Randy Johnson cemented himself as one of the most fearsome pitchers in the MLB with the help of a fiery fastball that struck fear into the heart of every batter who stepped up to the plate and created one of the wildest moments in sports history courtesy of a bird that ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The man known as “The Big Unit” earned that nickname thanks to the massive 6’10” frame he harnessed to routinely dispatch opponents with ease en route to racking up five Cy Young Awards, earning a spot in the All-Star Game on ten occasions, and being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 97.3% of voters giving him their endorsement.
Johnson became the tallest pitcher in MLB history when he made his debut with the Expos in 1988, but the lefty is best known for what he was able to achieve during his time with the Mariners and Diamondbacks.
While he racked up plenty of accolades over the course of a legendary career that spanned 22 seasons, I’d argue his most impressive achievement came during a largely meaningless spring training game in 2001.
The most devastating pitch of Randy Johnson’s MLB career managed to kill a bird
Seeing a wild animal interrupt a sporting event isn’t exactly a rare occurrence, and for the most part, it usually doesn’t have a major impact on the game. The Joba Chamberlian Midge Incident is a notable exception (and a great name for a band), but for the most part, rogue squirrels and other invaders tend to be an entertaining distraction more than anything.
That was essentially the case with what unfolded when Johnson and the Diamondbacks faced off against the Giants during spring training on March 24, 2001. The Big Unit was gearing up for a campaign where he’d end up winning his third consecutive Cy Young Award, so while he didn’t really need to worry about making the roster, he still used the contest as a chance to get some reps in.
In the seventh inning, Johnson was facing off against San Francisco outfielder Calvin Murray (who just so happens to be Kyler Murray’s uncle, a fact that doesn’t really have anything to do with the topic at hand but still feels like it’s worth mentioning).
During the at-bat, the pitcher delivered one of his signature 100 MPH fastballs, and while Murray would’ve probably had some trouble connecting if it made it to the plate, he never got the chance thanks to the bird that exploded into a cloud of feathers after flying directly into the path of the baseball.
I would describe this as a “one-in-a-million scenario,” but I don’t think that even comes close to capturing the actual odds of this happening.
The MLB didn’t even have a rule about what you’re supposed to do when a pitch fails to make it to the plate because it killed a bird that got in the way, so the umpires had to discuss how to handle the situation before calling a “no pitch” and continuing with the game.
While Jeff Kent seemed to be pretty amused by the situation based on the smile he had on his face while transporting the dead bird off of the field, Johnson didn’t seem to see the humor in what was a pretty sad development he’d been inadvertently responsible for—at least at first.
The pitcher pivoted to a career as a photographer after hanging up his cleats in 2010, and the logo for his business is a dead bird with a few feathers flying off of it (I’m sure some people will accuse Johnson of making light of the unfortunate incident, but I think he’s earned the right to have a little bit of fun with it).
Interestingly enough, Johnson wasn’t even the first person to pull off a similar feat; Dave Winfield somehow ended up facing animal cruelty charges when he killed a seagull with a throw during a game in Toronto in 1983 (it’s worth nothing another Diamondbacks pitcher channeled Johnson while warming up before a game in 2023).