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Monday, March 24, 2003
Updated: March 25, 2:47 PM ET
Big Unit measures up

By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

There are, it turns out, a few certainties in this crazy, mixed-up sports world of ours. The Yankees beating the Red Sox, for instance. Or Grant Hill undergoing ankle surgery. Or Al Davis dressing like a runner-up in an Elvis impersonator contest.

Then there's the one you can take to the bank quicker than any of them: Every athlete is lying when he says it isn't about the money.

Randy Johnson
Unlike most pitchers, Randy improves with age.
Or so we thought. Now comes Randy Johnson, who needs a few more bucks like he needs a few more miles an hour on his fastball.

"I could quit right now," said Johnson. "I've got plenty of money."

How much money are we talking?

"I'm the largest creditor of this organization."

Right. The D-Backs owe him more than they do some bank in downtown Phoenix. Maybe they ought to call it Big Unit Ballpark.

"It's a fact," said Johnson. "They owe me $48 million. So what do I need to play for? More money? I don't think so."

OK, so we'll cross that off the list.

"Do I need to play because I'm trying to go to a World Series? No, I've been there. I was successful in bringing one to this organization."

OK, so scratch getting to the World Series for the first time.

"Do I need to go out and prove I'm one of the best pitchers in baseball? No, because I feel I've done that."

Doesn't need the cash. Check. He's already been to the World Series. Check. He's proven to everyone outside a cave in Afghanistan that he's the Koufax of his generation. Check. The six Cy Young Awards, including the one he's going to win this season. Check. The bust in Cooperstown. Check.

All right, Big Unit, we give. What does keep you motivated?

"I still have the fire to go out and try and win another World Series," said Johnson. "And when that's gone, and I don't have the desire to do it, or, for some reason, I don't feel I have it anymore, I'll walk away. I wouldn't go through the motions just to collect a paycheck. A lot of people would say, 'Oh, you're just saying that.' Well, I'm not."

Randy Johnson
It's only about the love of the game for the Big Unit.
Bad news, all you major league hitters in the crowd: The Big Unit still feels like he has it. Like he still can get a few punchouts here and there. Like he probably won't embarrass himself out there every fifth day -- his words, not ours. Fact is, with his 40th birthday looming in September, he still feels like a Little Unit out there.

That's the thing about Johnson. It's one thing to be the game's most dominant pitcher. It's another thing to be a pure power pitcher who hasn't spilled a drop of gas in 18 years of professional baseball. Seven years after undergoing major back surgery, he still throws 95 on a bad day. Until the eighth inning arrives, that is. Then he turns up the thermostat and turns out the lights.

Like everyone who had Enron stock in their 401(k)s used to say, this can't be happening.

"Randy is so unique in so many ways," said ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe. "I'll never forget, as a 19- or 20-year-old kid, going into the Astrodome. They called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. We were all like, 'Wow, this something.' But after watching Nolan Ryan pitch, we all said, 'This isn't the Eighth Wonder of the World -- he is. You can make another one of these, but there will never be another one of those.'

"You know what? We might have been wrong. As far as who the best pitcher was, or who the best power pitcher was, Randy belongs in those conversations."

And to think, he finished 0-3, 5.93 in his first season as a pro. It wasn't until his sixth season that Johnson won in double figures in the big leagues. As recently as 1992, he was your basic sub-.500 pitcher, having finished 12-14 with the Mariners. His career record stood at 49-48 after that season. Since then, he's 175-58, with five Cy Youngs and seven strikeout titles.

For all we know, the best is yet to come. By now, we've learned not to put anything past the Big Unit. Somewhere along the line, he transcended being a mere athlete and became a certified, genuine phenomenon. With no end to his dominance in sight, he'll one day be considered the best 40-something pitcher ever. The Diamondbacks' front office obviously thinks so. Here he is, a few months from turning 40, and he's about to sign a two-year contract extension.

How has he stayed at the top of the pitching food chain for so long? With Johnson, it's all about attitude. Five Cy Youngs later, he still feels like he's playing career catch-up after struggling to find himself into his late 20s. He had to go through those struggles, he says, to become the pitcher he is today. Or, more to the point, to keep the flame burning, to maintain the desire to work out between starts and throughout the offseason.

It's true. The Big Unit makes it look easy, but it isn't. As he talks about where his career has been and where it's headed, he looks around the Diamondbacks' clubhouse. It's empty, the last of his teammates having gone home 15 minutes ago. As usual, he stuck around for extra work in the weight room.

Randy Johnson
As he approaches his 40th birthday, the Big Unit feels better than ever.
"It's a process you have to go through," he said. "Some people go through the process of having early success and they inevitably plateau, get better or start going down. If they don't get better, it's usually because they get content with where they're at and they're not going to work hard to get better.

"Or you can have failure like I did early in my career. If you have the right people working with you, and have the motivating factor to want to get better, things start clicking. Had I learned all the things I know now back then, early in my career, who's to say I would have been that good back then. It's just a maturing process as a pitcher and as a person.

"It's an indescribable intangible in a person that wants to separate themselves from the next-best person. Usually it's the person who'll put in the time and effort, who's already been blessed in that field, who takes it to the next level. Look at Larry Bird. Why was he so good? Because he shot baskets three hours before the next person ever got to the stadium.

"You see that in all sports. Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods. All these people put the time and effort into taking their talent to the next level. It's that little bit more, combined with their talents, that separates them, makes them what they are. That's what I try to do. That might be what kind of separates me, that I'm not content with what I did last year. My focus is on getting ready for this year."

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to Page 2.