Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Big Unit calls it quits

I keep in my skull a list of the great pitchers I've seen work in person.

I saw Roger Clemens beat the Twins in 1986 a few weeks after his first 20-strikeout game announced his arrival as a star.

I saw Greg Maddux during his Cy Young season with the Cubs — that game was in St. Louis — and again when he pitched against the Twins in the Metrodome.

I saw the Twins beat Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. I saw John Smoltz and Tom Glavine in the World Series.

I remember seeing games pitched by Jim Palmer and Steve Carlton on their way out, Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola, Jim Kaat and Tommy John and, of course, Johan Santana.

But I don't remember ever being at a game with Randy Johnson pitching, and now I never will.

The Big Unit hung 'em up Tuesday, calling an end to one of the great pitching careers of this or any era. A 303-166 won-loss record, 4,875 strikeouts, five Cy Young Awards, four of them in a row — the numbers are staggering.

Part of why I never saw Johnson pitch is, I think, is a piece of personal history. Johnson's father is buried in Duluth, and when his team came to Minnesota, Johnson would go to visit the grave. At some point, Lou Piniella — who managed Johnson for most of his time in the American League — decided that he would avoid pitching Johnson in the Metrodome, because the pitcher was too wound up emotionally.

According to Baseball Reference, Johnson made 11 starts in the Metrodome — only one after 1995.

His Metrodome ERA was 4.11 — almost a full run higher than his ERA in the Kingdome, his home park in those days — and his strikeout rate in Minnesota is the lowest of any park in which he threw at least 20 innings.

It seems likely, as I sort through his game logs against the Twins, that I may have been at one or two of his starts early in his Seattle tenure, when he was walking 150 men a year and greatness was not evident. I had partial season tickets in those days — Saturdays and Mondays and occasional other days — and I find a couple of Monday games in the Dome on his record.

But I simply don't remember him. He wasn't the Big Unit yet. He was just a really tall guy trying to get his body to work efficiently, trying to harness his stuff.

Which, I guess, is a story that offers some hope for Francisco Liriano.

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