"I still love the game; I just don’t love it right now."
Major League Baseball needs people like Randy Johnson, and we’re not talking about the Big Unit.
Johnson, who played for the Atlanta Braves in the 1980s and is the very definition of a “baseball lifer,” joins is for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
When interviewed by BallNine, Johnson was enjoying his time camping with family in Southern California. That’s great for the Johnson family, but not so much for Major League Baseball.
A multi-sport star from Escondido, California, Johnson was drafted out of San Jose State in 1978 where he played football and baseball. He remained in professional ball in numerous capacities and on multiple continents until November of 2020.
Johnson is one of those guys who has forgotten more about baseball than most fans will ever ever know. Now, the position he no longer holds is likely filled by another front office number cruncher who wouldn’t know Highpockets Kelly from Kelly LeBrock.
Johnson made his Big League debut with the 1982 National League West champion Braves and after three injury-plagued seasons, he ended up playing with the Hiroshima Carp in Japan. He then played for the West Palm Beach Tropics in the Senior Professional Baseball League before taking his trade Down Under to play in the Australian Baseball League. After that, he stayed in the game for another three decades in numerous capacities.
Over the course of 42 years, Johnson had a global playing, scouting and operations experience that rivaled just about anyone in the sport. As Rob Manfred continues to turn baseball into a farce and the game devolves into a comedy of errors, guys like Johnson should be embraced and valued.
Instead, they’re being ushered out and replaced by people with as much baseball sense as a houseplant.
Johnson isn’t bitter though. He had a great baseball life and now has plenty of time to relax and enjoy time with his family, which is the ultimate prize anyone can ask for.
“They’re creating their own problems by teaching the pitchers to throw up in the zone and teaching the hitters to swing up and hit it in the air. You don’t have to talk any more about how they fucked up the game.”
Let’s get ready for a real inside look at the sport as we go Spitballin’ with Randy Johnson.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Johnson. We don’t come across too many people who have had four decades in the sport. Let’s go back to your youth. How did you get your start playing baseball as a kid?
I had two older brothers and an older sister who were good athletes. Our dad was our coach, and he was incredible with the amount of time he spent with us. Every day he did a full day’s work then would come home and practice with us. He’d hit ground balls and play catch. I learned everything I knew about baseball from my dad and brothers. My dad was a fan of the Giants, so I became a fan of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Jim Ray Hart and all those guys.
You were a baseball and football star at Escondido High, Palomar College and San Jose State. What made you end up ultimately choosing baseball?
My senior year as a kicker at San Jose State I had a pretty crummy senior year in football and a very good year in baseball. I always thought that if I didn’t make it in baseball, I would have given it a try in football.
I had trouble kicking off the ground and kicking an NFL football. It was shorter and wider, and I had a high arch. I struggled to get underneath the ball to get it high enough and be any good. After my first summer in baseball, I had a shot to go to a kicking tryout, but I decided to stick with baseball.
You played just a few years before we saw that wave of football and baseball dual-sport athletes like Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan.
You know, one Spring Training I brought my footballs to camp. One of our minor league players was a punter in college. We used to take the balls out and kick them back and forth to each other. He couldn’t hit very well, but I swear he had the best arm I’ve ever seen in my life. They asked him to try to become a pitcher and he decided he would rather give football a try. That guy was Jeff Gossett, who went on to become a Pro Bowl punter with a 15-year NFL career.
Wow! Sure, I remember him. Real good punter. What was it like to get called up to the Braves in 1982?
It was in Spring Training. I didn’t know until a couple of days before we broke camp that I was going to make the team. One thing I remember is that we had a charter flight up to Seattle to play a couple of exhibition games. I got lost in the airport and I was freaking out trying to find out where the charter was. They were about ready to close the door and take off without me.
I made the trip though and got to play short for the first time in about three years. They were seriously thinking me about sticking me at short because Rafael Ramirez didn’t do much in Spring Training. I played one game at short against Seattle. I would have been scared to death if they did that Opening Day against the Padres, but they changed their mind.
The 1982 Braves team was great. You won the NL West and there were stars all over. That was Dale Murphy’s first MVP season too. What was it like being a new guy on a team with all those stars?
Those guys were great. Dale Murphy is one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met in my entire life. He’s the best player I ever played with. We didn’t have a lot of guys thinking they were better than anyone because they were a veteran or something. Gene Garber was the guy who was the policeman. He put you in your place if you popped off.
That was a great year though. I was on the team all year and only got 46 at bats, so I was a good cheerleader. But I did whatever was asked. I caught guys in the pen, warmed up pitchers between innings. I probably only started about 10 games all season filling in for Glenn Hubbard when he got hurt.
Steve Bedrosian & Olivia Newton-John enjoy a moment with Randy Johnson (#6) creeping in the back with the photo bomb.
The Braves won the NL West and faced the Cardinals in the NLCS. What was that experience like?
Terrifying. It was awesome though. I had been playing down the stretch with Jerry Royster hurt and I thought I was gonna be left off the postseason roster, but they kept me. We got swept though. Back then, if you won the NLCS, you went right to the World Series. Now, you have to win multiple series. I felt like we really got screwed in the first game. Phil Niekro was dealing, and it was drizzling. The Commissioner decided they didn’t want a rain-shortened game, so they called it. We had to restart the game the next day.
We likely would have won with Niekro, but we lost the makeup game and got swept. Lo and behold, there was a game in the World Series where it was raining harder, and they never stopped it. We kind of got the shaft there. Who knows if we would have won it, but if you win Game 1 in a series, that’s a big advantage.
You were also on the 1984 Braves who were in that famous brawl with the Padres. We had Kurt Bevacqua on a couple months ago to tell us things from the Padres side. What was your perspective on that?
I was out there hanging around the outside of the ring all six times a fight broke out. It was crazy. I thought for sure we were gonna have a riot. I was really worried that the fans were gonna storm the field. We did have a couple fans come down actually. It was absolutely horrible and scary. The Padres were so lucky they didn’t lose someone to an injury going into the playoffs. That could have been devastating. They ultimately made everyone on both teams go into the clubhouse when the game continued. The only ones allowed in the dugout were the guys playing on the field.
What a wild thing to have been a part of. You also played for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan. How did that come about and what was your experience like there?
I had a good year in AAA with the Giants in 1986. I hit about .330 and they were going to call me up. Jimmy Lefebvre was my manager, and he knew I had a chance to go to Japan. If I was put on the roster, they wouldn’t purchase my contract in Japan. He told me he talked them into not putting me on the roster, which I don’t know if it was good or bad, but it allowed me to go to Japan. It was a great experience.
It was a little frustrating my first year in 1987. I was leading the league in hitting but basically caddying for Sachio Kinugasa, who actually broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak that year. Ripken ended up passing Kinugasa. It was his last year and he was a right-handed batter. If they faced a tough right-hander, he would get an at bat or two and I would come in for him. It was frustrating not to be used more. The next year I was hitting well but got hurt.
HIROSHIMA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 15: Sachio Kinugasa of Hiroshima Toyo Carp is tossed into the air after his final game against Yakult Swallows at Hiroshima City Stadium on October 15, 1987 in Hiroshima, Japan. Randy Johnson (No. 42) helps celebrate. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
You also played in one of my favorite leagues that I wish lasted longer, the Senior Professional Baseball League. How did you get involved there?
I wasn’t old enough to be a position player, but they allowed catchers to be 32. Everyone else had to be 35. I went there and hadn’t really caught. I was an emergency catcher in Atlanta and in AAA. I said, “What the hell, I’ll give it a shot.”
I was told I made the team, but in one of the last games, Dick Williams gave me what he thought was the bunt sign and I didn’t bunt. I came into the dugout, and he asked why I didn’t bunt. I said he didn’t give me the sign. He ranted and raved and got in my face, but a couple of players told me I was right; he didn’t give a bunt sign. But he turned around and said, “We’re sending you home.” So, I made the team one day, then the next day I was gone. Like a week later though, they called me back and said they needed me.
That sounds exactly like Dick Williams to me! That West Palm Beach Tropics team was a good one too. You had some great guys on that team.
That was a blast. We had such a good group of guys and the best record in the league. Luis Pujols got hurt, so I caught most of the games. I wish it would have lasted. Look at some of the names on that team. Toby Harrah, Ronnie Washington, Dave Kingman, Mickey Rivers, Rollie Fingers. It was really competitive. I thought they should have played fewer games to limit injuries, but it was one of my favorite times of my life.
After your playing days were over, you stayed in baseball for over three decades in many roles. How did you transition from playing to scouting and front office work?
In 1989, I went to Spring Training with the Mets, but I really tore my ankle up in Japan. I did pretty good in Spring Training, but I didn’t think I could keep playing because it was hurting so bad. I was home, farting around, playing some ball, trying to figure out what I was gonna do and I ran into Randy Smith, who was the Padres scouting director.
He asked me if I was interested in scouting, and I said I thought I’d be better at player development. The only spot he had open was in Georgia and the Carolinas. The following year he brought me back to Southern California and he really liked the job I was doing. We became really good friends and I moved with him everywhere he went for about 15 years. We started with the Padres, went to the Rockies to the Tigers and then back to the Padres as a field coordinator.
Johnson with the West Palm Beach Tropics in the Senior Professional Baseball League.
That’s an amazing journey. What are you up to these days?
Well, I was not renewed this past November. Knowing that it’s real hard to get a job at my age and being pretty burnt out, I decided to do what I’m doing now, camping. I just turned 65, so it’s time to get that pension and live the good life hopefully as long as I can.
That’s a great reward for all the hard work you put in for over 40 years. Pretty incredible. At BallNine, we have written a lot about what has happened to scouts and the game in general. What are your thoughts about the way things have changed?
We’ve all seen this coming for the last 15 years. When the new era of GMs started getting hired, the Harvard, Yale, Stanford guys, we all saw the writing on the wall. You have to agree with what they think, or they’re gonna get rid of you. A lot of us were higher paid guys too, so that’s part of it.
Not getting renewed wasn’t a surprise to me. What really pisses me off is all the ex-players that aren’t getting a chance to go into that side of the game. They’re taking college coaches or internet coaches and making them coaches and scouts instead of guys who played the game and have a lot to offer.
Look at the Giants, last year they had one of the most inexperienced staffs I’ve ever seen, and their play reflected it. This year, they’re off to a good start and they’ve done a good job. But is that the right way to go? I don’t think so.
Do you watch the games these days?
The game is so hard to watch now. I got to the point where I didn’t know who to look for as a scout. I never liked the all-or-nothing guys. For me, that’s not baseball. That’s slow-pitch softball. I’ve been saying that for 20 years. There’s no action. They keep moving the fences in, making the strike zone smaller, making the ball livelier and doing everything for the hitters. But now where are we at? We’re at a place where hitters can’t hit. Baseball gave me my life and I owe it everything I have. I still love the game; I just don’t love it right now.
There just doesn’t seem to be any common baseball sense anymore.
You’re right. It’s an enigma. Tell me how this makes sense. These new wave gurus who are running player development want pitchers to throw four-seamers up in the zone. Then they turn around and teach their hitters to swing up. What pitch can’t those guys hit? The fastball up in the zone. They’re creating their own problems by teaching the pitchers to throw up in the zone and teaching the hitters to swing up and hit it in the air. You don’t have to talk any more about how they fucked up the game. That’s it right there.
We talk a lot too about the lack of respect and fundamentals in the sport. Do you see that too?
Absolutely. There’s a lack of instincts you see on the bases and in the field. Then you have guys showboating after home runs when they’re down ten runs. Or you can be like the Diamondbacks where you’re 30 games under .500 and you win on a walk off and you jump around like you won the seventh game of the World Series. It’s embarrassing and stupid. I guess the new fans like it.
We couldn’t agree with you more. Just hope one day the pendulum swings back. It’s been great to hear your baseball stories. I don’t think I’ve interviewed anyone with such a wide range of experiences! Last one for you: do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave for our readers?
I never thought I’d have a chance to be a Major League player, but somehow, I got that chance. I wish I could have played longer and could have stayed healthier, but I am one of the few guys who can say that baseball was my life. I never thought it was gonna be that way. I look back and say that I never had to work a job. How awesome is that? I have a nice pension coming and hopefully I’ll get to enjoy it for a long time. We do a lot of camping and go to the beach and desert. I’m on the back nine and hopefully have a lot of time left, so I’m gonna enjoy it.