Some might say it was wrong for Randy Johnson to make history on such a rainy, gloomy day before such a sparse crowd at Nationals Park on Thursday afternoon.
That is not the case. It was a fitting way for Randy Johnson to get his 300th career victory - a dark, dreary day, befitting his public persona, as a handful of fans witnessed the historic 5-1 win by Johnson and the San Francisco Giants.
The 6-foot-10 left-hander who once shoved a New York cameraman out of his path upon his arrival as a free agent with the Yankees carried himself throughout his career as if he would have rather pitched with no one watching.
There won’t be any tears shed when Johnson finally leaves the game. His induction to the Hall of Fame five years later won’t draw large crowds to Cooperstown. He built a wall early in his career between outsiders and those close to him and stood fast on that wall.
But there will be the acknowledgement that when Randy Johnson pitched, he was must-see baseball, one of the greatest power pitchers ever to wear a uniform.
Even at 45, before the tiny crowd that braved bad weather Thursday, the Big Unit gave several thousand fans in attendance their money’s worth. He pitched effectively - if not the mind-blowing Johnson of old - for six innings. He allowed just two hits, striking out two and walking two after 78 pitches for a 2-1 lead - leaving after hurting his shoulder while diving for an infield grounder, still making the play on the ball hit by pinch hitter Anderson Hernandez.
“My senior moment when I thought I was 25 and made that play,” Johnson joked in the postgame news conference.
The two places Johnson always felt most comfortable were on the field and with his family. He was never comfortable with the fame that comes with being a unique physical specimen on the diamond at 6-foot-10 and the glory that comes with striking out 4,845 batters, second only to Nolan Ryan.
He wasn’t particularly comfortable talking about his 300th win, either, though it was clear it was an emotional moment for him.
“I’m actually more nervous now than I was pitching,” Johnson said. “I am kind of at a loss for words. I am just happy that my family and friends were able to come.”
Those at Nationals Park - many of them Giants fans, though others simply were baseball fans determined to witness history - stood and applauded Johnson as he made his way to the mound in the first inning. And they cheered as his first pitch to Alberto Gonzalez was called a strike. And for a while, it seemed like Johnson might treat the intimate group of witnesses to history to something extra special, not allowing a hit through the first four innings.
They were nearly robbed of their front-row seat to history in the eighth, when the Nationals loaded the bases with two outs. Adam Dunn, facing closer Brian Wilson, worked the count to 3-2. Wilson threw what appeared to be ball four, which would have brought the tying run home.
But for home plate umpire Tim Timmons to call ball four and ruin Johnson’s chance at No. 300, ball four would have had to have been over Dunn’s head or bounced in front of him. It wasn’t a strike, but it wasn’t nearly a wild pitch, either. So as Dunn took off toward first base, Timmons called it strike three. Dunn turned around and chased after Timmons to argue the call, but Nationals manager Manny Acta came out and pulled Dunn away - to keep his bat in the lineup in case the Nationals managed to rally in the ninth.
Of course, bringing in Joel Hanrahan to pitch the ninth for Washington erased any chance of that. The reliever brought his 5.55 ERA in from the bullpen and gave up four straight hits - three singles and a double - and San Francisco had a comfortable 5-1 lead with history sealed.
When the final out was made, a roar went up from the crowd, and fans stood and cheered as the Giants came out on the field to congratulate one another. Johnson hugged his son Tanner, a Giants batboy, and then his teammates before tipping his hat to the crowd.
“My son being batboy, he didn’t help me too much today with my batting. … These are the kind of moments that I relish the most - I really do,” Johnson said. “I think back to my dad [who died in 1992] throwing out the first pitch on Father’s Day for the Seattle Mariners or my son Tanner being batboy last year in San Diego with the [Arizona] Diamondbacks when I got two hits and did pretty well. Those things are just as important to me as the baseball achievements.”
Johnson spoke of his achievement as a measure of his career - which started, as fate would have it, with the franchise he defeated Thursday, when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos and Johnson won his first game as a rookie in 1988.
“It’s a long-range achievement, a career achievement,” he said of his 300th victory, making him just the 24th pitcher to reach that mark.
Johnson also thanked all those along the way for the past 22 years that helped him get to this point. Buck Rodgers was there at the start, his first manager with the Expos in 1988.
“His talent was obvious,” Rodgers said. “He was 6-10 and a hard thrower. His delivery took some work. He was out of sync at times with it, but you have to give him credit for compacting and honing his delivery. It probably kept him from injuries early in his career and helped him last this long. He made himself a more efficient pitcher.
“I think Randy is a fine guy. I met his father. He would be very proud of him.”
That is the fan Randy Johnson always tried to please the most.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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