Professional baseball writers and fans who would like to be writers both have one commonality that is hard to define or sometimes comprehend: 0ur fascination with numbers, and in particular, numbers that are designated as magical which comes from a lifetime of breathing in the shared experience we call Major League Baseball. Randy Johnson reached one of those magical numbers today.
Any baseball fan can rattle off those numbers. 300 wins. 500 homers. .300 lifetime batting average. 3000 hits. New ones are emerging. .400 On Base Percentage. 1.000 OPS. And yes, deep inside, we all know they are arbitrary. Well, the emerging ones aren't as much as the original ones. But you know. We all know.
It was Mother's Day a long, long time ago. Our family was celebrating and treating our mom to dinner out at our favorite restaurant. It was called the Emerson and they had the best open faced steak sandwiches. Mom always gave the little Fan half her plate. Well, that little Fan had to go to the bathroom and to get to the bathroom, you had to go through the bar. The bar had a television set (as they all do) and it was turned to the Yankee game. The little Fan stopped and watched for just a minute, forgetting for a moment that nature was calling. Mickey Mantle came up and that little Fan watched as the Mick hit his 500th homer.
But it's just a number. Just like 300 is just a number. Where did it get started that the number 300 would be the dividing line between immortality and almost? And don't say it doesn't mean anything. Try telling that to Bert Blyleven and Tommy John who both just missed that magical number. Try convincing them that despite their 118 and 110 ERA+ (respectively) they are not in the Hall of Fame when Phil Neikro (115), Don Sutton (108) and Gaylord Perry (117) are in because they reached 300 wins.
And now Randy Johnson has done it and is a lock on the Hall (unless some PED thing comes along - Don't get the Fan started on THAT subject). But in Johnson's case, there is no doubt. He was already heading to Cooperstown. Johnson has it all. A 138 ERA+, 4500+ strikeouts in a little over 4000 innings pitched, a .646 winning percentage and 100 career complete games all scream Hall of Fame to anyone who would listen. He didn't need to reach 300, but he did. And for some arbitrary, arcane reason, that's very cool.
There aren't a whole lot of people cheering though, not nearly as many as when the Mick hit his 500th or Tom Seaver won his 300th. The perspective is that Johnson is an aloof jerk. He has the reputation for getting mad at his fielders when they don't make plays. He certainly got a bad reaction for his time in New York and a comment or two from Joe Torre in his book. But big deal. Mantle was an alcoholic. Wade Boggs cheated on his wife and got caught. Ty Cobb was the meanest SOB on the planet. They all got their due and it certainly doesn't seem fitting that Johnson doesn't get his.
All this Fan knows is that there was no way that the Diamondbacks won that 2001 World Series without him. He was amazing and dominant and heart rending for any Yankee fan. He made 595 starts in his 20 full seasons in the majors, or 29.5 starts per season. He was ugly in appearance and in demeanor. But his pitching was thrilling for a very long time.
Yeah, it's an odd thing, our worship for this magical number. But it's our odd thing. And a very special pitcher of our era has reached that number. Good for him! And good for us.