As the 1998 inaugural season for the Arizona Diamondbacks ended, the freshness of having Major League Baseball in Phoenix was still fresh on everyone’s minds. Despite having the sixth best record for an expansion team, much of the public still focused on the fact that the Diamondbacks had lost 97 games. Then General Partner Jerry Colangelo took a monumental risk and decided to change the long-term plan for the franchise and turn them into an immediate contender.
Like most fans I was somewhat skeptical of Mr. Colangelo’s ideas. How could he turn Arizona into the premiere destination for free agents? This team had no history, no track record, and outside of a few veterans who were on the 1998 roster they definitely didn’t have the core talent. Despite all of these negatives, Colangelo set out on a mission to share his dream of what baseball could be in the valley. And it worked. During that off-season he was like a kid in a candy store making headlines and turning over the roster that by Spring Training was filled with focused and determined ball players.
Perhaps the biggest coup of that off-season occurred on November 30, 1998 when Colangelo signed Randy Johnson. THE Randy Johnson. The same dominating pitcher who had thrown a no hitter in Seattle and took a franchise who was a perennial loser and was a big part of making them a contender. The same Randy Johnson who had been traded during the previous season to the Houston Astros and completely overpowered National League hitters putting together perhaps the greatest second half of any pitcher in the history of baseball. With Johnson as the ace of the Diamondbacks the team suddenly became a legitimate contender and a favorite to win the National League West.
Over the course of the next six years Randy Johnson earned every penny of his lucrative contract and the desert became a very uncomfortable place for opposing teams and hitters. During his first tenure with the Diamondbacks he was about as dominating a person as you could imagine. From a fan’s perspective it was like baseball heaven. Every five days you would watch knowing that at any given moment you would see history.
I remember taking my kids to the games and trying to explain that what they were seeing was similar to those who grew up in the time of Babe Ruth or Cy Young. This kind of thing happens maybe once in a generation even if that often. The kids just assumed that every team had a Randy Johnson and took that for granted.
Game 6 of the 2001 World Series is when my kids started to finally understand. I was to take my 11 year old daughter to that game. She was already a diehard baseball fan and had been eagerly awaiting her turn to go to a postseason game. As we walked towards the stadium a scalper who saw my tickets in a lanyard around my neck stopped me. He asked if I would be interested in selling them. He offered me $4,000 for each ticket. It would have been easy to make that transaction. That kind of money would allow me to pay for season tickets for several years. But I looked down at my daughter with the look of wonder in her eyes and told the man no, my daughter and I were going to the game to share a piece of history.
Looking back, that was one of the greatest memories I have shared with her. We saw Randy Johnson completely dominate the New York Yankees setting up the culmination of perhaps the greatest World Series ever played. To this day our family talks about that and what it meant to watch Randy and the other Diamondbacks players play here. No longer is there any doubt that we were seeing probably one of the greatest left-handers in the game.
After Johnson retired it was a foregone conclusion he would be inducted into the baseball hall of fame. The only question any of us had was whether he would enter as a Diamondback. It was also a given that at some point the Diamondbacks would retire number 51. No one else could possibly wear that number. It became almost hallowed ground.
When the Diamondbacks announced that August 8, 2015 they would retire number 51 I knew that I would have to be in attendance. I also wanted to make sure that my family would be there. It was important to us that we let Johnson know how much he meant to baseball and more importantly to our city and our family.
He helped to build a whole new generation of baseball fans. He gave them a connection that they would share with their father. It was a badge of pride for them to say they were in attendance at one of his epic games whether it was striking out 20 Cincinnati Reds, winning game 6 and game 7 of the World Series, taking over second place all time in strikeouts, or any of a multitude of special moments.
The stands at Chase Field were filled. Not because it was a bobble head day or for post game fireworks. No they were here for the same reason I was here, to say thank you and to see 51 unveiled above right field glistening like 42 and 20 before him.
I got goose bumps when Chuck Drago, the PA announcer, introduced Randy Johnson and he made his way from the left field bullpen to a standing ovation. It seemed like every step he took made the fans cheer harder. By the time he reached the mound the sound was reminiscent of November 2001 when he came out to pitch in relief in game 7 after throwing 100 pitches in game 6 of the World Series.
The Diamondbacks were gracious and the ceremony was incredible. From the Jackie Robinson recipient representing 42 to Luis Gonzalez walking out from the Diamondbacks dugout to represent 20 as the two numbers that had previously been retired.
Owner Ken Kendrick and Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall had a special gift for Johnson on this special occasion giving him an amazing commemorative drum set from Rush. Former GM Joe Garagiola Junior who signed Randy before 1999 was there as was Jerry Colangelo. Johnson’s kids were also on the field taking in all that was happening.
I stood and listened to Randy Johnson talk about his career and what baseball meant. Gone was the scowl and intensity that were present every time he was at the ballpark. He was calm and relaxed and articulate.
I guess being away from the game has a way of mellowing a person. The hard work is done, he is still at the top of his game and this time instead of walking away with a sneer staring down an opposing batter he has a smile; one that took 22 years to appear but one that he earned.
Just like all those times when Randy was playing for the Diamondbacks this was yet another day I could not have missed. Once again he didn’t disappoint. His words of thanks and his expression of what it meant to play baseball are something I will never forget. It was a humbling experience at the ballpark. The game results didn’t matter. For those who were fortunate enough to see Randy Johnson pitch as an Arizona Diamondback, nothing could ever compare. He is truly one of a kind.