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No matter how old you get or how accomplished you might be, there’s always something new to be learned. Just ask Randy Johnson, the five-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher.
This story first appeared in the November 1, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“You can always learn something at any craft,” said Johnson. “The good ones always stay ahead of the curve.”
The 6-foot, 10-inch Johnson, nicknamed “The Big Unit,” said the best advice he was ever given was by another pitching ace, Nolan Ryan, who noticed a flaw in Johnson’s pitching mechanics during the 1992 season. “I’ve always struggled with my mechanics because of my height,” he said. But Ryan suggested another way for him to land after releasing the ball, and the advice turned out to be golden. “It had a big impact on my career and really put me over the top,” Johnson said. “And he was in a different organization, which was unheard of.”
As Johnson aged, he tried to return the karma by giving pointers to young pitchers on his teams. “The biggest thing I preached was never to be content with how good you are because you’ll never know if it was your best year until after you retire and reflect back. I won five Cy Young Awards and I could have been very content after four, but I actually had my best year statistically when I won my fifth.” He gave this advice to pitchers Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants and Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks, two of the teams he played for during his 22-year Major League career.
The last team he played for was the San Francisco Giants, which just won the World Series last week. “Many of the same kids are there today as when I was there,” he said. “I was 46 years old then and it was fun to mentor them and try to help them better understand how to be successful. They had the physical attributes, but they needed help from a mental standpoint. I was able to give them insight.”
He mentioned Giants pitcher Matt Cain as one of those he’s most proud of mentoring. “The organization and the owner thanked me,” he said.
Since retiring from the game in 2009, Johnson has spent a lot of time touring the world, working on his photography skills and visiting the troops in the Middle East. “I’ve really had a boring life since I retired,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve vacationed with my family, gone on safari to Africa and gone on three USO tours in Afghanistan and Kuwait.” He said he’s not really involved in baseball anymore, only attending games sporadically and coaching his son’s high school team. “I’m more of a fan now that I’m not playing the game,” he said. “But I enjoy watching the young players.
“And I’ve been taking some photos, things like NASCAR, motocross racing, concerts and the African safari. I’ve always enjoyed that.”
Most recently he has a new gig, signing on to be the North American ambassador for Ulysse Nardin, the Swiss watch brand.
Patrik Hoffmann, chief executive officer of Ulysse Nardin, said he got to know Johnson around 10 years ago because he was an avid customer at a luxury watch store in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I knew Randy liked and wore our watches. And we’re not much into ambassadors, we only have three at the moment, so I wasn’t really searching for anyone, but this was just organic.” The other two are Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko and Yuvraj Singh, a cricket player.
The company created a special watch for Johnson called The Big Unit. The stainless steel case is coated with rubber and has a sapphire glass back that is both sporty and luxurious. The dial is inscribed with the words Big Unit, there’s a baseball on the second hand, and Johnson’s number, 51, is on the bezel. Only 100 of the watches have been made and they are being sold at the company’s 55 authorized dealers in the U.S. as well as its two company-owned boutiques in Florida. The retail price is $15,500.
“I wore number 51 for the majority of my career,” Johnson said, “although Bernie Williams had that number for the Yankees so I wore number 41 when I played in New York.”
He said when Hoffmann asked him to be the face of the brand in North America, “I about fell off my seat. Baseball allows you to travel and see a lot of interesting places and when I was playing, I was really into watches. I got into collecting watches and other timepieces and even prior to coming on board, I had six or seven Ulysse watches. So I was honored to be asked to be a partner.”
He said he hopes to travel to the company’s factory in Switzerland to “meet the workers and see the process.” He plans to take his camera along to document the process.