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Stromgren Column: Johnson far more than just a pitcher, baseball star

Growing up, there was one autograph I treasured above all in my small collection of sports collectibles.

It's a simple black and white photo of Randy Johnson with his fist in the air and surrounded by Mariners teammates at the old Kingdome in Seattle.

That photo taken the night of June 2, 1990 marked his first no-hitter and the autograph reads, "To Eric- Best Wishes, Randy Johnson."

I was thinking of that photo Thursday when Johnson reached 300 wins after pitching San Francisco to a 5-1 win over Washington.

Given how pitchers are protected in today's game, it seems unlikely the 300 win feat will be matched for another decade, at the earliest and if ever.

I've never been one to call athletes I've come across close or personal friends.

Johnson was more of a role model to me when I was growing up. As a left-handed little league pitcher, I looked up to him just because he played pro ball. He was an unknown then and a few years away from being called "The Big Unit."

I feel fortunate for that, especially given the recent outings of players in the steroid era.

An interesting tidbit for baseball fans is Johnson's connection to Minnesota.

His parents - Carol and Bud - both attended Duluth Denfeld High School in the 1940s before later moving to California, where Randy was born in 1963.

Carol and my grandmother, Lois, consider themselves among a small group of lifelong best friends. Carol recently visited Minnesota to meet Lois and Jean Leaf (who lives in Bemidji) for a mini-reunion in Grand Rapids.

It was a spring afternoon in 1993 when I first met Johnson.

Bud died in December and the Johnson family, my family and friends gathered in Duluth for a memorial service.

It was a day I'll always remember.

Randy, Carol and a few others gathered at my grandmother's house.

During that time, Randy was sincere enough to sign my little league glove and pose for a photo with me and my brother Matt.

Older now and exposed to selfish personalities of some professional athletes, I will always value what Johnson did that day. He could have just brushed me aside during his time of mourning.

I've only seen Johnson once since then. It was 1994 and his arm was wrapped in ice after he defeated the Twins at the Metrodome.

I've followed his career with the Expos, Mariners, Astros, Diamondbacks, Yankees and now the Giants.

As time rolled along, Carol explained to me how baseball was big part of the relationship between Randy and Bud.

When Randy threw his fist in the air on that photo, after he won the World Series with Arizona and again a few years ago when he became the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game - all those actions were tributes to his father.

I didn't get the chance to see him on television Thursday. I did see a photo of Johnson hugging his son, Tanner.

These images are reminders of the importance of family and make Johnson feel like a relatable person, an everyday man.

It's a far contrast from the snarly-faced character with a mullet who once threw at 100 miles per hour to strike fear into opposing batters.

Playing clean and dominating steroids era hitters is one of many undeniable reasons Johnson should make it to Cooperstown on the first ballot.

But he is far more than just a ball player.

He has a commitment to family and treats the common fan with respect. He's the ideal of American baseball.

Johnson is the type of professional missing in modern sports where tickets are becoming increasingly unaffordable to the average American and players are becoming more separated with the young fans who want nothing more than to be part of the game.

Even if it is just dreaming of what may be through an old photograph.

Eric Stromgren can be reached at