Sat, Feb 19, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Yankees wind up an aging `Big Unit'

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL The New York Yankees' revamped starting rotation all practiced at the same time in Tampa. The group is valued at around US$67 million

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TAMPA, FLORIDA

New York Yankees pitcher Randy Johnson walks off a pratice field following the first day of catchers and pitchers workouts at spring training in Tampa, Florida on Thursday. Johnson threw only fastballs during his debut as a Yankee.

PHOTO: AP

They were the first ice packs of the Yankees' season, on the left shoulder, the right knee and the lower back of Randy Johnson after his throwing session on Thursday. There will be hundreds more, all serving to keep the Yankees' new ace in working order. So far, so good.

Pitching off a bullpen mound for the first time as a Yankee, Johnson looked spry and kept his outlook sunny. He unfolded his 6-foot-10, 41-year-old frame from the far right mound in the Legends Field bullpen, throwing easily to his new catcher, Jorge Posada.

Fans peered down from the overhead walkways. Cameras clicked from behind a chain-link fence. Pitching coaches watched from the back of the mounds, and Manager Joe Torre hovered nearby.

Asked if he noticed, Johnson seemed amused.

"Was there anybody out there watching me?" he asked.

Johnson, whose Yankees career started with shoving a cameraman on Madison Avenue last month, has been downright folksy ever since. After 17 seasons in the major leagues, he is used to being the center of attention, even from his teammates.

"I'd met Randy a couple of times before," Jaret Wright, another new starter, said. "But I don't remember him being 8 feet tall."

Wright and Carl Pavano also took the Yankees mound for the first time, working alongside Johnson, Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown. That was the Yankees' revamped starting rotation, all flinging for the same 10 minutes, roughly US$67 million of pitching spread across five mounds.

"You always wonder, especially about the new guys, until you get a chance to see them throw, what kind of arm action they've got and how the ball comes out of their hand," the pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. "Obviously, the new guys were very impressive today. Just playing catch, you can see things that you really like."

Nobody is watching closer than Posada, who is adapting to three new starters for the second spring in a row. He became especially close last year with Javier Vazquez, who was traded to Arizona in the deal for Johnson.

Now, Posada must forge a close relationship with Johnson, the way he did in 1999 with another future Hall of Famer, Roger Clemens. Posada said he clicked instantly with Clemens, who relies heavily on his catcher's input. But he said it took longer to adapt to Mike Mussina, who essentially calls his own game.

For now, Johnson said he would be more like Clemens, deferring to Posada's knowledge of American League hitters. Johnson has not pitched in the American League in almost seven years, and he mentioned David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez -- Red Sox, naturally -- as hitters he would study.

"We'll be on the same page very quickly," Johnson said of Posada

The last time Johnson changed leagues, when he went from the Seattle Mariners to the Houston Astros in 1998, he had the best two months of his career. Then he joined the Diamondbacks and won four Cy Young awards in a row. He has won the award five times in his career; Yankees pitchers have won five in team history.

For Johnson to dominate again, he must deal with the adjustment most star players experience in New York. Clemens, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez and others experienced a drop-off in performance in their first seasons with the Yankees.

Johnson said he was undeterred. "The only thing I can really see that's different is there's more people here," he said. "I'm not going to be asked to do anything that I haven't already done. I guess I'm just not in awe of the situation. I'm not overwhelmed. I was initially, but now I'm in my surroundings. This is my domain, if you will. I'm comfortable on the mound."

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