Historic Hot Stove: Randy Johnson & Kevin Brown

The winter of 1998 made for one of the most interesting offseasons in a long, long time. With all the excitement of the regular season – McGwire and Sosa blowing past Ruth and Maris, the Yankees winning 114 games, David Wells’ perfect game, Cal sitting down at 2,632, and Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout performance – there were understandably a lot of stories for people to follow and a lot of things for people to be excited about in the upcoming season.

By the time Opening Day rolled around in April 1999, the biggest story, at least in the southwest, was the arrival of two of the biggest pitchers in baseball in the NL West at two of the heftiest price tags imaginable. On December 10, the Arizona Diamondbacks, not even in their second year of existence, signed 35-year-old Randy Johnson to a 4-year, $52 million deal. Only two days later, on December 12, the Los Angeles Dodgers made soon to be 34-year-old Kevin Brown the highest paid player in baseball history, signing him to a 7-year, $105 million contract.

Brown was coming off three consecutive great years (with ERAs of 1.89, 2.69, and 2.38) and a couple of top-three Cy Young finishes. He had also just led two different teams to two consecutive World Series appearances. Clearly, the man was a winner with dominating stuff, and Rupert Murdoch was doing his best to secure some winning baseball in Los Angeles.

Johnson was also coming off a hot streak. He had been traded from the Mariners to the Astros at the trade deadline, and proceeded to destroy NL hitting. In his 11 starts for the Astros, Johnson was 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts in only 84 innings. D-backs owner Jerry Colangelo was on a mission to sign the best pitching available, and the Big Unit clearly fit the bill. The fact that the full National League had yet to see Johnson’s stuff only made him more appealing.

To top it off, the schedule-making gods happened to be smiling on the NL West that year, and Opening Day 1999 would see the Diamondbacks playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. The full $157 million dollars spent on these two pitchers would be displayed on the same mound in the same stadium to start off the season. It was truly a day to look forward to.

With all the money spent on these two pitchers, and with all the hoopla surrounding the Dodgers and Brown’s $100 million payday, it’d go to figure that the signings would be the focus of all pre-season talk about these two clubs. The fact is, though, that both clubs had many more holes than pitching, so any preview would be incomplete if it didn’t highlight everything. Still, the addition of both players to their respective rosters was clearly viewed as a positive for each team.

For Randy Johnson, the 1999 Athlon Preview Guide had this to say:

“In 1998, Jerry Colangelo would sit in manager Buck Showalter’s office and look at the large greaseboard on the wall with starting pitchers written in day by day.

‘It left a lot to be desired,’ Colangelo, the D-Backs managing general partner, admits. ‘We felt we could compete now if we could go get the pitching it would require. If you could add people to the rotation at the top, you could cut short the process dramatically.’

So he signed Randy Johnson ($52.4 million for four years), Todd Stottlemyre ($32 million for four years) and Armando Reynoso ($5 million for two years). A revamped, veteran rotation has uncovered optimism faster than the D-Backs can open the roof at Bank One Ballpark.”

It goes on to say that “Johnson gives Arizona a legitimate ace and power on the mound.” The Sporting News focused on why Colangelo was so willing to pay Johnson the big bucks:

“Colangelo doesn’t adhere to the concept of expansion growing pains. He spent nearly $80 million on multiyear contracts for Matt Williams and Jay Bell before the 1998 season. The payoff was underwhelming – and the criticism heavy – but that only served to embolden Colangelo. He signed Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre and Steve Finley as part of a $120 million binge since the end of last season. ‘Our honeymoon ended after one year,’ Colangelo says. ‘A four or five-year plan wasn’t going to work, and the quick way for us to get competitive was to concentrate on pitching.’ “

With Brown, the magazines focused on the talent level he brought to the Dodgers, and how it would play in Dodger Stadium. The weight of the $105 million contract was definitely addressed, but it was how he fit in with the Dodgers that they focused on:

“NL West Player to Watch: Los Angeles pitcher Kevin Brown. Sign the game’s first $100 million contract, and scrutiny is part of the package. Brown, who ranked second in the league to Greg Maddux in ERA last season, should benefit from the move to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. But he won’t be so sanguine when his infield starts booting double-play grounders. The Dodgers’ .978 fielding percentage ranked 13th among the 16 NL clubs last season, and they did nothing to improve over the winter.

Brown helped lead the Marlins to the 1997 World Series title and propelled the Padres to the 1998 World Series. Brown, whose fastball has been clocked at 97 mph, was the most coveted starting pitcher in the free-agent market because of his talent and competitive drive. The Dodgers expect him to have a positive influence on their talented young staff.”

The Athlon preview guide had a similar guarded optimism:

“With the addition of Brown, Los Angeles possesses the deepest staff of power arms in the league, and certainly the type of pitching that could dominate. But they have other problems that could ultimately render Murdoch’s team a money pit.

Clemens may intimidate, Maddux may infuriate. But Brown remains the most difficult pitcher in baseball to hit, with his overpowering sinking fastball and split-finger. And his stuff may not be as good as Chan Ho Park’s…”

Ultimately, the Diamondbacks’ signing of Randy Johnson proved to be the better signing. Not only did he take the D-Backs from 65 wins and last place in the NL West to 100 wins and first place in his first year, he also played a very large role in helping the D-Backs win their first World Series in 2001. The four consecutive Cy Young awards that he won in a D-Backs uniform are also rather nice. Brown performed well for the Dodgers, posting ERAs of 3.00, 2.58, 2.65, 4.81, and 2.39, but it was never enough to lead the Dodgers anywhere. They just had too many problems other than pitching. It’s interesting to note that, by the time the D-Backs traded Johnson in January 2005, they had paid him only $86 million dollars over 6 years.

But back to Opening Day 1999 at Dodger Stadium. At the time, no one knew for sure how these contracts would play out. Instead, all anyone knew was that two of the best pitchers in baseball, with two of the biggest contracts ever, would be facing off against each other, wearing their new uniforms for the first time. Papers were calling it “potentially the best pitching matchup of all time” (someone said that in the LA Times that morning – it seemed a little extreme, even at the time).

I happened to be at the game. It was my freshmen year in college, and my first ever Opening Day. My brother and his buddies and I made it a Los Angeles sports weekend, seeing the Lakers on Saturday night, the final day of Spring Training on Sunday versus the Yankees at Dodger Stadium, and then Opening Day on Monday. It was a definitely memorable game, as you can see.

Kevin Brown didn’t pitch all too great, getting yanked in the sixth after giving up ten hits and five earned runs (and a three-run homer to Jay Bell). Johnson, on the other hand, was pitching fantastically, until he was pinch hit for leading off the 8th with Arizona up 6-2. The Dodgers quickly got a run back, but it was 6-3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth after Sheffield struck out. Up steps Raul Mondesi, though, and, with one swing of the bat the game is tied at 6. The 55,000 people at Dodger Stadium were on their feet screaming and hollering. Nothing happened for the next inning-and-a-half, but in the bottom of the eleventh, magic happened. After the first two batters got out, Sheffield drew a walk and Mondesi steps to the plate again and, with one more swing of the bat, ends the game, hitting a second home run to the exact same part of the ballpark. It was definitely one of the coolest moments I’ve ever seen at a ballpark, and not a bad way to start the season.

In the Sporting News preview guide, the allure of the Opening Day game was not lost:

“The most riveting Opening Day matchup of 1999 could take place at Chavez Ravine on April 5, when the Dodgers play the Diamondbacks. ‘The Big Unit and Kevin Brown,’ says LA manager Davey Johnson. ‘Now that’s the way to start off a season.’ “

Throw in a little Raul Mondesi there, Davey, and you’re absolutely right…

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.