Baseball Legend Randy Johnson Puts Service Members in the Spotlight
By Chad Stewart
No matter where he goes, Randy Johnson stands out.
Whether it’s a pitcher’s mound, a USO tour to a remote military base or an African safari, Johnson and his unmistakable 6’10’’ frame are the center of attention.
He had millions of eyes on him when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, on July 26. Standing in front of 45,000 spectators, with a few million more watching at home, Johnson thanked coaches, teammates and family members who helped him on his 44-year baseball odyssey.
When he told the huge audience about his life after baseball, the USO was the first name the first-ballot hall of famer mentioned. Since retiring from the sport in 2009, Johnson has been on seven USO tours and has met troops and families around the world.
When asked why he highlighted the USO in his Hall of Fame speech, Johnson said, “I had the world listening to me and I think it’s one of the most important things that I’ve done in my life.”
His first USO tour, a trip to Iraq and Kuwait in 2009, was an experience that helped forge a long-term relationship with the organization.
“From that point on, I enjoyed it so much and it was so rewarding to me, that I asked [USO Tour Producer] Tracy Thede if there was a need to go on any more tours, I would love to go,” he said. “I’ve gone on at least one, if not two, USO tours every year since.”
His USO travels have taken him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany and Cuba. At each stop, he signs baseballs, shakes hands and takes pictures with service members, spouses and military kids. Some are baseball fans who either remember cheering for “The Big Unit” or wishing he hadn’t shut out their favorite team. There are some who don’t know he’s a baseball legend, but they’re still thrilled that he came out to support them.
Johnson, who studied photojournalism as an undergrad at the University of Southern California in the early 1980s, has been an avid photographer for a long time. With baseball and its year-round work schedule in his rearview mirror, he’s now able to travel around the world in search of great photos. He brings his camera with him on USO tours, but that’s not why he goes.
“I go to hopefully bring a little levity to these [troops] when I’m shaking their hands,” said Johnson, whose photography has been featured in Rolling Stone and Spin and on ESPN.
Last year, he was at the Demilitarized Zone—the tense border between North and South Korea—and took a few photos of American and South Korean troops guarding the infamous “Bridge of No Return.” During a three-day USO tour of the region, the five-time Cy Young Award winner visited with countless troops and family members.
Johnson, who hails from a military family—his late father served in World War II and his brother is an Air Force veteran—told the Hall of Fame crowd that it’s important that we honor and recognize the sacrifices our service members make on our behalf. Then he did exactly that.
In the middle of his speech, he recognized wounded veterans Kenji Nihipali and Roy Halvorsen and expressed his gratitude for their service. He thanked the men he met just days earlier for being his personal guests at the ceremony. Thousands of baseball fans stood and applauded while the soldiers tipped their caps.
For Nihipali and Halvorsen, it was a moment they’ll always remember. For Johnson, it was a unique way to honor troops and veterans.
When he played, Johnson was known for unwavering intensity and unhittable fastballs. His famous scowl—a weapon he used to intimidate and overwhelm opposing hitters—adorns the banners at some of his USO tour stops. But those photos from his playing career are old and the scowl is gone.
The fearless competitor in those pictures has been replaced by an all-time great who says thanks with a few words, a smile and a handshake.
—Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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