Competitive fire still driving Johnson
Big Unit targets D-backs' initial homestand for return
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Randy Johnson looked relaxed and at ease during a nearly half hour session with reporters on Saturday, but the competitive fire that has driven him during his 20-year big-league career was just below the surface."I could easily start considering retiring, because I've won a World Series here and I've had a lot of nice individual accomplishments and I don't need the money," Johnson said after D-backs pitchers and catchers went through their first workout. "But what I do need is that outlet to be competitive. I'm still competitive, and in one way or the other, when we go out and do something recreational, we all want to win, and that's our outlet. For me, I have a professional outlet, and that's playing Major League Baseball and being competitive." The D-backs, who reacquired the Big Unit from the Yankees in January, are counting on Johnson to have plenty left in his tank at the age of 43. For Johnson, the competition will have to wait a little bit, as offseason back surgery has put him around a week or so behind his fellow pitchers. While some of them threw off the mound on Saturday, Johnson played catch with head athletic trainer Ken Crenshaw and then went through one of his notoriously intense workouts. Johnson said he felt so good that he could probably get on a mound and throw now, but he is trying to be smart about his rehab and will probably throw his first bullpen session sometime next week. The D-backs are not counting on Johnson being ready on Opening Day, instead thinking he might be ready during the team's initial homestand, which runs from April 9-17. "We will just continue to stay on this schedule, progressively add things as my body allows it," Johnson said. "Swinging the bat, agility drills, various things that a National League pitchers needs to do." Johnson spent the past two seasons in the American League in what would be best described as a stormy time with the Yankees. He won 17 games each season, but his ERA rose from 3.79 in 2005 to 5.01 last year. The reason for the difference, according to Johnson, is that he pitched with tremendous pain in his back at times last year.
Thanks to the surgery, he figures to feel far better this year, but for the first time, he acknowledged that Father Time has taken it's toll on him. During his first tenure in Arizona, Johnson won four straight Cy Young Awards and fanned over 300 batters in each of those seasons, including a mind-boggling 372 in 2001."I don't think too many people are going to dominate the way I did, and nobody's going to do that -- let alone myself," he said. "I will continue to say that I can, because that's my motivating factor. But as soon as I come into this room and say I can't do those things anymore, then I would be giving up and I wouldn't be as motivated. And those are the things that motivate me, because I once did them, so, yeah, the bar is set there, so that's what I strive to do." It's that desire to win and be the best that has pushed Johnson to win 280 games over his career and to still be putting long hours working out while other pitchers his age are enjoying a life of retirement. Johnson has always used any slight, whether real or imagined, to help drive him and after last season, he doesn't have to look far to find them. "The one thing that fires me up is when I'm not doing something that I'm supposed to be doing and people are saying that," Johnson said. "Eventually, everybody will be right with what they're saying about me -- that he's old and he can't do it anymore -- but I think if I went into the front office right now and said, 'Would you take 34 victories from me over the next two years of my contract?' I think they would be pretty happy with that." D-backs fans will notice a different pitcher from the one that had a 2.60 ERA and 290 strikeouts in 2004. His fastball no longer gets into the upper 90s, but Johnson isn't worried about radar-gun readings, instead he wants to get back to being a power pitcher instead of "guiding" his pitches, which he felt he was doing too much of during his two years with the Yankees. "The greatest thing is I have this opportunity to still pitch, and somebody still wants me to pitch," Johnson said. "I'm very excited, very optimistic about being here and introducing myself to all the young pitchers and [helping] them in any way I can."
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.