By Tom Talbot
It may have only been a quick conversation in time, but Kevin Thompson remembers it like it was yesterday. The conversation would lead to a couple of special treasures for his collection, but more than that, allow him special entry into Cooperstown one day.
With the induction ceremonies this past summer, one of history’s most dominant pitchers earned his place in baseball lore in Randy Johnson.
But let’s back up, say roughly 30 years. Before his 10 years in Seattle. Before he practiced pitching to a mannequin. Before his Hall of Fame career was solidified in Arizona. It’s May 1989. Thompson was working for the Rochester Red Wings at the time in Triple-A baseball, and this one particular night would stand out.
The Rochester Red Wings were facing the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple A affiliate of the Montreal Expos at home, facing a tall glass of water nicknamed “The Big Unit.” Except he wasn’t “The Big Unit” yet – he was just Randy Johnson. The nicknames would come later. Johnson had seen some action in the Majors in 1988, finally getting a handle on his control problems. Johnson could throw fast – really fast. But he sometimes had no idea where the ball would end up. He logged a lot of walks in the minors and started to gain a reputation as someone no one wanted to bat against for fear of getting their head knocked off. That’s why he ended up pitching to a mannequin – no one wanted to bat against him in practice. Several years later one of his fastballs found a dove on the way to home plate. The dove didn’t live to tell about it.
Thompson was working in the visitors’ clubhouse that night and was planning on driving several players from each team around to the local establishments after the game – a duty they often did for the players. A phone call interrupted the postgame, and it turned out Randy would not be joining the boys on an adventure to the bars that night. He had been traded to the Mariners. After giving him the news, Thompson asked him if he would mind giving him his hat and sign a ball for him. Such things were not frowned upon in those days because no one was rushing home to eBay to post their latest autographs. Johnson said sure and handed him the hat and signed a ball. The signature is much different than what would become Johnson’s signature in the majors – his unique nearly unreadable scrawl that goes for big money. This was his entire name.
So off to the Mariners Johnson went and the ball and hat would sit in a box for years at Thompson’s house. In that time, Johnson built his Hall of Fame career,mowing down batters like almost no one else did before him. He’s one of only two players in the history of baseball with four consecutive Cy Young awards.
When it was announced that Johnson was going to be enshrined in Cooperstown this year, Thompson decided it was time to contribute something back to baseball, a sport that has given so much to him. So he contacted the Hall of Fame and asked if they would be interested in the hat to display with all of the other Johnson memorabilia they had acquired over the years.
Thompson was ecstatic when he received approval and a lifelong pass to the Hall of Fame. The hat is now displayed next to the bats, jerseys and awards. The ball? He wanted to hold onto that. It’s not every day you can find a full Randy Johnson signature – especially dating back to the minors.
Thompson continues his lifelong obsession with baseball by serving as the play-by-play announcer for a summer league made up of college players and aspiring minor leaguers. He continues to coach his two sons and still continues his love for sports autographs – especially the one Randy Johnson signed for him in 1989.