Big Unit electrified the Astrodome
There may have been no more of a magical time to be in the Astrodome than the summer of 1998, when the Astros were churning towards 102 wins and their second consecutive National League Central division title. They sealed the deal whey they acquired Randy Johnson at the trade deadline.
Johnson’s time in Houston was only a blip on the radar during his terrific 22-year career, which came to an end Tuesday when he announced his retirement. Johnson started 603 games in his career, 11 of which came with the Astros. He signed with Arizona following the 1998 season and won four consecutive Cy Young awards, but he proved late in 1998 he was the best pitcher in the game.
Former Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker sent pitchers Freddy Garcia and John Halama and Minor League shortstop Carlos Guillen to Seattle for Johnson on July 28, 1998. Johnson made his Astros debut on Aug. 2 at Pittsburgh and allowed six hits and two runs and struck out 12 batters in seven innings to win his debut.
He pitched back-to-back shutouts in his next two starts – both at home – and struck out 16 Pirates on Aug. 28 in the Astrodome for his third shutout of the month. A crowd of 52,071 – the largest regular-season crowd in Astrodome history – watched Johnson make his home debut Aug. 7 against Philadelphia.
“Now I know what a rock star feels like,” Johnson told reporters after the game. “I’ve had a few hundred people give me a standing ovation when I was in the bullpen when I was with Seattle, but this is the first time I’ve had 50,000 people give me a standing ovation when I was warming up.”
Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA with the Astros and continued his success in the playoffs. He started two games against the San Diego Padres in the National League Division Series and posted a 1.93 ERA, but dropped both outings, losing to Kevin Brown in Game 1 and Sterling Hitchcock in Game 4.
The Astros lost two good prospects in Garcia — who later helped the White Sox beat the Astros in the World Series — and Guillen, but Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith was pleased with how the trade worked out.
“It was a very exciting couple of months with certainly a tremendous and a very memorable performance,” he said. “That may have been our best team really. Obviously, we didn’t fair well when we went to San Diego, but you have to give the Padres credit. We ran into some good pitching out there. Randy really had a phenomenal half a season for us and he’s just one of the great pitchers of all-time.”
Recalling the trade, Smith said Mariners president and close friend Chuck Armstrong had informed Smith that Johnson would likely be dealt before the trade deadline because Seattle wasn’t going to be able to sign him as a free agent in the off-season. He wanted to end his career in Arizona to be close to his family.
“We had ongoing conversations and Gerry and the general manager of the Mariners at that time [Woody Woodward] were communicating,” Smith said. ”From Seattle’s standpoint they got a couple of players did very well for them in Guillen and Garcia and John Halama rendered good service. It’s one of those trades that benefitted both clubs. Seattle got some players for future use, and we got the benefit of Randy Johnson’s superb performance for a couple of months.”
When he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, Johnson will be one of a few Astros players to reach Cooperstown. By the time Johnson gets in, Craig Biggio and perhaps Jeff Bagwell will have already taken their place, making them the first players to join the Hall who played their career entirely with the Astros.
Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan played nine of his 27 seasons in Houston. Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Nellie Fox, Robin Roberts, Eddie Matthews and Don Sutton also played for the Astros.