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Rob Smaal

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'Big Unit' stands tall at Tokyo's Big Egg

by Rob Smaal (Apr 21, 2010)

"The Big Unit" was toe-ing the rubber again Tuesday night, this time throwing out the opening pitch prior to the Rakuten Eagles-Chiba Lotte Marines game at Tokyo Dome.

"I'm 46 years old now and my baseball days are behind me," former major-league pitcher Randy Johnson said prior to tossing out the ceremonial first pitch, which appeared to be a strike. "I'm here as a player, for one day, one pitch, tonight."

Johnson, a lock to make the Hall of Fame, is a five-time Cy Young Award winner who struck out 4,875 hitters over his 22-year MLB career, second overall behind the legendary Nolan Ryan and first among left-handed pitchers.

Johnson, an imposing figure on the mound at 6-foot-10 (208 cm) known for his porn-star 'stache and mullet hairstyle, backed up his intimidating appearance with a blazing fastball to match, clocking in at 100-plus mph (160 kph) in his prime.

Johnson compiled over 300 wins with six MLB clubs--including the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees--before retiring after the 2009 season with the San Francisco Giants. He said that while his height eventually worked in his favor, it wasn't always that way.

"I was a late bloomer, if you will," said Johnson, a California native who averaged over 10 strikeouts per game. "It took me a while to kind of come into my own because of my height. My height, in the middle and late in my career helped me a lot, but initially, early in my career, it was very difficult for me to master my mechanics because I was so tall, all arms and legs.

"Most pitchers, as you know, aren't 6'10"--so it took me a while to harness my mechanics, but when I did, good things happened," Johnson added. "I was constantly having to work at that. As time went on and I got older, my velocity wasn't what it once was. I started to have more injuries, so my velocity went down and it was increasingly harder to recover after every fifth day. It's only natural. As we all get older it becomes harder to do things, it's a natural progression."

Johnson had a chat with young Rakuten ace Masahiro Tanaka prior to the game and he also hooked up with Lions 46-year-old veteran pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, who Johnson knows from their time working out at the same facility in Arizona, a few days ago at Seibu Dome.

"He's a young pitcher," Johnson said of his talk with Tanaka. "I just gave him some encouragement. I played for 22 years in the major leagues, so as a young player you'll have some good times and bad. Try to remain positive and work hard.

"I still enjoy talking about pitching to young pitchers," Johnson said. "I can't pitch that well anymore because I'm older, but I still enjoy talking about it."


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