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01/05/10 9:35 PM EST

Unit was true gem in Emerald City

Johnson harnessed his famed intensity while a Mariner

The ornery attitude that made Randy Johnson a fierce competitor, and the most dominant pitcher of his era, emerged midway through his nine-year career with the Mariners.

Besides having long hair, turns out The Big Unit also had rabbit ears.

"I was easily distracted as a young player," Johnson said late Tuesday afternoon during a nationwide conference call announcing his retirement. "Just ask [Tony] La Russa. When I was with the Mariners and pitching against Oakland, he would always yell at me."

The barbs bothered Johnson -- until he discovered a rebuttal.

"I started using my intensity and emotion to my advantage," Johnson said, reflecting on the time he spent with the Mariners, discussing how those nine years impacted his 22-year Major League Hall of Fame career.

Randy Johnson

He was one of a kind. No pitcher in Mariners history was quite like him.

"On behalf of all of us with the Seattle Mariners, I want to congratulate Randy Johnson on an amazing Hall of Fame career," club president Chuck Armstrong said. "He won his first Cy Young Award with us and as I said at the time he received the award, 'Since Iron Man Joe McGinnity in 1904 with the [New York] Giants, there was no team as dependent on one pitcher as Randy was to us in 1995.' "

Acquired from the Expos in May 1989, along with right-handed pitchers Brian Holman and Gene Harris for left-hander Mark Langston and a player to be named (Mike Campbell), Johnson was the arm that led the organization to playoff stature in the mid-1990s.

Between his first and last starts as a Mariner, The Big Unit was The Man in practically every Seattle rotation. He led the team in wins five times, pitched the organization's first no-hitter, became the first 20-game winner, and still is the only Seattle pitcher to win a Cy Young Award.

The 130 victories with the Mariners are more than any other organization he played for and he credits the ups and downs he had in Seattle for much of his overall success.

"That was pretty much where my whole foundation was," Johnson said of his Mariners career. "I pitched every fifth day. It was sink or swim. I had that opportunity. That's really kind of where everything came together for me. That's really where I learned how to pitch. Then, toward the end of my time there, I was really kind of coming into my own."

He was past his prime last summer when he made his final appearance at Safeco Field, but still put on a show for fans that used to marvel at his ability.

"I will say that coming back to Seattle on numerous occasions, including this past year and pitching, against Felix [Hernandez] and getting a standing ovation meant a lot," he said. "It really did. I appreciated the time I spent in Seattle. It was a great time for me and my family. Without it, I never would have evolved into that pitcher I was in the latter part of my career.

"Most people don't realize this, but in my first seven years in the Major Leagues, I played for teams that didn't even finish over .500. The point being, had that been a team that wasn't finishing below .500, I might not have had that opportunity to sink or swim.

A look at where Randy Johnson stands all-time in selected pitching categories:
Category No. Rank
Strikeouts per 9 IP 10.61 1st
Strikeouts 4,875 2nd
Cy Young Awards 5 2nd
Hit batsmen 190 3rd
Bases on Balls 1,497 13th
Games started 603 21st
Wins 303 22nd

"Everybody on the [Seattle] team at that time-- Omar Vizquel, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr. -- we were all kind of learning to play in the Major Leagues at the same time. We had that opportunity and it was afforded to us. The bulk of the team was very young, myself included, and we had the opportunity to learn by our mistakes."

Johnson and the Mariners went their separate ways on July 28, 1998, when he was traded to the Astros for pitchers Freddy Garcia and John Halama and Minor League shortstop Carlos Guillen.

"Two of the best trades Woody ever made were acquiring Randy and trading Randy," Armstrong said, referring to former general manager Woody Woodward.

Garcia, Halama and Guillen were key members of the Mariners' future playoff teams, while Johnson became richer and more famous elsewhere.

The Big Unit ended up with five Cy Young Awards, 303 wins, 4,875 strikeouts, and a 3.29 ERA in 4,135 1/3 career innings. Baseball-Reference puts his career earnings at $175.55 million.

Asked what he would like his legacy to be, Johnson paused and said: "I worked hard, was a fierce competitor and gave everything I had. That would be the biggest thing."

You just might hear those same words a little more than six years from now when he is standing behind a podium in Cooperstown, N.Y., being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.