Randy Johnson is one of the most intimidating pitchers to ever take the mound in an MLB game. Other Hall of Famers like Nolan Ryan and Bob Gibson may have started the trend of using their presence on the hill to strike fear in the hearts of hitters. But no one mastered the craft like The Big Unit.
But a lot of that intimidation came from Johnson's appearance and not his demeanor. When Johnson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Montreal Expos, he became the tallest player in MLB history at the time, standing on the mound at 6 feet, 10 inches tall. Early in his career, Johnson was unable to fully use his frame to his advantage, but one meeting with Nolan Ryan changed everything.
From then on, left-handed hitters would often talk about how the first pitch they saw from Johnson would feel like it was coming directly for their heads. Thanks to Johnson's insane wingspan and sidearm delivery, the ball always appeared ready to do damage, either in the catcher's glove or by connecting with a hitter's torso. Don't believe me? Just ask John Kruk, who famously ran out of the box against Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game.
From there, Randy Johnson became a pitcher's nightmare. And then in 2001, he did something we've never seen happen in a baseball game.
Randy Johnson Hits Bird With a Blazing Fastball
There may never be timing that is as perfect as this again.
During an Arizona Diamondbacks spring training game in Tucson on Mar. 24, 2001, Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson was tuning up his fastball ahead of Opening Day. It was the seventh inning of a bout against the San Francisco Giants, who had a solid lineup led by Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent and Rich Aurilia. Outfielder Calvin Murray, uncle of the athletic Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, stood ready at the plate, locked and loaded. The legendary left-hander went through his usual Hall of Famer wind-up, released the heat and killed a dove.
Didn't see that one coming? Imagine being the bird.
Johnson's World Series-level fastball, rocketing towards catcher Rod Barajas behind home plate, intercepted an interceptor pigeon mid-flight. The now-dead bird (clearly not a Dodgers fan) exploded like the Fourth of July after being struck by an All-Star-like heater, leaving us with one of the weirdest, yet most lasting images in MLB and sports history. Poof!
The umpire ruled a no pitch by fair play rules, but PETA called foul ball. The eccentric animal cruelty promotion group once again flew in the face of common sense when they announced considerations of pressing charges against the Diamondbacks pitcher. The Onion would also announce that a settlement had been reached between the Diamondbacks and the dove's offspring.
"I was considered a bird killer," Johnson recalled, via arizonasports.com. "What became kind of funny, actually became a very serious moment."
The Big Unit was far from a perfect game that day. But conservationists saying he hit the bird on purpose? Nobody is that good. In the end, Johnson didn't receive any charges for the pitch. He didn't receive any Cy Young Awards for the pitch, either.
Johnson described the incident to Fox Sports Arizona as "a blur going across home plate and the ball simultaneously hitting that blur. It's just hard to really put that into perspective. It happened so quick."
Since hanging up his cleats following a stint with the Yankees and Giants and years after hitting the mourning dove, Johnson has dedicated his post-baseball life to his photography business, where many of his subjects are wild animals. The logo for his business? A dead dove, of course.
Friendly reminder that when Randy Johnson retired he put his USC photojournalism skills to use
His company?s logo featured a dead bird because he accidentally killed one with a baseball in 2001 pic.twitter.com/Gr4ikFIWBB
— Talkin? Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) November 15, 2020
An Insane Baseball Moment, Never to be Repeated
Sure, similar things have happened with birds being hit with foul balls, but a spontaneous bird in mid-flight connecting with a strikeout in mid-air while surrounded by thousands of people? Yeah, that's not something you are going to see every day. Not even a Phoenix could rise from the ashes of Randy Johnson's heater.
The odds of the bird flying so perfectly in between the patch of the pitcher and hitter occurring are almost impossible to explain. The game wasn't even broadcast (the Diamondback's video coordinator caught it on film by chance), but highlight shows from ESPN to FOX Sports now show it annually. And while "Randy Johnson Kills Dove" makes for a good headline, it's missing the larger, more once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the highlight. This is a "buy a lottery ticket immediately" kind of situation. Over 20 years later, this is still a mind-blowing moment to watch.
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