Like many of the world’s young people, long, uninteresting Zoom classes populate my days and I need something to occupy my time. Luckily for me, I typically have a notebook in front of me so I do what any sensible young person would do: sketch pictures of MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson.
Anyone who follows baseball knows Randy Johnson. Establishing himself early in his career as a member of the notorious ’90s Mariners alongside Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, and more, he wound up completing most of his career on the World Series-winning Arizona Diamondbacks, carving his place in baseball history as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
He’s also terrifying.
Standing at 6’10”, Johnson’s long, serpentine limbs turn his enormous frame into a biological cannon, hurling those lovely little white orbs straight at the strike zone at 100 miles per hour. For reference, he even earned the nickname, “The Big Unit” (espn.com)
If his size and power don’t scare you off, the man’s long blonde locks, deep eyes, and enormous mustache made him look like a deranged cowboy who somehow wandered his way onto the pitching mound. He seems almost out of place in a baseball uniform; it feels strange to imagine such an unhinged-appearing behemoth obeying the commands of his team’s coaches and management. (To be clear Johnson seems like a great guy and he’s one of my all-time favorite players I’m just saying how he looks to a casual observer)
Despite Randy’s obviously iconic visage, initially, I didn’t totally understand what really compelled me to draw him over and over again. There are plenty of iconic baseball players, many of whom had much more iconic imagery associated with them. Ichiro Suzuki for example had his famous ritual before every at-bat of pointing his bat out at the deep wall and hiking his sleeve up, so why not draw that? As a life-long Mariners fan who grew up in the early 2000s, Ichiro obviously holds a much more special place in my heart than Randy Johnson anyways.
Maybe Randy didn’t need anything like that. Maybe his physical appearance and playstyle were enough to make him stay in my mind. Unfortunately, such simple assumptions don’t satisfy me so I sought to explore this idea further.
My drawings began as simple sketches in the margins of my notebooks. Sometimes I would pull up an image and try to recreate his powerful frame, immediately after unleashing a pitch, presumably at some trembling batter, just hoping it doesn’t hit him, and sometimes I would focus on his face. His heavy scowl and deep, shaded eyes glaring towards the catcher’s mitt as though it had just rear-ended Randy’s car.
I quickly realized that I needed to explore these emotions further, and to do so I decided that I would draw three separate pieces, spending more time on them, trying my best to hone in on what about Johnson seemed so important to me.
Before we begin, I should quickly point out that I am not an artist. Aside from some light sketching, mostly in my school notes, and a brief, unfortunate, and unfruitful period in middle school, I have hardly ever seriously tried to pursue visual arts, so these pieces to me were less about creating beautiful works of Randy and more about getting to the bottom of my own feelings. I wanted to analyze these images of Randy and really pull out the important details of his play.
With that established, let’s take a look at my attempts at capturing Randy Johnson.
(The Daily Dose)(Okay I don’t think this page is up anymore but this is where I got the image)
For my first drawing of Randy, I wanted to choose a pretty neutral, standard picture to capture The Big Unit in his entirety. Okay, sure, “neutral” probably is not the right word to describe this image. Even though this image is one of the most recognizable images of Johnson, “neutral” just seems wrong. The image definitely has very evocative emotion and energy. Despite this, I decided to spend time capturing this because nothing specific about it stands out. Well, at least relatively.
First things first, I had to set a time limit for this. Again, I’m not an artist, so I know that I don’t have the skill or patience to work on this piece until it satisfies me, so I decided to give myself about an hour to work on this piece and I would add time if I thought I needed more.
In total, I spent about fifty minutes working on this piece and I must admit, I feel I have outdone myself. I did an earlier draft that I had to throw out because I messed up Randy’s shoulder rotation too much, but this final piece really turned out looking quite well.
While drawing a few things surprised me. Firstly, Randy’s shoulders rotated more than I expected. In my head, I imagined Randy’s shoulders and hips more or less facing the camera, but in reality, we almost see Randy from a side view, which reveals the sheer force of a baseball pitcher’s movements. Randy has fully rotated himself and presumably will continue rotating more after the snapshot we get to see. With this motion, Johnson throws not only the ball straight at the camera, but himself as well, using his body as leverage in the powerful trebuchet created by his physical existence.
If you’ve read my collection of essays on skateboarding, you’ll have seen me write about the idea of significant form as described by CLR James in the book Beyond a Boundary. Johnson, perhaps more than just about any other athlete I’ve ever seen, embodies this idea perfectly in this image. The image has no words, no people, no batter, no story. Every element of expression and narrative comes straight from the motion depicted by Johnson and the photographer.
I would also like to note that Randy’s face holds less directed rage than I expected. Because of his stature and reputation, I expected Randy to glare into the camera as though he wanted it disintegrated under his pitch, but the real image suggests something different entirely. Of course, Randy’s expression holds a lot of emotion, but it seems more abstract like he directed all of his rage directly into the ball and once it leaves his hand he almost gets a certain relief, as he has transferred all of his rage onto this inanimate object, releasing himself for at least a moment from his terrible, inescapable emotions.
Admittedly, at this point in my journey I just kind of stopped. I did the first drawing in late September 2020 and kept procrastinating the next drawing until I sort of forgot about it. I didn’t pick the project back up until April 2021, at which point I had mostly stopped doodling Randy in my notes, and, shall we say, I lost my edge. The next drawings will not have the same passion or quality as the first, but the emotional analysis will remain the same. Just wanted to get that out of the way.
Okay, I’ll admit it: this one’s rough. This drawing did not go quite as I planned. We’ll say I’m out of practice and leave it at that. Let’s not focus on the unfortunate quality of the piece and instead, on the emotion I learned from trying to capture it.
Someone must have funneled all the rage missing from the last picture straight into this one.
This picture features Johnson in his iconic Diamondbacks uniform, the team he took to a World Series win, cementing himself as a future Hall-of-Famer and deity within the baseball world. I don’t know what game this comes from, when in the game, or even what Johnson looks at in it, and maybe I could find out, but I don’t want to. I think that this image removed from context gives us the best look into another element of Johnson’s persona.
While seemingly simple, this picture of Randy begs a second look, because on the surface it does have the anger and power we would imagine, but it lacks motion entirely. The last picture we looked at had little visible emotion and only captured physical movement, but this picture seems to accomplish the exact opposite. This picture, while candid, merely depicts Randy standing. It doesn’t frame the sublime movement of Randy’s form at all, which, in the first image, gave us the clearest look into Randy’s style. So where do we find Randy’s essence in this picture? Well, it may seem obvious, but we find it in his face.
Countless pitchers in baseball have intimidating forms (pitching does require a good deal of force after all), but Johnson’s mug separates him from the chaff of normal MLB pitchers. That horrid, angry, veiny, face that Johnson has allegedly smiled with before offers us a window into his soul. If the last image showed us the explosive release of Johnson’s willpower into whatever poor baseball the ump gave him, this image shows us the tension that built up before. I don’t know what Johnson’s fearsome aura emanates at in this picture, but I can only imagine some poor batter, having just struck out looking crumpling into nothingness under the pressure of this gaze.
This image doesn’t have motion, but it does have a certain resonance. I can almost feel Randy’s muscles vibrating from my desk chair twenty years in the future.
And Johnson isn’t muscular. Far from it, we could pretty easily describe him as lanky, but this image shows us the transformative properties of his form. In trying to capture the emotion of this image, I struggled to even understand, let alone draw, how Johnson looks as he does. His muscles seem to bulge through his skin, but not in volume. Rather, the tension rippling through his body pulls his skin tight in a way that I don’t even know how to describe. While drawing this, I sat in my chair, transfixed by this image, and even though I may have failed to translate it onto the canvas, I came to some kind of understanding of the underlying force behind Randy, and presumably other MLB pitchers as well.
In Which Randy Kills God:
Again, not my best work here, but at this point, I started getting impatient and had set a deadline for myself so this is what we’re working with.
I saved the best for last, of course. Anyone out there who follows Randy, baseball, or honestly just sports, in general, recognizes this frame. Taken from a spring training game on March 24, 2001, in this pitch, Randy unleashes one of his notorious fastballs with the same unbridled rage as always, but as the pitch leaves his hand, a bird floats down from the right of the frame. The ball departs from the mound and collides with the bird, utterly obliterating it. Amidst the explosion of feathers, the bird’s desecrated carcass falls to the ground almost immediately, losing all of its momentum in the collision. Of course, our friend Randy did not just kill a bird with his pitch, he killed a dove. A soft, white, sacred dove. The sign of the Holy Spirit.
This frame is far less about Randy’s form (we basically see picture one from behind) and it definitely does not center on his expression (we can’t even see his face). Instead, this frame focuses on narrative. We’ve seen Johnson’s form and we’ve seen his expression; we know him in a vacuum, but now we must watch him in action in order to truly understand his implications on America’s pastime.
The chances of a pitcher hitting a bird seem impossibly slim. Even slimmer the chances of hitting a white dove. Even slimmer yet the chances of Randy Johnson hitting the white dove. It seems too perfect. Like a moment taken from folklore. In this moment, Johnson, the 6’10” “Big Unit”, bests the sign of the Holy Spirit, knocking it to the ground in a mere instant, and cements himself as the new god in baseball. He obliterates a symbol of power as a warning to everything in his path and then drives himself and his team all the way to a World Series win at the end of this very season. It feels like Odysseus besting the cyclops or Hercules killing the Hydra. In this moment Johnson’s existence splits into two: one, the man who will win a World Series later that year and see the world remember him in baseball’s Hall of Fame. The other a legend, a myth on its own, of a giant walking to the top of a hill and tearing down a god.
Johnson’s legend sits among the many baseball has accumulated over the years, but each story carries with it its own sage wisdom about this nation’s pastime. One can easily look at baseball and see a calm, slow, docile game. A game where the majority of both teams spend most of their time either sitting on a bench or standing in a giant patch of grass. To an unaware observer, even an at-bat can seem calm. Pitches go from the pitcher to the catcher without anyone hardly batting an eye. Sometimes a ball might go foul, or ground or fly, but those moments come rarely and often carry with them barely more action than the rest of the game.
In these moments though, the batter, pitcher, and catcher know acutely what a dangerous game they play. With every pitch the pitcher can feel their arm strain itself, ripping itself apart so violently that they won’t even get to play a whole game. The catcher feels each 100+ mile per hour ball bash into their hand with force, sound, and vibrato. Lastly, the batter has to watch those fastballs and curveballs hurtle towards their barely-protected body. Each of these players lives in fear and anticipation, reveling in the adrenaline these moments cause.
The legend of Randy Johnson gives us a glimpse into this world few get to really experience. In little league, I feared pitches thrown by my fifth-grade peers, but I can’t even imagine what a major-league pitch feels like. Johnson, in this beautiful moment, shows us the truly devastating nature of MLB pitches. It looks quaint, you might even find it boring, but in reality, baseball players engage in a game of life and death, hidden behind the skill of each player involved, and Johnson, in a rare moment of candor for the sport, showed us the latter result of such a game.