Big Unit and Dan of Steel: A perfect fit as polar opposites

There may not be two more polar-opposite personalities in baseball than Randy Johnson and Dan Wilson. Mr. Snappy and Mr. Steady. The volatile Big Unit and the rock-solid Dan of Steel. The hair-flying, rock-star pitcher who brought fear to opposing batters and the quiet, conservative catcher who just went about his business.

Together they made for a perfect combo on the field and now they’re going into the Mariners Hall of Fame together today as a fascinating contrast of characters. Today’s game isn’t on TV, so if you want to see the induction ceremony, you’ll need to get to the ballpark or watch it streamed live on Mariners.com starting at 12:30 p.m., leading up to the 1:10 p.m. game against the Royals.

At a media gathering yesterday following a luncheon at Safeco Field honoring the two, Johnson joked about how he might have a “senior moment” and start rambling so long during today’s ceremonies that the game will need to be delayed.

Then moments later, he had a legitimate senior moment and started rambling on about something he clearly wanted to get off his chest, which was how he was perceived by some to have quit on the Mariners in his final season in ’98 before being traded to the Astros.

It was another fascinating look into the soul of a complex man. The question that sparked his response had simply been about how the “Mr. Snappy” nickname had been attached to his wicked slider. And Johnson, as he’s been known to do, took that and as he continued to talk, suddenly veered a totally different direction.

“The one thing that bothers me to this day is people thinking I tanked it when I left here,” he said. “I’ll be the first to say, on my dad’s grave, I never tanked it. Now did I get sidetracked because of contract negotiations and I wasn’t as focused? Absolutely.

“But if anyone knows me, that’s the same person who volunteered to come out of the bullpen 24 hours after pitching here and later in my career. I loved the game. I gave everything I had and I loved Seattle. Things didn’t work out in 1998. There’s different levels of my success. I went on to Houston, pitched 11 games and went 10-1. I never did that in Arizona. I never had two months like that in my career. Why? I have no idea. I won four Cy Youngs in Arizona; I never went 10-1 in any stretch in the four years in Arizona.

“So I know what it looked like [in Seattle]. This pitcher we expect a lot out of,  now he’s below .500. People have to remember, I was dealing with a contract, things were a little blurry in my head, fuzzy. I’m going from a last-place team to a first-place team, the Killer B’s and Billy Wagner, I’m getting three or four runs of run support and I have a guy that can close out games.

“That’s not to say anything bad about my teammates [in '98 in Seattle], but things just didn’t go well that year for me. Success is very funny. I look at all different levels. Here I had a lot of success, Houston I had great success for a short period of time, and then the pinnacle of my success was in Arizona, to win four straight Cy Youngs and be part of a memorable and historical World Series.”

Then Johnson went back repeated himself several more times, saying virtually the same things in what started to feel like a counseling session at times. He even realized himself this might not have been the time or place to get into this topic, saying there were lots of positives and not to even write about what he was saying about leaving. But then he went on again and clearly it was something he hopes fans in Seattle understand.

“I also wanted to stay here, and that needs to be cleared up, too,” he said. “I never wanted to leave…. Seattle means so much to me. It really does. No one knows how much except for my wife how much Seattle means to me. And there’s reasons because of being a young pitcher struggling and then being depended on. That’s a pretty powerful feeling – going to the ballpark, fans are counting on you, and your teammates are counting on you. And I got the first of that when I was here. That’s a pretty powerful and magical feeling.”

As Johnson went on and on, Wilson sat quietly beside him at the podium, watching and listening to his former teammate. Johnson said he’s reflected much more on his career now that it’s over. He didn’t allow himself to do that while he played, not wanting to get sidetracked.

He also acknowledged how difficult he was for others to deal with at times. But he said that’s what helped make him the competitor he was and he’d probably never have achieved the success he did without that personal fire.

Then he noted that it took someone like Wilson to understand how to deal with that intense flame and that he appreciated that now. And when the ramble ended, a bemused Wilson simply looked at Johnson and said, “Thank you.”

Two very different people. Two opposite personalities. But together they did some very special things and that they’re going into the Mariners Hall of Fame at the same time makes more sense to me now than ever.

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