RENO —Left-hander Randy Johnson retired from the game he loved after the 2009 season perhaps becoming the last Major League Baseball pitcher to pick up his 300th win in a storied career that spanned 22 years with six teams.
Johnson, who was elected earlier this year to the Baseball Hall of Fame and will be inducted at Cooperstown in July, has returned to the national pastime by serving as special assistant to the president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He was at the Reno Aces home opener Friday night to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
As Johnson conversed with players and spent some time in the Reno bullpen talking to pitchers three hours before the game, he bounced around Aces Ballpark, feeling at home and showing a bounce in his step as walked across the outfield with a player.
As special assistant, Johnson will mentor pitches primarily with Triple-A Reno and Double-AA Mobile — the minor league teams to the Arizona Diamondbacks — showing them the knowledge and drive that made him one of the game’s fiercest competitors.
For his official first trip with the Diamondbacks to Reno, Johnson also showed the partisan crowd he still has his “stuff” when he delivered the opening pitch to Mike Freeman.
His enthusiasm to help a new generation of ballplayers parallels the spirit he showed when he hurled the Diamondbacks to their first and only World Series title in 2001 or when he met the troops in the Middle East as part of many USO tours.
Johnson’s thoughts Friday, though, were more on baseball and seeing how he can help.
“Some of these players here will be called up eventually,” Johnson told reporters as the Aces took batting practice.
His mission, according to the California native, is to see the Diamondbacks call up many as many pitchers as possible and for him to inspire them what it was like for him when he began his career after attending the University of Southern California where he played baseball and basketball for two years..
Desire and heart tend make a successful pitcher.
“They have to dig down deep and understand they don’t know when their playing career will be over,” he said of today’s pitchers. “Why not give a maximum effort when you’re out there? Every effort, give me a maximum effort … every performance you do good, bad or indifferent. Throughout the course of the years, results should be better.”
Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall said having Johnson spend time with the minor league pitchers is a plus for the organization.
“He’s sharing his experience,” Hall said. “We’ve been able to do this with (former Arizona Diamondback players) Luis Gonzales and Mark Grace … With Randy it’s different; someone who’s actually entering the Hall of Fame makes it really special, and he will spend time with our minor league affiliates.”
When Johnson began his MLB career 1988, he said trying to be intense when taking the mound did not come easy. Later in his career, he fell into that state of mind when he pitched in every fifth game.
“I felt like I had a little bit of an edge. I could feel myself with that in maximizing my physical ability with mental toughness it took to go a little bit deeper in a game and to push myself in a game” he said. “That’s what I am trying to do with the minor league kids.”
The distinction of being in the latest HOF class will also make an impression on this new group of minor league pitchers.
The 10-time All-Star, nicknamed “The Big Unit” because of his towering 6-foot, 10-inch frame, first pitched for the Montreal Expos in 1988 and wrapped up his career with the San Francisco Giants in 2009. During his hall-of-fame career, he struck out 4,875 batters, the most by any Southpaw, posted a record of 303-166, pitched both a no-hitter and perfect game and won five Cy Young awards, the award given to the league’s best pitcher.
Johnson said he feels his excitement for the HOF ceremony will increase toward induction time.
“I’m modestly flattered and honored,” Johnson said, his voice softening. “It’s nothing I thought would ever happen in my career based on who I was early in my career, in college and minor leagues … that’s what I am trying to instill in these young kids,” he explained. “It’s not where you are now but where you are at the end of your career.”
Before he returned to baseball, Johnson took a long break, returning to his love of photography, which he studied at University of Southern California, and visiting the troops from Guantanamo Bay to the Middle East and most recently, South Korea. His photography also took him on overseas trips.
“It took me six years to get the desire to get back in the game,” he added.
His visit in Reno, though, is more about his new role with the Diamondbacks than with his career or himself. Johnson is writing another chapter in his career.
“I’m enjoying my role now,” he said. “That’s what I am trying to do. I enjoy talking to the young kids.”