The Diamondbacks were leaking oil in the final weeks of the 2002 season. They had lost six straight games, their lead in the National League West was shrinking, and manager Bob Brenly was gobbling antacid tablets to keep his stomach from doing the cha-cha.
Brenly had an ace up his sleeve, though.
Randy Johnson grabbed the ball on a warm September night, groomed the dirt in front of the mound to make certain his footing was secure, then stared toward home plate.
The Colorado Rockies had no chance.
Johnson threw a sixhitter, the Diamondbacks ended the losing streak with a 4-2 victory, and the division title was theirs two days later.
"We did all we could," Rockies outfielder Larry Walker said, "but when you’ve got God on the mound against you, it’s tough."
LAST HOME GAME?
Johnson will make his 179th start for the Diamondbacks today. It could be the last time Valley fans see Johnson in an Arizona uniform.
The trading deadline is in six days, and the Diamondbacks begin a seven-game road trip Monday in Houston. When they return on Aug. 3, Johnson might not be with them.
If this is the end, we can only stand and applaud. A World Series title, three division crowns, four Cy Young Awards, 4,000 strikeouts (1,702 Ks as a Diamondback), a perfect game.
Simply and irrefutably, Johnson is the best athlete ever to play in the Valley.
"Watching Randy pitch is something I never take for granted," Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said. "We’re fortunate to see one of the greatest pitchers who’s ever pitched, and we get to see it each five days. I can’t see how anyone who watches the game isn’t touched by that."
And to think, when the Diamondbacks signed Johnson in December of 1998, many of us had misgivings.
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
This was one of the questions the Tribune asked the day after Johnson was introduced as a Diamondback:
At age 35, can Johnson really be effective for the next four years?
Our answer then:
A bit of caution seemed prudent. Johnson had back surgery two years earlier. He was at an age when most power pitchers lose their fastball and their effectiveness.
What we didn’t understand about Johnson back then was his single-minded determination, his obsession, really, to push himself past limits set by others.
God blessed Johnson with natural gifts; he made those gifts work for him.
"He works harder than any pitcher I’ve ever seen," said teammate Greg Colbrunn. "He’s in the weight room every day, preparing himself for the day he pitches."
In the winter of 2002, after he had won his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award, Johnson hired a personal trainer and went to San Diego to see pitching consultant Tom House.
Imagine Michael Jordan working with a coach on his free-throw shooting after his fifth NBA title.
"I’ve done everything short of sell my soul to the devil to win ballgames," Johnson said.
That sort of obsession has its costs. Johnson, although extremely critical of himself, is defensive when criticized, as if his personal quest is not open to public scrutiny.
It also has created a certain distance from his teammates. Although Johnson is not the intolerable loner that some make him out to be, he never has been the most popular Diamondback in the clubhouse. His pursuit of excellence is a solitary journey.
Johnson’s teammates long have understood and accepted his reticence, for in the end, what matters most is a man’s performance, not his personality.
"In all honesty, I hope he doesn’t get traded," said Luis Gonzalez. "It’s been awesome playing with him."
Johnson never let us in. He’s given us glimpses of his personal life — he likes to play golf; he’s a heavy-metal fan (Geddy Lee, singer and bassist for the band Rush, has been a postgame guest of Johnson) — but we don’t know much more about him now than we did when he first arrived.
His relationship with the Valley has been strictly professional, unlike, say, the love affair between fans and Charles Barkley.
That’s how Johnson wanted it. His may be a public profession, but he is a private man. His wife, his children, his life, were off limits.
He only opened himself up on the days he pitched, and then we saw the anger, the intensity, the will. Johnson was at war, with himself and the unfortunate souls with bats in their hands.
(Or the dove that had the misfortune of flying into one of his fastballs during a spring training game).
"You’d be hard-pressed to go back in history and find anybody who has been as dominant," said Nolan Ryan, baseball’s all-time strikeout leader.
Six years may come to an end today. The photo album is full of snapshots.
We need one final picture, though:
Johnson tipping his cap as he walks off the mound, perhaps for the final time at Bank One Ballpark.
The fans, standing as one, saluting his brilliance.
Randy Johnson with the Diamondbacks
Record: 97-43 ERA: 2.67 Strikeouts: 1,702 Accomplishments: Four National League Cy Young Awards; led National League in strikeouts four times; Led NL in ERA twice. Recorded perfect game, 4,000th career strikeout