Big Unit enjoyed time in Big Apple
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Randy Johnson’s two seasons with the Yankees may not have been the finest hours of his remarkable career, but he has fond memories from his time in the Bronx.
Johnson was 34-19 with a 4.37 ERA combined for the Yankees in 2005 and ’06 but was roughed up in two American League Division Series starts (0-1, 6.92 ERA). To his credit, he did pitch with a shoulder ailment much of his second Yankees season when he had a 5.00 ERA.
“I still remember getting a phone call from George Steinbrenner welcoming me to play for the New York Yankees,” Johnson said in his induction speech Sunday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “I also enjoyed playing for Joe Torre.”
The former Yankees manager, who was elected to the Hall in 2014, was among 49 former Hall of Famers seated on the platform for the ceremony honoring Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.
Johnson took note of another returning Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson, when he said, “Look behind me and you can see the best who ever played this game. I had the honor of playing against many of these gentlemen. Some I watched on TV. But it would have have really been fun to face you, Reggie.”
I had a brief chat with Johnson over the weekend, and he told me that he had no regrets about his Yankees experience.
“I actually enjoyed it,” Johnson said. “I remember being able to sit in the dugout and talk pitching with Whitey Ford. How can you not love that?”
No sooner had the words come out of Johnson’s mouth, but Whitey and his wife, Joan, walked out onto the veranda of the Otesaga Hotel. That ended our conversation. The “Big Unit” went right over to the “Chairman of the Board” and spent the rest of the afternoon with him.
Craig Biggio, who grew up on Long Island and played college ball at Seton Hall, had kind words for Yogi Berra in his speech. Yogi was a coach with the Astros when Biggio broke into the majors in 1988 to begin a 20-season career, all in Houston, his adopted home town.
“Yogi was the smartest baseball man I ever knew,” Biggio said. “I know he is known for his Yogisms, but he had a solid knowledge of the game. When I was at Seton Hall, he and [then owner] John McMullen came to scout me. How many owners bring a Hall of Famer to watch some college kid play?”
Unfortunately, Yogi was unable to attend the ceremony.
I ran into Phil Niekro at the Saturday night reception in the Hall of Fame gallery, and he told me a story I had never heard before. On the last day of the 1985 season for the Yankees, Niekkro won his 300th game with a complete-game shutout of the Blue Jays in Toronto. The famed knuckleballer actually threw just one knuckler the whole game — the last pitch — and had the Jays off balance with an array of fastballs and changeups.
“We get back to Yankee Stadium after the flight from Toronto,” Niekro said, “and there in the players’ parking lot is a brand new, white Chrysler LeBaron convertible with a license plate reading ‘300WINS.’ I said to my teammates on the bus, ‘Hey, is there anyone else on this team that has 300 wins?’ It turned out to be a gift from George Steinbrenner. I was shocked. It was a good car, too. The problem was that I could not keep the license plate. It was stolen twice, once in Cleveland the year I played there and once in Atlanta when I went back to the Braves. But I loved that car.”