Columnist remembers interview with back of Randy Johnson's head
Danny Westneat, a young sports writer in 1989, got the silent treatment from Randy Johnson. It was an example of the focus Johnson would use to become a 300-game winner.
Seattle Times staff columnist
It turns out you can learn a thing or two from the back of Randy Johnson's mullet.
Like how you're not cut out for sports writing. Or maybe something about "what it takes" — the elusive combo of ego, imperiousness and drive that often separates the supreme athlete from those who simply play the sport.
I got up close and awkwardly personal with Johnson's infamous 'do back in the summer of 1989. It hadn't yet grown into that mangy, shoulder-length shag that so distracted hitters in the 1990s. But it was no less terrifying when he turned it on me.
Johnson was struggling in the first full year of his major-league career. I was struggling in my first year of trying to be a sports writer.
Now he's a 300-game winner and one of the best of all-time. And I'm ... not.
Back then, the Mariners had three hot young hurlers. Of which, I reasoned, Johnson was clearly the weakest. He was wild. That year he'd have a 7-13 record, with a 4.82 earned-run average. He wasn't Big Unit. He was a big question mark.
So I wrote a cover story on the other two — Brian Holman and Erik Hanson. It appeared in a now-defunct mag called Northwest Sports Review.
We had an elaborate photo shoot at the Kingdome, posing them in uniform as "A Pair of Aces." Young guns with pinpoint control. The future of the franchise.
After the story ran, the Mariners' public-relations guy, Dave Aust, saw me in the press box. Liked your story, he said. How about I pay you $500 to rework it for the Mariners' magazine? Just add Randy Johnson. Convert it to "Three of a Kind."
My eyes lit up. In '89, five hundred bucks was two months rent.
So Aust introduced me to Johnson, toweling off at his locker. We sat knee to knee. I got maybe 30 seconds in when his eyes began to blaze.
"You're the one who did that story on Holman and Hanson? 'Pair of Aces,' " he mocked. "Forget it. I'm not talking to you."
He loomed up — all 6 feet 10 of him — picked up his chair, turned it 180 degrees and sat back down. I was now interviewing the back of Randy Johnson's head.
I tried to go on. I asked questions to the back of his head. I groveled. Blamed my editors. His mullet, six inches away, never budged. Not even when Aust copped a plea on my behalf.
I couldn't do the article. So much for the $500.
I've thought a lot about the back of Johnson's head since then. For me personally, it symbolizes an epic error in sportswriting judgment. Leaving him out of that story was the equivalent of hearing the Beatles back in Liverpool and concluding they were a mediocre garage band.
Holman and Hanson went on to have flashes of greatness. But between them my "pair of aces" won 126 games — 174 fewer than wild card Randy now has claimed all by himself.
But mostly I think about what that incident said about him. People usually say his secret weapon is his height. That misses what's truly extreme about him. Even by the standards of pro sports he has enormous self-focus, to the point that it's childlike. Here I was, an irrelevant nobody, yet he cared — was wounded — that I had overlooked him. That I didn't think he was an ace.
The back of his head said to me that day: "I know I'm going to be a bad ass. You don't believe it. So there's nothing left but to show you."
It was small comfort recently when Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, who caught for the "hard and wild" Johnson in high school, said he never imagined Randy would be an all-time great.
Now he's a 300-game winner. Certain Hall of Famer. Congrats, Randy — to you and especially to my old adversary, the back of your head.
I'd like to say I knew you could do it. But the truth is, I didn't. I'm not sure anybody did.
You did, though. And that turns out to be all that mattered.
Danny Westneat: 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
email@example.com | 206-464-2086
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