Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bob Klapisch: Go west, old man


Wednesday, December 27, 2006
BERGEN COUNTY RECORD


It was late last week when Randy Johnson sent word to the Yankees that he was open to any exit strategy that would free him from New York, its loud, rude fans and, mostly, the American League's power-hitting culture.

Of course, Johnson wasn't quite so blunt; the left-hander merely said he wants to be closer to his family in Arizona. But the Bombers nevertheless seized the opening. They're moving closer to ending this failed marriage, which is good news for Joe Torre's clubhouse, if not his rotation.

Clearly, the Yankees realize Johnson can't help them -- at least not in the way they'd once hoped. A person familiar with the Yankees' off-season plans say Barry Zito would become a prime target to replace the Unit, although it's unclear whether general manager Brian Cashman wants to engage in a bidding war with the Mets and Rangers. The Mets seem braced for that possibility. One insider said, "If one [team] wants to blow everyone else out of the water, there's not much we're going to be able to do about it."

Whether or not Zito is lured to the Yankees, and apart from Johnson being traded, the Yankees still are targeting Roger Clemens, willing to make room for him in the rotation if and when he wants to wear pinstripes again. While no one expects Clemens to make up his mind about 2007 for several more months, one Yankee insider said, "All he has to do is say so" and a deal would be struck.

The Yankees' eagerness to sign The Rocket is borne, in part, by their disappointment in Johnson. From the first day he became a Yankee, it was obvious the Unit didn't like being questioned about his diminished fastball. He didn't like questions, period. Johnson was distant and aloof -- and that was on a good day. More often, the Unit was just angry, giving off a dark vibe that made teammates uncomfortable. One Yankee official said one day last summer:
"Randy was the kind of guy who, if you asked him, 'How's it going?' he'd stare you down and say, 'What do you mean by that?' He was the most socially awkward person I ever met around here."

Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the constant pain from a herniated disk in his back. Maybe it was Johnson's idea of acting tough in a big-market environment. Whatever the cause, Johnson never lived up to the promise of being a Clemens-like savior, despite his 34 wins in two seasons. Torre spent a full summer in 2005 covering for Johnson, explaining that the former National League Cy Young Award winner needed time to adjust to a new league. But by 2006, everyone stopped waiting for the old Unit to resurrect.

He degraded into a seven-inning, four-run pitcher -- which, these days, is enough for journeymen such as Ted Lilly and Gil Meche to earn $10 million a year. But the game's greatest left-hander wasn't supposed to be this mortal. The Yankees were shocked to see how many middle-of-the-plate, 93 mph fastballs Johnson threw, coupled with a slider that was a pale imitation of the pitch that swallowed up right-handed hitters in the NL.

The more Johnson tried to reignite the engines of his past, the more frustrated and withdrawn he became. He talked to no one, it seemed, spending his time at his locker with his back to the room. When Johnny Damon tried to pump up the slumping Yankees one day in August, standing in the clubhouse shouting, "Come on you [bleepers], let's go," he was met with a cold stare from Johnson. Damon was so unnerved by the reaction, he later asked a team executive, "Did I do something wrong?"

Apparently, none of this is deterring the Diamondbacks, Padres, Angels and Mariners, all of whom are interested in prying Johnson away from the Yankees. Cashman has been given the latitude to make the best possible deal, and if it requires swallowing some of the $16 million Johnson is owed in 2007, the Yankees will do so.

Of course, Cashman will have to spin Johnson's creaky peripheral stats; the left-hander's 5.00 ERA last year was the highest of his career, and the 179 strikeouts were the lowest full-season total in 19 years. But the Yankees already are telling suitors that was all attributable to a bad back, which has since been surgically repaired.

At least one baseball executive seemed willing to believe the Yankees. He said, "I happen to believe if you put Johnson back in the National League, closer to home, he can still be a factor."

Maybe not as a No. 1, but Johnson still throws hard enough to tame most NL hitters, even at age 44. With the D-Backs, the Unit instantly would become a No. 2 starter behind Brandon Webb.
Maybe everyone will walk away happy, or at least wiser. Johnson came to New York thinking he could shut out the noise and the frenzy, bullying reporters, distancing himself from teammates.
The Unit assumed he could make it to the World Series (and career victory No. 300) without any emotional investment in the Yankees or New York.

Turns out Johnson had neither the stuff nor the personality to become a star in the Bronx. But that's not Cashman's fault; Johnson's acquisition represents the final gasp of the George Steinbrenner era -- the last of a long line of marquee players who, despite their on-paper talent, somehow shrank in New York.

At least Johnson recognizes how wide the gap became between expectation and reality. This is one divorce that won't be contested.

E-mail: klapisch@northjersey.com

1 comment:

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