PHOENIX — With great enthusiasm, in great detail, Randy Johnson talks of watching through a camera lens as wild dogs in Africa chased a leopard from the carcass of a gazelle, and how the leopard stayed warily nearby for his chance to salvage what food it could. He witnessed female lions work to extract a dead baby elephant floating down a river, the male lion watching from above on a nearby ridge.
He has photographed rock star friends from onstage and taken his cameras on USO tours to military installations around the world.
Somewhere along the way, Johnson’s intimidating glare faded away. Often a broad smile was in its place.
Johnson clearly is enjoying life after baseball.
“As you know, I was extremely intense when I played. I just felt like I was wired that way,” said Johnson, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. “Since I retired I’d like to think that I’m not wound as tight because the expectations of whatever those expectations are every fifth day aren’t there anymore. “
Mark Grace played against Johnson before becoming a teammate on Arizona’s 2001 World Series championship team.
“Randy played with fury,” said Grace, now the Diamondbacks’ assistant hitting coach. “I couldn’t play angry. I’d have been swinging at everything if I’d played angry. But he had to be that way. That’s what worked for him.”
He was moody and could be short with reporters, and God forbid if some novice scribe ventured to Johnson’s corner of the clubhouse the day before he was to pitch.
When he left baseball, photography was a natural outlet for Johnson. He had been a photojournalism major at USC.
“I’m not any good, I just enjoy it,” he said. “I really kind of look at it as a great outlet and it was a great way to go into that from baseball.”
As in baseball, “I have a game plan of what I’m doing,” he said.
“And I have that tunnel vision and I’m looking through that camera lens at my subject matter, ” Johnson said. “On the day I pitched I was looking at the catcher’s glove and I was extremely focused. So there’s some parallels to both of those. I think It’s a good release for me to do something I enjoy doing, and there’s really no expectations, either.”
It’s no private hobby for a man who had led such a private life away from the ballpark when he was playing.
He has a website, rj51photos.com, to exhibit his work. He’s also on Instagram and plugs it in interviews.
There, you will find that majestic leopard, a piece of the ill-fated gazelle’s ribcage in its mouth. There’s another photo of a surfer riding a big wave. And Ozzy Osbourne riding on Johnson’s back, making an obscene gesture at the camera. There are photos of wounded veterans. Johnson is a big supporter of the Wounded Warriors program and will have wounded soldiers among his guests at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
When he left the game, Johnson for years kept baseball at arm’s length, as if to be decompressing from 22 years of professional play, a time he worked tirelessly to condition his body, hone his craft and maintain that searing inner strength.
Only in recent years has he eased back into it.
This year, as his first-ballot Hall of Fame election was announced, Johnson was hired by the Diamondbacks as a special assistant to team President Derrick Hall.
His duties include working with players in the Diamondbacks farm system, often assuring them he had many struggles before reaching the top of his profession.
“He let us know early on his greatest interest was going to our affiliates and spending time with our youngsters,” Hall said. “He has made some trips for us and spent time with the pitching staffs. His success and experience have been widely embraced and his influence is already being felt.”
Johnson won four consecutive Cy Young Awards, pitched a perfect game and won a World Series with the Diamondbacks, who will retire his No. 51 on Aug. 8.
First, there is business to take care of in Cooperstown.
And, yes, Johnson will take his cameras along.
“I will have the greatest vantage point of anybody, being on stage, and I would like to share these moments with anybody that’s interested,” he said. “So I will be snapping away and taking pictures of my other three inductee brothers. And then maybe a selfie or two of me and the forty, fifty thousand people that are in the field on Hall of Fame Day.”