was one thrill ride after another. Wilson went along for the ride, having the best seat in the house.

“I have many memories here,” Johnson said, “and that’s why Seattle has been near and dear to me. I’ve had a lot of great moments here, on and off the field, meeting friends that I still have to this day, meeting my wife (Lisa) here, some of my children being born here, being a part of this franchise at the most meaningful moment of this city, of this state.”

As he pointed out, without the 1995 “Refuse to Lose” season, there probably would not be a Major League team in Seattle.

“The defining moment for my Mariner moment, and probably Mariner history, is ’95.”

It was the year after Wilson arrived via a trade with the Reds. The odd couple meshed almost immediately.

“I worked with well over a dozen catchers overt my 22 years in the Majors and 26 counting the minors, and of all of the catchers I worked with were Dan in Seattle and Damian Miller in Arizona,” Johnson said. “Dan had a knack for having great communication, not just with me but with all the pitchers.

“I was the serious one. Dan was very business-like, laid bad and soft spoken. But he also took charge in his own way. We had a great relationship. He knew what I was trying to achieve and he knew the best way of going about to get it done every fifth day based on who we were facing.”

While Johnson spent his 10-year Mariners’ career front-and-center, Wilson was an unsung hero during the halcyon days. The fact he worked so well with all pitchers was paramount to the team’s success.

He was selected to one All-Star team (1996) and still ranks among MLB’s all-time leaders for catchers in fielding percentage (1st, .995), games played (20th, 1,281), doubles (22nd, 209), runs scored (25th, 437), RBIs (24th, 504) and innings played (9th, 10,100 2/3).

Those numbers aren’t good enough to get Wilson to Cooperstown, but from a Mariners perspective, Dan was The Man behind the plate for 12 seasons and it’s only fitting that he enters the franchise HOF with The Big Unit.

“This is Randy’s first stop on the way to Cooperstown,” Wilson said. “To go into the (Mariners) Hall of Fame with him is a real honor.”

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Jim Street

Jim’s 40-year sportswriting career started with the San Jose Mercury-News in 1970 and ended on a full-time basis on October 31, 2010 following a 10-year stint with MLB.com. He grew up in Dorris, Calif., several long drives from the nearest golf course. His first tee shot was a week before being inducted into the Army in 1968. Upon his return from Vietnam, where he was a war correspondent for the 9th Infantry Division, Jim took up golf semi-seriously while working for the Mercury-News and covered numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open in 1982, when Tom Watson made the shot of his life on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Jim also covered several Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournaments, the women’s U.S. Open, and other golfing events in the San Francisco area. He has a 17-handicap, never had a hole-in-one, although once he came within two inches of an ace, and witnessed the first round Ken Griffey Jr. ever played – at Arizona State during Spring Training in 1990. Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Spyglass Hill, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Chambers Bay, North Berwick in Scotland, and Princeville are among the courses he has had the pleasure of playing. Hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway is not a strong part of Jim’s game, but he is known (in his own mind) as the best putter not on tour. Most of Jim’s writing career was spent covering Major League baseball, a tenure that started with the Oakland Athletics, who won 101 games in 1971, and ended with the Seattle Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010. Symmetry is a wonderful thing. He currently lives in Seattle and vacations in Arizona (and other warm climates) as much as possible.

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