Shared Greatness: Baseball Hall of Famers and What They Taught Me

Randy Johnson in May 2009.

The New York Times
January 16, 2015
by Doug Glanville

Exploding sliders. Time-stopping change-ups. Three-thousand-hit machines. We expect to embrace such superlatives with any baseball Hall of Fame induction class, and 2015 was no different.
I had the distinct pleasure — or pain — to have played against this class. Craig Biggio was the leadoff hitter I tried to be. Pedro Martinez had so many overwhelming pitches, he could have won as many games by using just one of them. John Smoltz, as a starter, already had the power arm and the invisible slider, and later had the nerve to add some sort of split-fingered fastball to close out games by erasing his opponents.
And then there was Randy Johnson.
Nearly 7 feet tall, with shoulder-length hair, Johnson was granted more unnecessary height by standing on top of a mound. I recall stepping into the batter’s box against him and wondering if I was standing under an active volcano. (I once trekked the base of the volcano Arenal in Costa Rica and later thought of Johnson — in both situations I could imagine the explosion, and how I had nowhere to run.)
In Johnson’s case, the explosion came out of his left hand. It was not just his 100-mile-per-hour fastball, it was the angle from which he threw it. He slung it from the side, whipping his arm through the air — with his wingspan, he could practically high-five the first baseman en route. His height, combined with his sound-breaking velocity, made it feel as if he was handing the ball to the catcher after stepping on your front foot for good measure. You simply had no time to see the ball and then hit it. You had to predict its trajectory and try to anticipate where it might end up … and hope.
That was just his fastball. His slider angered the gods by defining its own gravity. He was notorious for getting a batter to swing and still somehow get hit by the ball. And he could do this to a rookie or to a Hall of Famer. Between his unorthodox arm angle and the sweeping spin on the ball, it was a tsunami of unhittable chaos.
To hit him at all took extrasensory wisdom. Just as you can’t climb Mount Everest blindly without expert advice or a Sherpa at your side, you rarely could neutralize Johnson’s work by guessing. You had to have a plan, find a pattern, look for a tip and rely on the basic construct that you get three strikes and therefore three chances to pry victory from his hands.
He forced you to travel ahead in time, and tap your inner forecasting ability in a desperate effort to be a step ahead of him. You knew you were going to be in the midst of a thunderstorm when he pitched, but you were looking for where to put the lightning rods so you at least could focus on the tall order of just putting the ball in play, and not your basic safety. I eventually learned, over 43 plate appearances against him, that he liked to throw that slider over the plate on the first pitch when a runner was in scoring position. It took a few games for my plan to finally hatch in a way that I did some damage (by knocking in two runs in one swing). And then, no sooner did I start to feel like the lightning thief, he adjusted, as all great players do.
Whenever he pitched it was a performance, and throughout the performance there was no smile, no ray of light peeking through the clouds to give you a sense that he was having fun or that he could be appeased into having mercy. He was on the hill to eradicate your opportunity, to squash the puerile idea that the sun would come out tomorrow. He barked, he cursed himself if necessary, and he competed with anyone and everyone around him to the bitter end.
In one game when he was pitching, words were exchanged between our clubs, putting him in a position to have to defend his teammates. In baseball, that usually means the pitcher will hit the next batter. On this day, I was the next batter. As I watched him jawing at our dugout, I wondered whether this would be the last at-bat of my career, or life. Then I thought: he must know that he could kill someone with his fastball, and being that good and accurate, he would also be responsible. And, thankfully, he was. But I had absolutely no confidence that I could have gotten out of the way had he thrown at me.
Yet, over the course of my career, I had a few days in the sun when the Big Unit took the mound. I hit .293 against him and even homered off him one magical day in Philadelphia. But as many hits as I got, I had just as many strolls back to the dugout after striking out.
In a strange way, I want to thank these great players, Johnson included. They were the best, but what gets lost sometimes is how much their greatness rubbed off on everyone. When you played against them, you knew you belonged. And if you ever beat them — one on one — that could inspire you to overcome anything, on the field or even after your baseball career was over.
One spring training early in my career, my manager with the Cubs told me to look at the lineup for the next day. “You are starting,” he said matter of factly. And Randy Johnson was pitching for the Mariners. I was not even a major league player at this time.
Johnson was returning from a back injury and regaining his strength. Even so, I could barely sleep the night before. But I hit a triple off him. It did not help anyone’s fantasy team, it did not go in “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” no champagne was popped, no national media outlet noticed, but that hit was one of the most important in my career. Because at a young age, I had a tangible baseball result to go with my faith in my ability.
And so even though stars like Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz and Biggio steamrolled opponents during their careers, some of the players they left in their wake might have reached their greatest heights from a small victory against them. It mattered, and it will stay with them for all time.
So next time you’re looking at a player to cut from your fantasy team, or notice that another one has retired in quiet anonymity, go back and look through their career. You might find a game when they beat one of the best players of our era, a moment that maybe bought them more years in a major league uniform than projected — or in any case gave them the courage to take that extra step in the darkest of circumstances. (Just one example: the game in 2000 when the Mets’ slight of build, unassuming “Super” Joe McEwing went 3 for 4 against Johnson, with two doubles and a home run.)
These players may be the best compliment to those enshrined in the Hall of Fame because they remind us that true greatness means more than a chain of personal bests. It also means bringing out the best in others — teammates and, maybe even more so, opponents.

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Photo Credit: John Froschauer, Associated Press


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