HOUSTON -- Trade Randy Johnson? A month ago it seemed preposterous. A week ago it seemed highly unlikely. But now, the Big Unit bidding war can officially begin.
After four days of tap-dancing around those trade questions like Fred Astaire, the Unit finally gave up the charade on Monday. He didn't quite scream, "Get me outta here." But he sure didn't say, "I want to be a Diamondback for life."
At one point during Monday's All-Star Game media session, Johnson complained about all the inaccuracies in the coverage of this juicy little tale. So someone observed: "You know, if you're tired of the stories, you could end them all by just saying, 'I'm happy in Arizona. I don't want to leave.' "
Johnson chuckled and said, "I love it in Arizona. ... Uh, how'd that go again?"
The question was then repeated to him.
He then said: "I like Arizona. My children go to school in Arizona." (Long pause.)
Question: "And you don't want to leave?"
Another long pause.
"I don't know if I can say that," he said.
Asked at that point if he wanted to be traded, Johnson replied: "I don't know. ... I haven't been approached by the Diamondbacks to waive my no-trade clause."
Then, after another pause, he said: "The only way I'd probably want to leave is if a trade would benefit the Diamondbacks by my leaving. And maybe the way to do that is if they wouldn't have to pay my salary and it could go to some other players that would help them -- and if I got to a situation that was going to work for me. That's pretty logical, right?
"I'm not going to leave to go to a situation where they theoretically have a (slight) chance to win. There has been no list of teams (he would go to). Just teams that have a (good) chance to win. That's the only way.
"So there," he told the inquisitors. "You got what you wanted. I'm not going to talk about it anymore."
Yeah, he was through talking about it, all right. For at least six seconds.
The very next question was whether he'd gone to the Diamondbacks and asked to be traded. Johnson replied: "Whatever they want to do, they're going to do. Matt Williams had a no-trade clause, and they were trying to trade him to Colorado. So whatever they want to do, they can do. You see it all the time. It's not just me."
But hold on. There is a big, big difference between the Unit's situation and Williams' situation a couple of years back. Williams' skills were clearly declining. Johnson is still among the most dominating pitchers in the solar system.
So why would the Diamondbacks want to trade this guy? Why would anyone? Well, nobody would. And his team doesn't. It didn't a week ago. And, from all indications, it still doesn't.
First off, remember this: It's not as if he's a free agent. He's signed through 2005.
And second, it's not as if they can trade him and then go out and find somebody just like him. Heck, who would that be? A 6-foot-10 dominator who's still at the top of his game? About the only guy like that we could think of is, say, Dirk Nowitzki. And how many Cy Youngs has he won?
"It's like the Shaq trade," said one NL executive. "Whoever you get back, you're not getting anything close to the guy you gave up. Because guys like him just don't exist."
Exactly. The Diamondbacks also don't consider themselves to be in a rebuilding mode, no matter how disastrous their season may have gone so far.
They believe they have a group of talented young players, with a lot more on the way. They see Brandon Webb maturing into a top-of-the-rotation starter. And they have players to trade (Steve Finley, Danny Bautista, Elmer Dessens) this month to fill other holes.
So with Randy Johnson fronting the rotation, they see themselves getting back into contention by next year. But without him, it's a whole different picture.
Which means it's possible they still won't trade him, unless Johnson goes out of his way to force their hand. An official of one club who talked to the Diamondbacks this week said they would have to be blown away by somebody's offer to trade him, that it would have to be "a steal of a deal" for their side to make it worth their while.
But the Yankees and Red Sox don't seem to have the young impact players it would take to formulate that kind of deal. And, according to one baseball official who has been monitoring this situation, the Yankees still hadn't heard one word from anybody in Arizona since this story exploded, as of late Monday afternoon.
The Yankees would, of course, be gracious enough to take the rest of Johnson's contract (about $24 million) off the Diamondbacks' I.O.U. sheet -- and even extend that contract if the Unit asked them politely. But they should know that nothing agitated Johnson more Monday than suggestions he's just doing this to finagle an extension.
"That's the farthest thing from my mind." he grumbled. "I don't know where that came from."
He only wants to pitch beyond 2005, he said, if he can "get back to the level I'm used to pitching at." But that's a season and a half -- and 300 grueling innings -- from now. So not only was he not angling for an extension, he said, but he would even "feel guilty" if he signed one right now.
When he wasn't revealing his inner guilt, though, there were times when Johnson seemed downright amused by all this.
At one point, as he dodged questions from assorted Boston and New York media types, he joked: "I'm really torn -- between the Manhattan Club and chowder at the Boston Club."
At another point, a New York writer asked him if he'd talked to his old pal, A-Rod, who had said over the weekend he would try to lobby Johnson to head for New York.
"Who?" he deadpanned, before the memory of his former Mariners teammate apparently came to him. "Hey, maybe he'll take me out to dinner tonight."
The Unit was also slightly vague on whether he'd heard from another former teammate -- and reported lobbyist -- Curt Schilling. Told by a Boston writer that Schilling said he'd talked to Johnson 20 to 25 times this year, Johnson yanked out his cell phone.
"Well," he laughed, "I've got voice mail on my phone. I'm sure he leaves a lot of messages."
Schilling no doubt hoped to deliver some of those messages in person this week. But on Monday, he was denying all attempts to paint him as the Chamber of Commerce spokesman who could sweet-talk Johnson into heading for New England.
"I'm not going to convince Randy to do it," he said. "I played with him long enough to know he's his own man. He's going to make his decision based on what's best for his family and what's best for the rest of his career."
But if Schilling thinks he's getting out of this recruiting gig that easily, he might have to think again.
"We have a guy who's working on bringing the Big Unit to Boston," joked his teammate, David Ortiz. "And if he doesn't -- he's fired!"
Yeah, it was one big Yankees-Red Sox laughathon on Media Day, all right. But suppose neither of those teams winds up with this guy? Boss Steinbrenner and his good friend, Larry Luchino, wouldn't be chuckling over that, we're sure. But it could happen. Easily.
The Angels, Dodgers, Cubs and Mets also are believed to have interest. But they all offer various pros and cons. And Johnson made it clear that there is only one "pro" he is interested in. And it isn't money, glory, 300 wins or any more Cy Young trophies.
"Winning a World Series," he said, "would far outweigh any individual accomplishments."
He knows some people have speculated that now that he's won one World Series, he might be driven by other goals that could take precedent over winning. But the Big Unit couldn't have shut down that speculation any more forcefully if he'd driven a tractor-trailer through his friendly neighborhood newspaper printing plant.
"I think I've done enough in the game now where I'm not worried about whether I'll go to the Hall of Fame," he said, "or what my legacy is. I've done all the individual things in the game I ever set out to do."
Which suggests he's driving this trade-me scenario for pureley selfless motives. But the trouble with that is that his employers, the Diamondbacks, might not see it that way.
They're interested in winning, too, of course. And if they make the wrong deal for Randy Johnson just because he wants them to, it might not further that noble pursuit.
So these next three weeks should be verrrry interesting. Will they or won't they? Yankees or Red Sox? East coast or west? Or possibly none of the above?
Those are questions we can't answer quite yet. But the biggest question of all was finally answered Monday. Does Randy Johnson want out? Hoo boy. Does he ever.