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Former Mariner Randy Johnson could lead Hall of Fame balloting in his first year of eligibility

By John Hickey San Jose Mercury News

Come this morning, there’s an excellent chance Randy Johnson will complete his journey from Livermore, California, to Cooperstown.

What a trip it’s been. Johnson had 303 victories. He won five Cy Young Awards, including four in succession. His 4,875 strikeouts are second on baseball’s all-time list, behind only Nolan Ryan.

Johnson, 51, is in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility. And while those who played with him and against him don’t have votes, some of the best major leaguers of Johnson’s era say they would be stunned if he didn’t get the 75 percent needed to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It is a loaded ballot. Pitchers Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Johnson are the top first-time entrants, and all three are seen as having a great chance to make it.

Houston Astros star Craig Biggio, who missed election by two votes last year, could be a fourth. If four gain entrance, it would be the largest class since 1955, when Joe DiMaggio headed a class of four inductees. Five were elected in 1936, which was the initial class.

But whether this class is three, four, five or even more players, Johnson likely will be the leading vote-getter.

“If you look at his numbers, he’s the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time,” said Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, who ranked Johnson ahead of Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton and Warren Spahn. “It was like he was throwing 100 (mph) all the time. When he pitched, a lot of good hitters needed the day off.”

With his 6-foot-10 frame and long arm and leg extension, Johnson intimidated hitters in ways that had never been seen before his emergence with the Seattle Mariners. He wasn’t a friendly guy on the mound, and never wanted to be.

Ken Griffey Jr., a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer himself next year, grew up with Johnson in Seattle, then faced him after both moved on from the Mariners. He saw both sides of Johnson, whose nickname was The Big Unit.

“He was my locker partner in Seattle,” Griffey said. “We were young, trying to figure it out. We didn’t have big names nationally. I learned then that there are two sides to Randy.

“There was the dominating Randy on game day, and there was the Randy who wanted to go home and beat on his drums. He didn’t let a lot of people see that side of him – the side that cared about his teammates and cared about his craft.”

Johnson went from Livermore High to USC before being drafted by the Montreal Expos. He had immense talent, but he had trouble early on controlling his pitches, one reason the Expos reluctantly traded him to Seattle when he got off to an 0-4, 6.67 start in the 1989 season as a 25-year-old.

Griffey recalled Johnson’s control being an issue until he had a long sit-down with Ryan, who was nearing the end of his own Hall of Fame career.

“Randy became a little like Nolan Ryan after that talk,” Griffey said. “ … He learned how he could be effectively wild.”

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