The Yankees always almost wanted Randy Johnson. They nearly wanted him in 1994 when the Mariners first seemed willing to trade him. They wanted him again in 1997 and 1998 when the Mariners were definitely going to trade him. They kinda, sorta wanted him after 1998 when he hit free agency, and they lusted after him in the wake of the Diamondbacks’ trade of Curt Schilling to the Red Sox.
By the time the Yankees finally landed Johnson, the Big Unit was on the wrong side of 40 and on the wrong end of his career. In 2005, he had a good-for-anyone-else but good-for-him first season in New York, going 17-8 with a 3.79 ERA over 225.2 innings with an 8.4 K/9 IP. In 2006, he had a terrible year. He managed to win 17 games but lost 11 with an ERA of 5.00. He struck out just 172 in 205 innings, and his 7.6 K/9 IP was his lowest mark since his age 25 season. Once the October scourge for the Yanks, he suffered through two, allowing 10 runs in 13 innings over two forgettable Yankees ALDS losses, and today, the Big Unit Era is a dark time for the Yankees and their fans.
I refuse to draw parallels between Randy Johnson and Cliff Lee although they clearly exist. The Yankees tried to land Lee at the deadline and failed, as they did with Randy Johnson, and the Yankees will now try to sign Lee as a free agent, as they may or may not have done with Randy Johnson in 1998. But Lee is a good nine years younger than the Unit was when he finally came to New York, and while Cliff Lee has been very good of late, Randy Johnson 1992-2002 was one of the best pitchers in baseball history. We’ll have our fun with the Randy Johnson saga anyway.
The first time the Yanks and Randy Johnson are linked in a serious rumor, it is 1994, and little do either the Mariners or the Yankees realize what awaits them at the end of the following season. As the Daily News reports a year later, the Mariners tried to rade Randy Johnson to the Yankees for Sterling Hitchcock, Domingo Jean, Mark Hutton and Russ Davis, but the Yankees said no. They had no desire to move Hitchcock — who would eventually go the Mariners with Davis in the Tino Martinez/Jeff Nelson deal.
In 1995, though, the Yanks had a team payroll that year of $58 million, but it was a high enough figure to lead all of baseball. (The Orioles were second at $47 million.) Had the Mariners even been willing to trade Johnson, money, said the Boss, was an obstacle. “Randy Johnson is one of the great pitchers in the game,” Steinbrenner said in April, before that season began. “It would take some very creative stuff to be able to add him, because I’m right at the level that I want to be.”
In 1997, two years after Randy Johnson and the Mariners had stunned the Yanks in the playoffs, Seattle needed to ship out the Big Unit. He was a season away from free agency, and the Mariners wanted to realize his value before they lost him. The winter before the Yanks’ historic run in 1998 featured numerous Johnson rumors. Peter Botte offered up a delectable one: The Braves would send Mark Wohlers and two others to Seattle while the Mariners would ship Randy Johnson to New York and the Yankees would send Bernie Williams to Atlanta. The Cubs could have become involved as well, but Bob Watson shot that one down. “I’ll tell you what, if we can pull those kinds of moves off, we need to go over and negotiate the settlements in Iraq,” the Yanks’ then-GM said. “There’s no truth to it.”
Instead, the more likely rumor had the Mariners asking for Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The Yanks had offered up only Rivera for Johnson, and when the Mariners countered by requested Pettitte as well, the Yanks put the kibosh on that deal. The Yankees had no desire to make such a move, even for Randy Johnson, and the Unit himself told the Yanks through the media to wait for him to hit free agency. He wanted the pinstripes; the pinstripes wanted — or at least seem to want — him.
As the 1998 season wore on, so too did the rumors. After the season began, the Mariners came back with a new proposal: Ricky Ledee and Andy Pettitte for Randy Johnson. The Yankees said no, and it looked as though the Dodgers would land Randy in exchange for Hideo Nomo. That deal fell apart too, and talks continued through the trade deadline.
Again on July 31, 1998, the Yankees had their chance. The Mariners asked for Hideki Irabu, Class A pitcher Ryan Bradley and Mike Lowell, but the Yankees did not want to part with Lowell. (That they would do so a few months later and get nothing good in return remains one of Cashman’s worst trades of all time.) The Yankees were left empty-handed at the deadline and went on to win 114 regular season games and the World Series.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to free agency. The Yanks seemingly grew disinterested in Randy Johnson, and it appears to be over the matter of money. In 1998, the Yanks’ payroll sat at $73 million, but the team knew it would have to re-up with a few key players. Bernie Williams and David Cone were both free agents, and Derek Jeter was set for a significant raise in arbitration. While negotiations with Bernie nearly resulted in the premature end of the Williams Era, the Yankees wanted Randy Johnson in early November but were sidetracked by the Williams negotiations. A few days later, the Diamondbacks nabbed Johnson for four years and $50 million, and the Unit responded by winning the Cy Young in each of those seasons.
If the Yanks felt slighted, they never said so. Johnson cited a desire to play close to home, and the Yankees had to get their own house in order first. They recovered from missing out on Randy Johnson by trading David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to the Blue Jays for Roger Clemens, won two more World Series and were stymied by Johnson and the Diamondbacks in 2001. They always wanted Randy Johnson, but at least during the late 1990s, they got what they needed instead.