The National Baseball Hall of Fame will be clearing space in July for the Big Unit, but the wait continues for Edgar Martinez, the man who so defined the role of designated hitter that baseball’s annual DH award bears his name.
Left-handed pitcher Randy Johnson, who spent 10 of his 22 seasons with the Mariners, was elected Tuesday along with Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio in voting announced by the Hall of Fame.
The four will be formally inducted in a July 26 ceremony at the Clark Sports Center near the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York. The Hall, which opened in 1936, now consists of 310 elected members. Johnson, 51, was tagged the Big Unit because of his intimidating 6-foot-10 presence and becomes the first Hall of Fame member who spent a substantial portion of his career with the Mariners.
“I enjoyed it despite what a lot of people (thought),” he said. “I wasn’t out there smiling and laughing a lot, but I enjoyed the competition. I tried to make it last as long as I could.
“Playing 22 years on the major-league level is something I never would have imagined,” he said.
Johnson received 97.3 percent of the 549 returned ballots, which is the eighth-highest percentage total in history. Election requires a candidate be named on 75 percent (406) of the returned ballots.
For Edgar Martinez, the balloting results extended his disappointment to a sixth year, but he will be eligible again next year after being cited on 27 percent of returned ballots.
“I’m a little encouraged that it went up a little bit,” Martinez said in an interview on Sirius XM Radio, “but I knew it was going to be very difficult.”
Martinez received 25.2 percent in 2014. Candidates who get at least 5 percent of the vote remain on the ballot for the following year. Candidates can remain eligible for up to 10 years, which means Martinez could have four more chances.
“Hands down,” Johnson said, “he is the best pure hitter that I ever got to see. I hope that his time comes soon, that he gets a phone call stating that he’s a Hall of Fame player. Because he is.”
Martinez contends his chances are hurt because designated hitters still aren’t regarded by some voters as complete players.
“It’s really tough for me to make sense of it,” he said. “You don’t play in the field, but it’s a position. It’s been in the game for over 40 years. ... It’s unfair that the DH has to be put in a different class.”
Martinez and Mike Piazza head a list of 17 candidates on the 34-player ballot who met the 5-percent threshold to remain on the 2016 ballot. Piazza fell 28 votes shy of election. Former Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. will be eligible next season for the first time.
But Tuesday belonged to Johnson, who was 303-166 with a 3.29 ERA in 618 career games with Montreal, the Mariners, Houston, Arizona, the New York Yankees and San Francisco from 1988-2009.
“He’s just so dominating,” said Damian Miller, who caught Johnson while the two played in Arizona. “Filthy, ridiculous, stupid — I’ve pretty much used every adjective I could possibly think of.”
Johnson won the Cy Young Award on five occasions, including 1995 with the Mariners. His other four awards came consecutively from 1999-2002 with Arizona.
“He is the No. 1 dominating pitcher in baseball,” said Lou Piniella, who managed Johnson in Seattle. “I don’t even know who No. 2 is.”
For all that, Johnson wasn’t an instant success.
“The word ‘potential’ used to hang over me like a cloud,” he once said. “I’ve refined my mechanics, refined my pitches. I’ve gotten more confidence, and I’ve gotten more determination.
“I’ve got a better idea what I’m doing out there.”
Johnson was 0-4 at Montreal in 1989 when the Mariners acquired him in a trade, and he led the American League in walks in each of his first three full seasons in Seattle.
“If anybody tells you they saw greatness in Randy Johnson (as a teenager),” said Jethro McIntyre, a scout who tracked the Unit in high school, “you better check his medication bottle.”
It wasn’t until 1993, when Johnson was 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA, that Johnson emerged as a consistently dominant pitcher. That season, his walks dropped from 144 to 99 and he led the league with 308 strikeouts.
“My time in Seattle was really my apprenticeship,” he said. “That’s where I learned how to pitch. I got the opportunity to go out there every fifth day — good, bad or indifferent — and learn how to pitch.”
Johnson often credits his turnaround to a 1992 tip from Nolan Ryan, then pitching for the Texas Rangers. Ryan and Texas pitching coach Tom House noticed Johnson landed on the heel of his front foot in his delivery.
Ryan and House suggested Johnson adjust his delivery to land on the ball of his foot.
Almost immediately, Johnson’s command steadied because his release point became consistent.
“I guarantee you,” House said, “he’d been told everything Nolan and I told him a thousand times before. You have a tendency to listen when Nolan’s talking.
“The people that do what Randy has done, which is put all the pieces together, are few and far between.”
Johnson finished his career with 4,875 strikeouts which, perhaps ironically, ranks second in major-league history to Ryan’s 5,714 over a 27-year career from 1966-93.
But Johnson ranks first all-time in strikeouts per nine innings at 10.610.
“When Randy pitched and we didn’t win,” Diamondbacks teammate Curt Schilling said, “it was unfathomable to me.”
Johnson and Schilling formed a potent one-two punch from 2000-03 in Arizona. Schilling appeared this year for the third time on the Hall ballot and received 39.2 percent of the vote.
The Mariners acquired Johnson in a May 25, 1989, trade from Montreal with pitchers Gene Harris, Brian Holman and Mike Campbell for pitcher Mark Langston.
Johnson often characterizes his time in Seattle as an evolutionary period not only in his professional development but also as a city that rounded out his personality.
“I listened to all types of music,” he said, “and, obviously, when I got to Seattle, I was very much aware of the music scene there.”
Even so, it didn’t last.
Johnson was 130-74 with a 3.42 ERA in 274 games for the Mariners before they sent him to Houston in a July 31, 1998, trade for infielder Carlos Guillen and pitchers Freddy Garcia and John Halama.
The trade, primarily, stemmed from financial reasons. Johnson was in line to become a free agent after the season and the Mariners, a year earlier, indicated they were unwilling to spend the money necessary to retain him.
“If they have no interest in signing him beyond next year,” said Barry Meister, Johnson’s agent, “it’s probably best to move him for value so he can get on with his march toward the Hall of Fame with a club that wants him.”
The New York Yankees wanted Johnson and, in 1997, offered a promising young reliever then in his first season as their closer: Mariano Rivera. The Mariners declined because they wanted starting pitchers to replace Johnson.
By late December 1997, Johnson was chafing at the Mariners’ inability to swing a deal and the prospect of entering the next season in limbo.
“(The Mariners) are asking for a lot,” he said. “With (the Yankees), they are asking for a couple of players and the Statue of Liberty. And Cleveland, they are asking for a couple of players and Jacobs Field.
“That’s not going to happen. Teams know I am not going to be there after next year. Why not wait a year, and they know they can get me? I mean, they are trying to get Andy Pettitte. Well, keep Andy Pettitte because I will be there a year from now in a possible scenario.
“If I had my wish, I would have already been traded by now. It is an uncomfortable situation knowing I am not going to be there beyond next year.”
The situation deteriorated further the Mariners and Johnson performed poorly through the early months of the 1998 season. And in early July, Johnson engaged in a clubhouse scuffle with first baseman David Segui.
One day later, Johnson delivered his best start of the season by striking out 15 while shutting out the Angels.
Renewed trade talks with the Yankees stalled when New York balked at surrendering pitcher Hideki Irabu, then a rookie. Cleveland and Atlanta also made their pitch.
Finally, just minutes before the July 31 trade deadline, the Astros and Mariners reached an agreement after the Mariners dropped their demand that pitcher Scott Elarton be included in the deal.
Reaction in Seattle wasn’t positive.
“Three kids with no reputations,” Griffey said. “They would get a bag of balls if they traded me.”
Two days later, Johnson made his first start for Houston and worked seven strong innings in a 7-2 victory at Pittsburgh.
“The first pitch of the first inning,” Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell recalled, “I thought, ‘Wow, the Big Unit playing for us, the Astros!’ ”
Bagwell drew 55.7 percent of the vote Tuesday in his fifth year on the ballot.
Johnson spent just two months with Houston before signing a four-year contract with Arizona for $53.4 million. The deal included a club option for a fifth year at $15 million.
The Diamondbacks went on to capture the 2001 World Series when Johnson won three games against the Yankees — two starts and and 11/3 innings of relief in the decisive seventh game.
Johnson spent six years in Arizona before going to the Yankees in a January 2005 trade. He returned two years later to the Diamondbacks, where he pitched two seasons before ending his career in 2009 with San Francisco.
Time healed Johnson’s riff with the Mariners, and he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in a 2012 ceremony along with catcher Dan Wilson.
“This is Randy’s first stop,” Wilson said at the time, “on the way to Cooperstown.”
The Hall of Fame previously included three players who spent relatively short tours with the Mariners: reliever Goose Gossage (1994), outfielder Rickey Henderson (2000) and starting pitcher Gaylord Perry (1982-83).
Veterans Committees in recent years also elected manager Dick Williams (1986-88) and general manager Pat Gillick (1999-2003). Broadcaster Dave Niehaus was the 2008 recipient of the Ford Frick Award.
Johnson deflected a question Tuesday regarding what club’s cap would appear on his plaque. The Hall of Fame makes that decision after consulting with the player.
“I’m just kind of celebrating the 22 years that I played,” he said, “and being inducted into the Hall of Fame. That question is out of my control. That’s more of a Hall of Fame decision at this point.
“We’ll cross that bridge in the next couple of days, from what I understand.”
Johnson’s greatest career success came in Arizona but, for many in the Northwest, he is forever identified as a Mariner.
“Seattle was just a wonderful time in my career,” Johnson said. “I had the ability to play with Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner and Omar Vizquel and Ken Griffey Jr. To finally do something as a team in 1995 was pretty special.”
Pedro Martinez, like Johnson, cruised to election in his first year on the ballot at 91.1 percent. Martinez, 43, was 219-100 with a 2.93 ERA in 18 years with five clubs. He was an All-Star in eight seasons and won the Cy Young Award on three occasions.
Smoltz, 47, also gained election in his first year by garnering 82.9 percent. He was 213-155 with a 3.33 ERA in a 21-year career spent primarily with Atlanta. He was an eight-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner. He pitched four seasons as a reliever and compiled 154 saves, including 55 in 2002. Smoltz elevated his performance in postseason in compiling a 15-4 record and a 2.67 ERA in 41 games.
Biggio, 49, received 82.7 percent in his third year on the ballot after falling just two votes short a year ago. He spent his entire 20-year career with Houston and compiled a .281/.363/.433 slash in 2,050 games. He began his career as a catcher and spent parts of seven seasons in the outfield but played primarily at second base. He was a seven-time All-Star who won four Gold Glove and five Silver Slugger awards.