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Originally published Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Randy Johnson a tanker? I don't buy it

I know there's a vocal contingent that disagrees with me, but I don't think Johnson tanked the 1998 season, at least as I understand the term "tanking." With the Big Unit in town this weekend with the Giants, the debate has been re- vived.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Let's say you had a pitcher that made 13 consecutive starts in which he pitched until at least the seventh inning — including six complete games, two of them shutouts, one of them a one-hitter.

Let's say this pitcher racked up 10 double-digit-strikeout efforts in those 13 games, including two in which he whiffed 15. He went over 100 pitches in each of those starts, and over 130 pitches in eight of them.

What would you call this pitcher? A workhorse? A stud? An ace?

Some Mariners fans still call him a tanker.

As you've probably guessed, the pitcher in question is Randy Johnson, and those starts are his final 13 as a Mariner before being traded to Houston on July 31, 1998.

The popular wisdom remains, in many quarters, that Johnson tanked that season. He came to camp greatly agitated with the Mariners because they had opted to not talk to him about a contract extension (although the deeper story of his contract dispute is a sordid he said-he said affair).

The Big Unit — coming off a season in which he went 20-4 with a 2.28 earned-run average — started off horribly. He had a 6.12 ERA in six starts in April, and was logging a 9-10 record with a 4.33 ERA when he was traded. With the Astros, Johnson was a new pitcher, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and four shutouts.

I know there's a vocal contingent that disagrees with me, but I don't think Johnson tanked the 1998 season, at least as I understand the term "tanking." With the Big Unit in town this weekend with the Giants, the debate has been revived.

I know many people will go to their graves believing that Johnson gave less than full effort in 1998.

Here's what Lee Pelekoudas, the Mariners' assistant general manager, said to The Seattle Times in a story on Aug. 18, 1998, after Johnson had been his old dominating self for the Astros:

"It's amazing to see that someone's performance can turn around so abruptly as Randy has made his. It makes you wish he had shown the same intensity and drive with us that he is showing now."

(Here's Randy's response when I went to Houston in September to cover the playoffs. I asked him if Pelekoudas's comments hurt: "After everything I did there, what do you think? ... He's lucky he's not mopping floors somewhere. He's lucky I pitched the way I did in '95, or he probably would be.")

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My personal feeling is that Johnson was distracted and upset that year, and it affected his performance. But tanking is one of the most serious accusations you can make. It means, as I see it, that he deliberately gave less than his best effort; indeed, purposely performed poorly. For someone with the competitive drive of Johnson — someone who would be a free agent after the season and was gunning for a contract — I just don't see that.

Derek Zumsteg, of the popular fan site U.S.S. Mariner, wrote a very thoughtful essay in 2007 refuting the notion that Johnson tanked. His conclusion, after examining the statistics: "The most damning thing we can say is that Johnson's time in Seattle [that season] was wildly erratic."

As Zumsteg points out, part of the statistical disparity is attributable to the fact that Johnson went from the Kingdome, one of the best hitters' ballparks, to the Astrodome, one of the worst. And, it should be noted, to a powerhouse Astros team (headed for 102 victories) that still managed to lead the National League with 874 runs.

Here are some more statistics I culled from that season: From May 3 until he was traded — 17 of his 23 starts with Seattle — Johnson went 8-9 with a 3.87 ERA, six complete games, and 165 strikeouts in 127-2/3 innings. In 11 of those 17 starts, he threw 124 pitches or more.

Yes, he was erratic and inconsistent, but to say he tanked it ... I don't think the evidence is there.

Here's what Woody Woodward — the Mariners' general manager who executed the trade to Houston — told me this week when I asked him if he believed Johnson tanked the season:

"I don't remember it that way, and I didn't look at it like that at the time. I don't think you can be as competitive as he is and even consider something like that."

And here's what Norm Charlton, his former teammate (though not in 1998), said this week: "Very rarely do you run across a guy that tanks it. It appears to have happened with Manny [Ramirez] in Boston. I wouldn't say Randy had that character at all. As much as he wanted to win and embarrass people, whether or not he was happy or not happy with his contract, there's no way Randy would ever tank it. Randy wanted to do good for Randy, and for the ballclub. He took it personal every time he went out there."

I did numerous interviews with Johnson in that period — the one in Houston at the end of the '98 season, another in spring training after he signed with the Diamondbacks, and yet another one in Phoenix before the Diamondbacks played an interleague game in Seattle — and each time Johnson veered the conversation back to his departure from Seattle (after vowing not to talk about it, if I recall). He just couldn't resist.

Here's what he said in a spring-training interview from Tucson in March 1999:

"I guess what bothered me the most is that just because I was 9-10 with a four ERA that was coming down ... and then I go on to Houston and went 10-1, people say, 'Was I tanking it?' Of course I wasn't. I went to a better team. I went from not enjoying the way I was pitching to having a lot more fun in Houston."

And, from the story I wrote in Houston on Sept. 28, 1998, right before the playoffs (in which Johnson lost twice as the Astros were eliminated in the first round by the Padres):

"When I was 9-10, that was killing me inside, because I'm that much of a competitor. I was doing everything possible to shake the way I was pitching. I was doing everything I had done in my best years — working as hard as I ever had in the weight room, going over hitters I'd be facing so I was mentally and physically prepared."

I happen to think Johnson has been given an unfair rap on this topic. I know he had his personality quirks, but I refuse to believe that the same guy that came out of the bullpen to pitch three of the guttiest innings imaginable in the 1995 playoffs would sell out his team three years later.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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