By Bob Elliott
Buck Rodgers is one of two men to manage Randy Johnson when he had an undefeated season.
Buck Rodgers is also the only man to manage Randy Johnson when he failed to win a major-league start.
And Buck Rodgers was managing the Montreal Expos when the 6-foot-10 lefty was sent -- with Brian Holman and Gene Harris -- to the Seattle Mariners for lefty Mark Langston on May 25, 1989.
Harris, not Johnson, was the arm that Expos management was most reluctant to part with.
Johnson, along with Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz will be inducted in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. on Sunday afternoon.
“Randy was a stud, but a free spirit, he had a problem in the minors with one of our managers, he told him to take a hike,” said Rodgers, from Yorba Linda, Calif. “The day of the trade I thought Johnson had the best potential. If you wanted someone to help you the next day or the next week it was Holman. And we didn’t know if
Harris was going to be either a great starter or a great reliever.”
When another mega deal was made at the Hyatt Regency in Rosemont at the 1990 winter meetings -- the Blue Jays sent Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to the San Diego Padres for Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter -- Rodgers was asked who was the best player.
“The best today, five years from now and when all their careers are over is and will be Alomar,” said Rodgers.
“I never had problems with Randy,” said Rodgers, who made his debut as a September call up in 1988 and went 3-0 in four starts, as he was 5-0 in nine starts for Lou Piniella with the 1996 Mariners.
The Expos planned on recalling Johnson from triple-A Indianapolis in June of 1988 but was hit on the left wrist with a liner. He was removed and taken for X-rays. He took his hat, jacket and glove out of his right hand and smashed the bat rack.
The trainer took him to the hospital for X-rays on both hands and Johnson took a car to the park. The trainer returned later to say “I have good news and bad news: the left wrist is bruised. The right hand? You broke it.”
The Expos saw the outburst as a lack of maturity.
“Holman was going to be a good starter, not great, but good, but he ended up having a good career,” Rodgers said. “Randy was a bit of a project. It takes a hard thrower longer to figure it out. It takes tall pitchers even longer.
“Obviously a 6-foot-10 pitcher’s body is less coordinated than someone 5-foor-6, more moving parts.”
Holman pitched four seasons in the majors going 37-45 with a 3.71 ERA in 99 starts, while Harris pitched 12 seasons going 12-18 with a 4.71 ERA and 26 saves.
And Johnson won 303 games, five Cy Young awards and shared the 2001 World Series MVP honors with Curt Schilling as the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees.
“Randy had an awful lot of respect for people he respected ... not much for a coach that came up and told him to change,” said Rodgers. “He got along with my pitching coach, Larry Bearnarth, who got along with everyone, Larry was the best communicator I ever met.”
Left-handed hitters batted .199 against Johnson with 25 career homers in 2,104 plate appearances. As left-handed hitter Andy Van Slyke of the Pittsburgh Pirates said: “When Abner Doubleday invented the game he didn’t have him in mind. If he did ... the mound would be 70 feet, seven inches away.”
“Randy was like a Aroldis Chapman, with two pitches,” Rodgers said, “he could intimidate any left-handed hitter. If someone told he wasn’t intimidated by Randy Johnson, I wouldn’t call him a liar but I’d sure have him checked out.
“He threw hard, J.R. Richard hard ... velocity is one thing, he had velocity and movement. He had a hell of fastball.”
When Expos general manager Dave Dombrowski made the deal, Holman was 4-8 with a 3.23 ERA in 16 starts, Johnson was 0-4 in six starts with a 6.67 ERA and Harris was 1-1 with a 4.95 ERA in 11 games out of the bullpen. At the time of the trade the Expos were two games below .500, 10 1/2 back of the New York Mets.
The Expos made the deal because they hoped to lock up Langston to a long term contract. A couple of Expos executives were called to Bronfman’s box.
“We went in wondering if we were all going to fired and came out walking on air,” Whitey Lockman, an Expo executive told us once. “Charles told us to sign Langston: at any cost and explained how he wanted the franchise to be like the New York Yankees. He wanted it to be his legacy for his children.”
By the winter meeting in December, Langston had signed a five-year $16 Million US deal with the Anaheim Angels and Bronfman told Claude Brochu he wanted to sell the club: “I don’t have the strength to fight anymore. I’m not having any fun.”
Rodgers was not surprised that Langston didn’t re-sign.
“I told him David you have two chances to sign Langston: slim and none,” said Rodgers. “It wasn’t money, we could have offered Langston the Taj Mahal and it wouldn’t have mattered. His wife and he wanted to go to southern California.”
The Expos moved Johnson and it was a trade which led to Bronfman’s departure.
Meanwhile in Seattle the loss of Langston was similar to the corner coffee shoppe running out of beans.
Third baseman Jim Presley called it a “sad day for Mariner baseball,” second baseman Harold Reynolds was crushed, and first baseman Alvin Davis said, “we’ve just traded our franchise player.”
Johnson, the 6-foot-10 lefty grew into a Hall of Famer.