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The Big Unit

When some of the Goliard staff first moved up to Seattle back in the early 90's, we did so as die hard, tried and true Boston Red Sox fans. Having grown up in Vermont we didn't have much of a choice in the beginning seeing as how it was in our New England blood and one of our first enduring memories of early life was the 1975 World Series when Yaz, Dewey, Chub Fiske and the boys lost a heart breaker to the Big Red Machine of Rose, Bench, Griffey and Foster. Once we left New England for more exotic climes we followed the Sox religiously from afar, suffering through all the ups and downs as we traveled about, never missing a chance to check the box scores in local papers from Minnetonka to Maui and catch them on game of the week when we had access to a television. Tried and true as we said and the thought of ever being a fan of another baseball team never once crossed our minds. 

One of the many things that made Seattle attractive in those days, just before it's reputation for good music, good beer, good coffee, and good software came exploding onto the scene dragging the resistant and rainy city onto the national map and making it a destination for the nation's hip, was the fact that it was a major league baseball town but relatively few people in town cared much about the major league team that played there. The Mariners had never made it to the playoffs, rarely even mustered a winning record and, as a result, the fans mostly stayed away. "This is a football town!", people informed us when we first moved up there, even though the Seahawks weren't actually all that much better than the Mariners. "Go Seahawks. Go U-Dub Huskies baby". Perennial contenders in college football.

For a fan of baseball and the Red Sox however, what this lack of enthusiasm meant was that, 81 times a year, a person could easily attend a major league baseball game. All it took was to head down to the park, grab a cheap scalped ticket and catch a couple innings with almost no hassle at all. And roughly six times a year, we could expect to enter the old Grey lady that was the Kingdome, order a draft Redhook or Hefeweisen way before they were available at any other park in the nation, and sit basically wherever we wanted to watch the Red Sox beating up on the Mariners during yet another playoff run that they would ultimately bobble away in some mind boggling and gut wrenching fashion. We found that we could feel good about rooting for the Mariners the rest of the time since they were never a threat to the Sox chances and often playing against a team that was. They were perpetual underdogs that managed to pull out a feel good upset victory here and there and the players were a bunch of play hard, likeable guys with a couple rising superstars in their midst. Baseballs would fly around the yard to a smattering from the half full stands and the concrete roof kept the rain off as you lolled in the outfield bleachers, often with a whole section to yourself. Life was good up until that summer of 1995. And then something totally unexpected happened. The Mariners began to win. 

With a mostly unknown offense that included one legitimate superstar in Ken Griffey Jr. and guys like the Martinez boys Tino and Edgar, Mike Blowers, Jay Buhner, Joey Cora and Dan Wilson, the M's began mounting come from behind victories and soon were challenging for the lead in the then lackluster American League West. They went 19 - 8 in September and earned the right to play in a one game playoff with the California Angels at the Kingdome to determine who advanced to the post season. Fiery manager Lou Pinella decided the Big Unit would get the start in the deciding game on only a couple days rest.

Randy Johnson, or the "Big Unit" as he had become to be known, had been in the big leagues for nearly ten years at that point, a tall gangling fitch who whipped left handed BB's in the general direction of home plate and put the fear of god into left handed batters with a vicious slider to go with a fastball that often flirted with three digits and at times seemed completely out of his control. Standing six feet ten inches and sporting that long stringy mullet that betrayed his grungy music tastes, the Unit had been toiling away up in Rain City since a trade brought him over from Montreal in 1989 and striking out batters at a record pace but getting minimal run support in the process. He threw the club's first no hitter in 1990 along with 5 other complete games that year but still managed only a 14 and 11 record. Although one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, Johnson was still only 71 and 49 as a Mariner leading up to the 1995 season due to the M's mostly anemic offense and habit of not getting runs when Johnson took the mound. The Unit seemed to endure it all in a sullen silence, coming off in the media as just another moody, grumpy ball player not getting the respect he thought he deserved. In actuality however, the Unit was a guy who fiercely valued his privacy and was just getting sick of losing.

One of the first gigs we staffers got when we moved up to the area was sloshing drinks at this swanky tennis club and one night we found out that we'd be manning the bar at the Big Unit's wedding. It was a classy affair to which not many of the other Mariners showed up since he scheduled it (perhaps on purpose) on the first weekend of the off season when players are notoriously not hanging around the rainy northwest. A few of them came anyway however and a couple prominent members of the grunge scene stood idling around our little service bar shooting the breeze much to the delight of some of the waitresses that recognized them. We figured that since they probably had had jobs like ours recently themselves they were likely more comfortable amongst the help than the tuxedoed guests and regretted later that we didn't pay more attention to them since their presence hadn't made much of an impression on us since we didn't actually know who they were at the time. We do remember the odd sensation of feeling short for the first time in our lives as Johnson's relatives and new in-laws mingled about. Johnson's new wife, an attractive woman with a charming Texas twang was also quite statuesque and his various uncles and cousins were tall as well. Even his dogs, pictured in a photo by the entrance, were enormous. The only reason we bring any of this up is that it became clear during the evening that the gentle, easy going groom was a far cry in private from the scowling intimidator he becomes once he takes the mound.

But intimidate on the mound the Unit did and in 1995 was 18 and 2. The rest of the team played over their heads as well and at the end of the 1995 regular season, Seattle shared first place in the AL West with California and Johnson was called on to start the one-game playoff against the Angels. Suddenly the Kingdome was sold out and rocking, the air from our nosebleed seats rank with firework smoke and the M's and the Big Unit responded with a complete game three-hitter over Mark Langdon which is who he'd been traded from Montreal for. When the last pitch sailed across the plate and the big fella pumped his fist at the sky, Seattle had its first-ever division title and post-season appearance.

We had purchased playoff tickets in advance that year since for a time it appeared that if the Mariners did somehow squeak into the playoffs that they'd be playing the Boston Red Sox but it didn't work out that way and instead pitted the M's against the hated New York Yankees. Going back to the Bronx for the first two, the M's lost the first and then the second in a fifteen inning marathon. Making the long flight back after the four plus hour game, it seemed like the M's magic might have run it's course. Enter the Big Unit who shut the Yankees down in game three to avoid the sweep.

When the Mariners won Game Four 11-8 in the Kingdome the stage was set for what, to this day was the greatest sporting event we've ever personally witnessed. With the Kingdome packed to the gills with new Mariners fans, the game was knotted going into the ninth when the Yankees got a man aboard. Pinella walked slowly to the mound to give the sign for crowd favorite Norm Charlton to come in out of the pen. Then Pinella did something strange. He pointed over to his dugout again and motioned out towards the bull pen in left field. When Randy Johnson emerged and started his slow, gangly walk down the third base line, the fans and the Yankees knew what was coming. The noise was deafening. Johnson, coming into the game on one day of rest, entered to face Donny Baseball in the tenth and, after the first pitch whipped by Mattingly's futile swing and smacked into Wilson's glove, heads turned to the radar gun on the scoreboard. "One oh One" it said. Mattingly struck out three pitches later and the game went to the eleventh where Johnson finally ran out of gas and gave up one run and the lead. The Mariner magic was not done however. Finally, his teammates would have his back.

Joey Cora lead of the inning with drag bunt that he beat out by avoiding Mattingly's tag with a dive into first. Up came Ken Griffey Jr. representing the winning run and he responded by singling to right field. With one out, Edgar Martinez came to the plate and promptly ripped a ball into the left field corner. Cora scored easily and Junior was coming around. When he beat a close play at the plate to give the Mariners the series the Kingdome absolutely erupted and fans spilled into the rainy streets of downtown. Johnson received credit for the victory and a writer who put a stop watch on Griffey said it was the fastest a man had ever been clocked from first to home in the game's history. 

Although the M's would go on to lose to Cleveland in the ALCS, with their performance in the last couple months of the 95 season, Griffey, Martinez, and Johnson and the rest of the miracle M's had put the Mariners on the map for good. A stadium vote that had gone down to narrow defeat was revisited and won easily clearing the way for the Kingdome to be imploded and Safeco Field to be constructed. However, when the Indians would beat Johnson 4-0 to clinch the series in Game Six, the loss marked the beginning of a run of hard luck that Johnson would endure in the post-season.

Johnson ended all that talk in 2001 however when, he and teammate Curt Schilling carried the Arizona Diamondbacks to a World Series again over the hated Yankees. The Unit once again valiantly came out of the pen in the final innings and ended up earning the victory in game seven and co MVP honors for the series.

And now, at age 41, the big fella has thrown a perfect game which is what started this reverie. We'll refine the whole thing when we get more time since Randy Johnson, an intensely private and proud man actually seems to be a hell of a guy with a story that is well worth telling.

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.