Hall of Fame lefty provided hints of future greatness with his performance 26 years ago today
By Andrew Simon
On this date, 26 years ago, Randy Johnson took the mound against the Tigers at Seattle's Kingdome and proceeded to accomplish something special.
Now, this was not yet the Big Unit most people remember. Sure, he had the skinny 6-foot-10 frame, the nasty scowl and the whip-like left arm that could unleash bullets, but he had not harnessed the control that eventually would help make him a five-time Cy Young Award winner and a 2015 Hall of Fame inductee.
When Johnson fired a no-hitter on June 2, 1990, it was the first of his career and the first in Mariners history. The feat also hinted at Johnson's Cooperstown-worthy future while still demonstrating the long road he had to travel to make it a reality.
The Expos had selected Johnson out of USC in the second round of the 1985 Draft, brought him to the Majors in September 1988 and then traded him to the Mariners in May '89, as part of a deal for more established lefty Mark Langston. By June of the following year, when Johnson faced the Tigers at the Kingdome, he owned a career 4.54 ERA over 43 games (42 starts), striking out a modest 7.6 batters per nine innings and walking an alarming 5.0.
The Associated Press described Johnson as "consistently inconsistent and an enigma to his teammates," during those early days with Seattle.
"'I'm a very moody person,'' Johnson told the AP. ''I like to be in my own little world. I don't like people talking to me. People have called me another Bill Lee," referring to the fellow lefty and USC product who earned the nickname "Spaceman."
When Johnson took the mound on June 2, he was coming off a start in which the Blue Jays battered him for five earned runs over 5 2/3 innings. But facing the Sparky Anderson-led Tigers, who were 21-29 at the time, it was a different story.
Johnson whiffed leadoff man Tony Phillips for one of his eight strikeouts and also went on to get two against Detroit cleanup man Cecil Fielder, that year's American League MVP Award runner-up, who entered the game with a 1.111 OPS and 19 homers. Johnson finished the no-hitter with a perfect ninth inning, capped by a whiff of catcher Mike Heath on a high fastball.
The 26-year-old then threw both arms in the air, leaped in celebration and was mobbed by his teammates, a group that included Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez (then a third baseman), Jay Buhner and Harold Reynolds.
''That's a thrill of a lifetime,'' Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre told the AP afterward.
Except, for Johnson, it proved to be far from a high point.
Almost 14 years later, on May 18, 2004, Johnson topped himself by throwing a 13-strikeout perfect game for Arizona at Atlanta. That performance was good for a game score of 100, one of 20 times Johnson exceeded the 89 he posted in his first no-hitter. In baseball history, only Nolan Ryan has authored more starts with a better game score than Johnson notched during that first no-hitter.
The difference between the perfect game and the no-hitter illustrates the difference between the young version of Johnson and the mature version. Against the Tigers, Johnson was what might be described as effectively wild, throwing 138 pitches while completing one of 23 no-hitters since 1913 that featured at least six free passes.
Although Big Unit was an All-Star in 1990, he still walked nearly five batters per nine innings, with a 1.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His control problems actually increased the next two years, and it wasn't until '93 that Johnson truly broke out, posting a 3.24 ERA with 3.5 walks and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Johnson finished second in the AL Cy Young Award race, won it two years after that and eventually captured National League honors four straight times from 1999-2002 with Arizona, also becoming a World Series champion.
Last summer, Johnson was enshrined in Cooperstown after receiving 97.3 percent of the vote in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot. He got there mostly on the strength of what he accomplished after June 2, 1990, but that night at the Kingdome did provide a hint of the greatness that was to come.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.