Johnson cool to 'rivalry' talk
TAMPA -- When Curt Schilling was traded to the Red Sox, his most memorable opening line was, "I guess this means I hate the Yankees now."
Yesterday afternoon, Randy Johnson, who like Schilling was imported from the Arizona desert to become the latest -- and, by your standard vertical measure, biggest -- new piece in this eternal competition between city-states, looked incredulously at one of the professional interrogators surrounding him outside the Yankee clubhouse.
"Archrivals?" he said, repeating what he had heard. "It's like we're reading a comic book or something.
"Archrival? It's like we're making `Superman 4' or `Spiderman 4.' "
Someone reminded Johnson that Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino already had cast the Yankees as the Evil Empire.
"What does that make me, then?" Johnson asked.
He laughed. "Beautiful," he said. "Bring it on."
The Sox and Yankees played another spring game here yesterday, but Johnson's official introduction to the rivalry will come Sunday night in the Bronx, when he is scheduled to face Boston in the first game of the 2005 major league season. Yankees manager Joe Torre has set his rotation so that Johnson also will start against the Sox in Fenway Park April 14.
"That makes my day," Sox manager Terry Francona said when told that his club will get a double dose of the Big Unit in the season's first fortnight.
But the 41-year-old Johnson, winner of five Cy Young Awards and the oldest pitcher ever to throw a perfect game (against Atlanta last year), did his utmost yesterday to downplay the suggestion that the Yankees are looking to him the way the Sox did to Schilling when they traded for him after the 2003 season.
"In a sense, that's why I'm here, that's why Carl [Pavano] is here, that's why Jaret [Wright] is here," Johnson said, reciting the names of the other new imports to the Yankee rotation, one that Torre calls the deepest he has had in a decade of managing the Bombers.
"But to think one person won it last year in Boston, or one person will win it here, or one guy in Palooka, Miss., that's not going to be the case. You win the World Series because everyone plays well.
"For someone to say the Boston Red Sox won because Curt was there, that's nice stuff, but I don't think they win if Pedro [Martinez] isn't there or Derek [Lowe] isn't there, or Manny [Ramirez] and David Ortiz don't have good years.
"The bottom line is, I'm here to help be a part. But by no means am I -- what's the nickname for [Allen] Iverson? -- The Answer? By no means am I the answer."
But, of course, George Steinbrenner didn't lust after Johnson for years just for him to be a complementary piece. Schilling was targeted by the Sox precisely because general manager Theo Epstein saw him as a difference-maker, and that's how Schilling was viewed from the Yankee dugout as well.
"I thought Schilling was the biggest difference last year," Torre said. "Schilling and Ortiz just beat us up, and I'm not trying to downplay anyone else."
The Yankees saw first-hand what Johnson was capable of doing in the 2001 World Series, when he beat them in two starts, then came out of the pen to rescue Schilling in Game 7 and came away with the biggest win of his career when the D-Backs rallied in the bottom of the ninth to beat Mariano Rivera.
"It's nice to see him as a human being, as opposed to this guy who you check the newspaper for to see if you have to face him or not," Torre said.
"He's got a sense of humor. He's as intense as anybody I know, even in spring training games, the tension and pressure he has for the game. Sure, like Roger [Clemens] or Andy Pettitte, who'd sit there in the clubhouse staring, like he was scared to death, but you knew better. Randy shows it in a different way.
"Again, I think everybody's a little curious how he's going to fit in, in New York. But he's certainly jumped in with both feet. Even coming here, when everybody made the assumption he would pitch Opening Day. We did, too. Mike Mussina, too. But when Mel [Stottlemyre, the pitching coach] told him, he said, `Are you sure? Mike has been here longer.'
"He doesn't have any preconceived notions of, `Here I am.' "
Like Schilling, Johnson pitched in a minor league game yesterday. He was knocked around, giving up 10 hits and six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings, but came away satisfied that his arm strength continues to increase.
When Channel 4's Steve Burton asked him if he planned to talk to Schilling, Johnson reacted with puzzlement. "I thought you guys were friends," Burton said.
Johnson said that if he ran into Schilling on the street, he'd probably say hello, but brushed off the notion that he was disappointed they wouldn't be facing each other Sunday, and probably would miss each other in Boston, too.
"I don't worry about him," he said. "I worry about getting ready. David Wells has probably pitched in more big games than Schilling. He's pitched in more postseason games."
Nor was Johnson buying the idea that there was added pressure in his pinstripe incarnation.
"No pressure," he said. "This is a challenge. I rise to the occasion sometimes. Sometimes I don't. But I don't look at it as pressure. That would mean something bad is going to happen, and I've been pitching since I was 7 years old. Once again, I'm one-fifth of a starting rotation."
Johnson said he expects it to be electric when he walks out to the mound in Yankee Stadium, but that feeling is only peripherally connected to the team in the opposing dugout.
"There's nothing wrong with saying there's a rivalry," he said. "I just don't get wrapped up in that stuff.
"I'm going to pitch some really good games, and other games that won't be so great. That shouldn't be shocking. I don't think anyone in the history of the Yankees has ever gone undefeated. Correct me if I'm wrong. I'm going to lose some games.
"I'm not the answer, but hopefully I'll be part of the solution."