With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.
PHOENIX – Fresh off their inaugural season, the Arizona Diamondbacks went for the biggest fish in a loaded free agent ocean during the winter of 1998.
Randy Johnson, 35, was coming off one of the best stretches of his illustrious career. He was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Houston Astros in the middle of the 1998 season, when he put up an absurd 1.28 ERA in 84.1 innings pitched, striking out 12.4 batters per nine innings.
He even finished seventh in the National League Cy Young Award race despite getting traded from the American League with just two months left in the season.
The Texas Rangers, Anaheim Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers were all hot on Johnson’s trail, reported the New York Times’ Murray Chass, but the 6-foot-10 ace had high hopes for Arizona. One of his agents, Barry Meister, told Chass, “We became convinced of Arizona’s determination to make the team a winner.”
“There was panic in Arizona,” longtime D-backs broadcaster Greg Schute said. “Someone spotted Randy at Sky Harbor Airport at a gate that read Los Angeles, or maybe Orange County. Everyone immediately thought R.J. was heading to L.A. to sign with the Angels. Well, he signed with Arizona, and the D-backs immediately became relevant.”
On November 30, the former Cy Young Award winner agreed to a four-year, $52.5 million contract with a player option for a fifth season with Arizona.
“I had signed about a month before Randy,” former Diamondbacks relief pitcher Greg Swindell said. “And of course, I was very happy that I would be able to watch one of the best ever pitch every fifth day. He would make any team an instant contender.”
On April 5, 1999, it was Opening Day in Los Angeles. The D-backs were on the road to begin the year and Johnson was the starter.
In front of 53,000 fans at Dodger Stadium, “The Big Unit” took the bump in his new black uniform with gray and purple pinstripe pants.
“I remember thinking to myself, here’s one of the game’s best pitchers, and he’s wearing a Diamondbacks uniform,” Schulte said. “That in itself surprised many.”
This game was also a first look at a new pitching rivalry in the NL West. Johnson faced off against Kevin Brown, a four-time all-star whom the Dodgers gave MLB’s first $100 million contract to after Johnson signed with Arizona.
It took Johnson an inning to get settled.
He walked Eric Young on four pitches to lead-off the first. After Young stole second, Raul Mondesi drove him in with a line-drive base hit to left field. Not an ideal start, but at least Johnson grabbed his first Arizona strikeout against infielder Mark Grudzielanek.
Throughout the rest of the game, Johnson struggled with command, but he managed his way out of jam after jam.
Through five innings, Johnson allowed two runs on two hits with seven strikeouts (along with four walks and a hit batter), but was trailing 2-1.
Brown was also leaving a lot of runners on base early on.
However, the D-backs got hot in the sixth.
They put up a five-spot propelled by a lead-off home run from Bernard Gilkey and a three-run shot from infielder Jay Bell, both off Brown.
With the big lead, Johnson continued to do what he did all game.
He walked two batters in the sixth and escaped the jam. Then he surrendered two hits in the seventh and left them on base.
That’s where his start came to a close. It wasn’t spotless, but Johnson showed why the D-backs had themselves one of the best pitchers in the game.
“I remember he wasn’t his dominant self,” Swindell said. ” But it was Opening Day and he battled for seen innings.”
His final line was seven innings, two earned runs on five hits, nine strikeouts and six walks.
“He didn’t disappoint,” Schulte said.
He was firmly in line for his first career win for Arizona.
However, that fell through when the D-backs’ bullpen lost the lead in the ninth inning after Mondesi delivered a game-tying three-run blast. Mondesi eventually won the game with a walk-off home run in the 11th off John Frascatore.
Even though Arizona did not win, Johnson started his stretch of four-consecutive Cy Young award-winning seasons with a quality start.
“It was fantastic,” outfielder Luis Gonzalez said. “With him as our ace and (in 2000) Curt Schilling too, we called them 1A and 1B. We felt like we had a mental edge on other teams because nobody wanted to face those guys.”
So, while Dodgers fans probably went home that day mesmerized with Mondesi’s heroics, D-backs fans got a glimpse into the very bright future they were about to enjoy led by Randy Johnson.