Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Randy Johnson's 300th Win Part III: The Set-Up

This is part III out of VI in my look back at one of the most significant events in my career as a baseball fan: seeing Randy Johnson win the 300th game of his career. Parts I and II were about 300-game winners, and the man who would be a 300-game winner, Randy Johnson. Part III is how I became interested in 300 wins, and the plans I made leading up to Randy's 300th win.

Or the Complete Story of How I Got to See One of the Greatest Milestones in the History of the Game

Part I: The Introduction
Part II: The Player
Part III: The Set-Up
Part IV: The Rainout (Coming December 3)
Part V: The Game (Coming December 4)
Part VI: The Aftermath (Coming sometime in December)

Or A Personal History of My Fascination with 300 Wins, and How I Made Plans to See 300 Game Winners Pitch.

In case you haven't picked it up while reading Parts I and II, there is a reason why I'm spending so much time talking about this specific event. It was not because I happened to see a historic milestone, and I thought that was so cool that I decided to write 20,000 words about it. No...the reason why I'm putting so much time and effort in this and not cardio is because I am truly a fanatic about 300 wins. Other people can have their 500 home runs or 3,000 hits, I am perfectly happy reading about the 300-win milestone, as well as those who fell short or never came close at all.

I wasn't always crazy about 300. I jumped on the 500-home run bandwagon when Eddie Murray reached the mark in 1996, and then continued to follow it when Mark McGwire entered the club three years later. Numbers like 521, 536, and 586 etc. are still ingrained in my head. I've always known about 300 wins. The World Almanac always had a section about "Pitchers with 300 wins." One day, I think it was sometime in 2000, I was looking at this list in my World Almanac 1998, and I noticed something. I have World Almanacs from 1994 and 1988, and the list of the 300 game winners were pretty much the same. Of course, those were only four years and ten years apart respectively, but when you're 15 years old those lengths of time still feel relatively long. Anyways, I went back and checked, and the only difference was that the list from 1988 was missing Nolan Ryan. I began thinking more about the 300-win milestone. I thought about how difficult it must be if nobody new reached in ten years.

Out of curiosity, I looked up which active player was closest to 300 wins, and at the top of the list was Roger Clemens. I grew up reading about the exploits of the Rocket. I remember hearing about his second 20-strikeout performance in 1996, and how he signed with the Blue Jays and revived his career. (They even mentioned Clemens's signing in an episode of Sabrina: The Teenage Witch!) So to me, Roger Clemens was one of the top pitchers of all time, and it's only fitting that he was the closest to 300 wins. Clemens had 260 wins at the end of the 2000 season, and I remember thinking that he was only a pair of 20-win seasons away. And when Clemens actually won 20 games in 2001, that pretty much turned the "if" into a "when."

The "when" turned out to be two years later, in 2003. Clemens won his 299th game on May 21, 2003, and I got caught up in the 300 buzz. offered a digital download of the milestone game as soon as it happens, and I asked my mom for her credit card so I can keep a piece of history. Clemens ended up failing in his first three tries for 300, and I eventually lost track of it as I prepared for high school graduation and entry into college. 300 wins left my mind until another pitching star threatened to join the ranks. Greg Maddux was the ace of the Braves when they won the World Series in 1995. I was an Indians fan back then, so I wasn't too happy with Maddux. And he had only 240 wins in 2000, so he slipped beneath the 300-win radar. However, while surfing the Internet in the Language Lab at UVA (yes, I did that, I'm so terrible), I saw that Greg Maddux was going to break Cy Young's record for consecutive 15-win seasons. Not only that, but his 15th win of the season would give him 288, clearly within striking distance of 300. I took a closer look at his numbers and accomplishments - his insane ERAs in 1994, 1995, and even 1997 and 1998, his four straight Cy Young awards and Gold Gloves (Yes, I know that Gold Gloves are the most bullcrap awards in baseball, but its still amazing to consider the fact that Greg Maddux has won more Gold Gloves than Brooks Robinson!) And I knew that Greg Maddux was definitely one of the top pitchers of our generation.

Greg Maddux would eventually win his 300th game on August 7, 2004. While I followed his progress closely, I regrettably don't remember what I was doing the exact moment the win became official. This time, I had a credit card of my own, and downloaded Maddux's 300th win as soon as it became available. I also downloaded Clemens's 300th win that I had ignored for the past 14 months. I watched Maddux's win for the first time in college, and then I watched it again, and again for the third time. Each time I watched Greg Maddux struggle for five innings but leaving the game with a 6-3 lead en route to an 8-4 win, I thought about 300 wins and what exactly that number meant.

What does 300 wins mean? Well, it meant that the pitcher averaged 15 wins for 20 season, and that it was an accomplishment difficult enough that only 22 pitchers (at the time) reached the milestone. And that the list of 300-win pitchers is not a be all end all list of great pitchers, but it does show the pitchers who had the three qualities necessary in the major league level: skill, endurance, and luck. Skill is a given - you need to have enough skill to be able to make it into the major league level and win on the major league level. Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez had skills. Heck, they were the most dominant pitchers of their time, but what they lacked was endurance. Bert Blyleven and Ferguson Jenkins had skill and endurance, but what they lacked was luck. Bert played for Twins teams who somehow couldn't score whenever he was pitching. And Fergie pitched for downright awful Cubs and Rangers teams of the 1960s and 1970s. But these guys - these 22 pitchers who reached 300 wins - they had the skills, the endurance, and the luck to get 300 wins. They were a unique group of individuals who had different pitching styles and played in different eras, but they had one thing in common: they gave it all they got and got to 300 wins.

Anyways, I began to put the pieces together about 300 wins as I watched Maddux and eventually Clemens win their 300th game, and it finally clicked. I accepted the 300-win club not as a list of the best pitchers in baseball, but as a list of a unique group of individuals who, despite pitching in different parts of baseball history, had accomplished an arbitrary number in the most useless pitching statistic. It wasn't much, but I became a fanatic for 300 wins. I wrote a thread on NSider detailing the career or Roger Clemens. Included on the thread was the date and the scores of each of his wins. The thread was an absolute mess, but it inspired me to go to Retrosheet and document each of Clemens's wins, including team, date, score, and losing pitcher on an Excel spreadsheet. Then I threw in each of his losses. And later, I added his no-decisions and put it on a list with his wins and losses. I ordered his lists of wins and losses by opposing pitcher, and then ordered those opposing pitchers by how close THEY got to 300. (Most of them didn't get close at all.) And then I did it with Greg Maddux, who is by all means Clemens's equal. So by May of 2005, I had my Excel spreadsheets for Clemens and Maddux.

In addition, in May 2005, I worked two weeks on an epic thread on NSider about the 300 game winners. I wrote about what I felt the 300-win milestone meant, and how the distribution of pitchers who reached the milestone was a reflection the natural progression of major league baseball. Then I proceeded to go into each of the eras, describing what the eras were like, giving short profiles of the 300-game winners from those eras (if you consider 1,000 words short), and providing a list of the great pitchers who fell short. It was a magnificent thread, totaling over 30,000 words, equivalent of over 150 pages size 12 font and double spaced.

Another event related to 300-game winners happened that month, and this one was instrumental in letting me see Randy Johnson's 300th win four years later. In 2005, the Montreal Expos moved from Montreal to Washington DC to become the Washington Nationals, giving the District their first team since the Senators left town to become the Texas Rangers in 1972. On May 15, 2005, I was mowing the lawn, and when I finished I went inside to check the baseball scores. The first thing I saw was that Randy Johnson won his 250th game. Hmm...perhaps he can get to 300 wins in the future. And then I saw that the Nationals beat the Cubs 5-4 at RFK Stadium. The starting pitcher for the Cubs was Greg Maddux. I did a double take. Say what? While I was mowing the lawn, a 307-game winner was getting knocked around just 40 minutes away from where I lived? This was almost as bad as when I missed a chance seeing Shigeru Miyamoto give a talk at the Smithsonian while I was giving a CUTCO presentation the year before.

I never had a chance to attend a lot of games live, since I never lived very close to a baseball stadium. But with the Washington Nationals just 40 minutes away, I have no excuse to not go to very many games. And this would give me a chance to see 300-game winners pitch in person! The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I was about missing a chance to see Maddux. Determined not to make the same mistake, I looked at the schedule to see if the Nationals would ever play the Astros so I could see Roger Clemens. Just my luck! The Astros were in town for a four-game series on July 21-24. There would be an 80% chance that Clemens would pitch. I waited around to see what day Clemens would start, and as soon as it was confirmed that he would start on July 22, I snatched up a ticket from Stubhub and asked for a half-day on my job as a Rec Pac counselor (w00t Rec Pac! Good times.)

When July 22 rolled around, I got to the park around two hours before gates opened and carried a large sign with the names of all of the 300-game winners on one side, and the names of all of the pitchers that Clemens beat in each of his wins (a list I conveniently had on my Excel spreadsheets.) I also carried along my dad's old digital camera. I hurried down to the field when gates opened, and got a good picture of Clemens standing there for batting practice. (I also got the autograph of then-Astros manager Phil Garner.) The game itself was pretty good. Clemens threw six shutout innings, and struck out 10. The Astros dominated Nationals pitching, and Roger Clemens picked up his 336th career win. It was, at that time, the greatest baseball moment of my life. I got to see a 300-game winner pitch AND see him get his 336th win. 336 became my new favorite number.

I got to see Roger Clemens pitch, but I still hadn't had the luxury of seeing Greg Maddux in action. The Nationals wouldn't play the Cubs in DC again until July 21-23, 2006, during which I was busy with MCAT practice tests. (Although I did think how wonderful it would be if Maddux could beat Washington on the first anniversary of Clemens's victory over the Nats). In the end it didn't matter because Maddux never made a start that series. A year later, Maddux signed with the Padres. I looked at the 2007 Nationals schedule and saw that the Padres were in own June 1-3. I got trigger-happy and brought tickets for the June 1 game, because that was the day Maddux would start by counting starters. However, I didn't notice the Padres had an off day on May 28, so manager Bud Black switched things around. Maddux started on May 31 instead. The only thing I saw of Greg Maddux that day was him shagging fly balls in the outfield.

Tom Glavine also made his run towards 300 wins that summer. I was definitely not a Tom Glavine fan, because while Maddux lost Game 5 of the 1995 World Series to give the Indians some hope, Glavine shut them down in Game 6 and won series MVP. Nevertheless, Tom Glavine was a good person who did plenty of charity work in the Atlanta area, so while I would never be a Glavine fan, I hoped he can get to 300 wins. I followed Glavine's quest for 300 even when I went to Taiwan to teach English for the AID Summer program. When Glavine won his 299th game on July 25, I remember thinking to myself, "Man, it would suck if Glavine goes winless for his next three starts, because his fourth start would be against the Nationals in Washington, and I would still be in Taiwan."

I had my laptop open in the classroom when Glavine made his first attempt at 300, hoping that I would be able to remember what I was doing the moment Glavine got the milestone win. The bullpen blew it. A few days later, on August 5, 2007 in America (but August 6, 2007 in Taiwan), Glavine made his second attempt at 300. I was hanging around in the youth center in Taipei waiting to go on the tour around Taiwan. While I was waiting, I had my laptop open and was tuned into the Mets vs. Cubs game on GameDay. The Mets knocked the Cubs pitchers around for 5 runs in the first six innings while Glavine pitched well, allowing 1 run before departing with one out in the 7th with a runner on second who eventually scored. This time the Mets relievers did their job, allowing the inherited runner to score and only one additional run. The Mets added three more insurance runs for an 8-3 lead going into the bottom of the 9th. I was still standing around when Mike Fontenot grounded out to Luis Castillo for the final out. My first thought was somewhere along the line of, "Great. I have to find some time to post the tribute video on YouTube*."

*In November of 2006, I was bored and decided to make a video of Roger Clemens, where each of his 348 wins would scroll up as pictures of Clemens from corresponding stages in his career played in the back. It took a while to make, but I was so dazzled with the results that I decided to make one for the other 300-game winners and Tom Glavine. I made the preliminary video for Glavine early in my trip to Taiwan, with everything except for the date and score of his 300th win. I have yet to make it for 300-game winners before Clemens.

Not only did I have to worry about posting stuff onto YouTube, but I now had two 300-game winner to watch. Glavine eventually did beat Washington on August 17 (it was his 301st win), and I was still in Taiwan. The Mets were in town again September 17-19, but Glavine never made a start, so it was onto 2008. Glavine re-signed with the Braves, and had two early season starts against the Nationals in DC. I don't remember why I couldn't make the first one, but I couldn't go to the second one because I had an MCAT class since I fail as a med school applicant. I remember thinking on my way back, "You know, the game hasn't started yet. I can probably stop at the East Falls Church Metro station and catch the game. I'd miss the first few innings, but I can still see Glavine pitch." I resisted the urge, because it would have been impossible to explain it to my parents. And then Glavine got hurt and didn't make any more starts against the Nationals.

The Padres wouldn't be in Washington until September 19-21. I remember being so frustrated at missing Maddux so many times that I commented to one of my friends that perhaps I should just buy tickets to all three of those games. Thankfully, he talked me out of it, because Maddux was traded to the Dodgers in mid-August, and the Dodgers would be in town a week later. I immediately thought of when he might pitch in the series, and brought tickets for that game as well as the game after that just to be safe. As it turned out, Maddux pitched on first of the two games, on August 27. He was going for his 354th win, which would tie him with Roger Clemens. I thought that was a pretty nice bit of history, and would make for a good picture of the scoreboard. I got there early, but fans were only allowed in the outfield area during batting practice at the new Nationals Park that opened that year, and they shooed fans away from the bullpen area before Maddux started warming up, so I didn't get any good shots of Maddux until the game started. (I did get 郭泓志's autograph. 小小郭加油!) In the end, Maddux was pretty terrible, allowing four runs, only two of which were earned, but his error contributed to one of the unearned runs.*

*I did get to see some history that week. I went to the game on August 28, 2007 since I had the tickets. I ended up getting to see Cristian Guzman hit for the cycle, which was very nice.

The 2008 season ended. Greg Maddux retired, and Tom Glavine had shoulder and elbow surgery. The focus quickly turned to Randy Johnson's quest for 300. I actually wanted to watch Randy pitch in 2008, since I figured win no. 300 would be inevitable, so it counts as watching a 300-game winner if I saw them when they were a future-300 game winner. However, the Diamondbacks were in town on July 8-10, right when the MCATs were going on. Randy never even pitched in that series anyways. So I would have to wait until 2009. Randy had 295 wins and needed only five more to reach 300, but he would do it with the Giants. I saw a pocket schedule for the Nats' 2009 season at a dry cleaner's one day in March of 2009, so I scanned for days when the Braves and Giants were in town. The Braves were in town in late April, when Glavine was probably still in rehab, and wouldn't be back until early July, when I would be busy moving to Fort Worth. The Giants, however, would be in DC only once, on June 2-4. I figured Randy Johnson may retire after this season, so it was now or never in regards to that particular series.

I can't remember if it was right then in the dry cleaners, or a few days later, but I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be awesome if Randy Johnson gets to go for 300 in DC? After all, Don Sutton was the last pitcher to go into a season with 295 wins, and it took him until June to get to 300." It was at first a passing fancy, similar to my thought about the prospects of Glavine going for 300 in DC when I was in Taiwan. However, the more I thought about it, the more probable it seems. Johnson would probably get five starts in April, and five starts in May. If he can just average two wins per month, then it would give him the chance to go for 300 in DC. I knew that I would go see Randy Johnson pitch that series no matter if he was going for win 296 or 300 or 306, but the prospects of seeing real history that I cared about brought a new level of intrigue to his quest for 300.

However, Randy's first starts with the Giants didn't go over too well. He allowed a three-run home run to opposing pitcher Yovani Gallardo in a loss to the Brewers on April 8, and allowed seven runs in 3.7 innings against the Dodgers on April 13. However, he came around and threw seven shutout innings against his former team for his 296th career win on April 19. His next start, also against the Diamondbacks, came on April 25, when I was busy with Preview Day for TCOM and didn't have time to check the results online. The next day, I wandered into a Hudson News at the DFW airport on the way home. I took a peek at the sports section, and saw that the Giants won! Then I looked further and saw that Johnson lasted only 3.3 innings, because he walked seven batters, his most in almost nine years.

It was just as well. His 300th win was inevitable, just as the fact that I was going to see him pitch in that series on June 2-4. Yet I hadn't even started editing the tribute video or making plans to get tickets. Putting the video together is a cinch, but it's finding good pictures that took the most time. I started spending hours a day looking for good Randy Johnson pictures. Recent pictures were easy to find, but finding pictures from early in his career was virtually impossible. Regarding the latter dilemma, I knew that it wasn't smart to buy your tickets before the start is confirmed, especially after getting the wrong tickets on June 1, 2007. But even though I can't order tickets yet, there was the question of how many tickets to buy. I've traditionally been happy going to games by myself, and I have no qualms doing the same for this game. However, seeing Randy Johnson pitch is a tremendous opportunity, especially since this might be his final season. So I began asking around to see if people wanted to go. "We'll see what my schedule is like was the most common response."

While I was busy with all this, Randy won his 297th game against the Rockies on May 1, and his 298th game against the Nationals in San Francisco on May 11. That left him with three more starts before the June 2-4 series. He needed one and only one win in those three starts to go for 300 for the first time in June. And it was very likely that his first start in June would be in the series against the Nationals. The extrapolations show him making the start on June 3rd, the middle game in the series. That means manager Bruce Bochy would have to make a dramatic change to the rotation for Randy to not pitch in the series. Even's Milestone tracker, which knows nothing about rotations, estimated that Randy would his his 300th on June 4, the final game in the series. The chances were decent that not only would I get to see Randy, I could see him win his 300th win. I hate to admit it, but the higher my chances of seeing Randy go for the milestone, the more I wanted it.

I had chances to see a lot of rare events in the 18 games I've gone to: a grand slam, an inside the park home run, a 10-strikeout game, a complete game shutout, and a cycle. But I've always thought that seeing somebody win their 300th game, which was the ultimate dream for a 300-win fan like me, would have been out of the question. Yet now that there was a plausible chance of at the very least seeing Randy go for the milestone, I really wanted it. It got to the point where  I was becoming conflicted about wanting Randy to win his next start against the Mets on May 16, since if he won he would get two more chances to win 300 before the June 2-4 series. He wound up losing to Johan Santana.

But I knew I was going to see Randy Johnson, 300-win or not. When it became clear that Randy was going to pitch in the series, I stepped up in my campaigning. I finally got an okay from Michael Lusk, one of the campus ministers at UVA, and his brother Matthew. Michael was going to be in NoVA anyways, and Matt just wanted to see Randy Johnson. We made the plans. Michael would get to my house from wherever he was meeting earlier in the day, while Matt would drive up from Charlottesville. We would go to the game together, and afterward Michael would spend the night in our basement bedroom while Matt would drive back. I also got a tentative yes from another friend who lived in Bel Air, Maryland. So when it was confirmed that Randy would start on June 3, I rushed to Stubhub and brought four tickets about 15 rows up from the Giants dugout along the third base line.

A day later, Randy made a hyped up start against his old team the Mariners. It would probably be his final start in Seattle. The Seattle crowd gave him a rousing ovation, and then cheered as the Mariners topped the Giants 2-1, with Randy getting a no-decision. I was getting worried. Randy had only one more start before the June 2-4 series, and it was a must-win if we wanted to have a chance to see history. On May 27, the day I picked up our good friend Sari from the airport and the 10th anniversary of the last day of middle school, I tuned into the Giants vs. Braves game on GameDay.

Normally I can't bear to watch sports live on Gameday, because I can't bear the crushing feeling if something I didn't want to happen...happened. But I couldn't stay away. This was Randy Johnson's 299th win on the line. Matt was also online, and so we chatted while the game was going on. The Giants took a 1-0 lead in the 2nd, and stretched it to 2-0 on a double steal/steal of home in the 3rd, a play I had seen in Clemens's 336th win. Meanwhile, Randy was pitching like the Randy of old. He allowed only one hit through five innings, but a single, sac bunt, and another single in the sixth cut the lead to 2-1. The Giants made it 4-1 in the bottom of the 6th. Bochy also pinch-hit for Randy that inning, so the rest was left to the relievers. The relievers allowed two unearned runs in the next half-inning to make it nail-biting again. I turned away and worked on something else for a little bit. When I looked back, the Giants had score two runs to make it 6-3. Matt and I were able to breathe a sigh of relief. When Brian Wilson closed out the Braves in the 9th, it became official: Randy Johnson had 299 career wins, and we were going to have a chance to see 300.

I had made the decision to record as much of the game as I can if Randy really was going for 300 on June 3, so one of the first things I did after buying the tickets was go out to Best Buy and brought a couple of memory cards for the two digital cameras that I would bring. I also created a couple of signs to bring to the game. One was basically the numbers '3', '0', and '0' glued on small pieces of poster board. And then I printed pictures of the previous members of the 300-win club, and put them around the edge of a large piece of poster board in chronological order, with Randy in the middle.

When my friend from Bel Air couldn't make it, I needed a fourth. Michael suggested asking Ryan Halferty, an old friend from Cav Life who lived in NoVA. Ryan wasn't a major baseball fan like the Lusk brothers and I were, but he cared enough that he may want to see Randy Johnson go for his 300th win. So I got in contact with Ryan, who was interested in seeing the game, but he had work that day, and had to go to the stadium on his own. So we met on June 1 at Fair Oaks Mall, and I gave him the ticket so he can get to the game himself. Things were all set for a day of baseball history. The only potential problem was that rain was in the forecast for June 3. I brought a couple of plastic raingear with the Nationals logo when I was in Gainesville getting gas on June 2. Not even my first ticket could dampen the excitement that was about to unfold the following day.

Sources: Since most of this was my own personal memory, I didn't have a lot of sources. The only source I used other than my memory was the Baseball gamelogs, which had game schedules and play by play.

Part IV: The Rainout

No comments: