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Randy Johnson Killing That Bird Deserves An Asterisk

Arizona Diamondbacks starter Randy Johnson pitches against the Florida Marlins during the second inning 23 April 2001 in Phoenix. AFP Photo/Mike FIALA (Photo by Mike FIALA / AFP) (Photo by MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images)
Mike Fiala/AFP via Getty Images

Twenty years ago this week, Randy Johnson pulverized a bird. It is one of the most iconic moments in baseball history—you’d think it was an urban legend if it weren’t captured on video—and among the most mathematically improbable. As far as we know, in more than century of the sport, a bird has never been hit by a pitch before, and may never be again. To see it is to look upon the face of God, and be awed by His benevolence at providing us such a spectacle—and wonder at His wrath. Are we not all birds flying through life, just waiting for the moment our own personal Big Unit smites us? And yet, for the same 20 years, a thought has nagged at me. I do not welcome this thought, mind you, but I can not ignore it. The thought is this: Randy Johnson killing a bird with a pitch did not really “count” because it happened in spring training and not a regular-season game.

We need not go through all the details of the moment that Johnson’s pitch (a fastball) sent the bird (a mourning dove) on to its maker, though the Athletic has a fun oral history of the moment. We need not even look at the video again, imprinted as it is on the psyche of anyone who saw it. The explosion of feathers. The slow, shocked realization of the crowd. The benighted columbid plunging to earth, never to rise again, tumbling end over end. It did not suffer; it did not know. We need not revisit the film, because these images are already part of the sport’s collective visual canon. But—oh, hell, let’s watch the video again anyway. Maybe five more times.

For the purposes of this admittedly deranged thesis, the only detail that matters is that the bird sublimation took place in a spring training game between the Diamondbacks and Giants. Not a real game; not one that counted in the standings. A spring training game, for which no statistic will ever be official, no standings will be affected, no box score will ever be recorded in the Baseball Almanac, no achievement will earn its achiever fame nor fortune. If that last applies to any feat with bat and ball, should it not apply to bird as well?

I am not fully certain what I mean when I say it didn’t quite “count.” Yes, I understand there’s no stat for bird-killing. Yes, I understand it counted to the bird and the bird’s loved ones. The bird is just as dead as if it had been killed in May. What I think it boils down to is the fact that spring training is supposed to be weird. It is the Upside Down, the Phantom Zone, the Flatland of baseball. It’s real but it’s not. It is where fans heartily boo a questionable strike call with a pitcher they’ve never heard of before facing a hitter they’ve never heard of before in the eighth inning of a game that doesn’t matter and which they’ve forgotten the score. Yoenis Cespedes rode a horse to the ballpark in spring training. Billy Crystal had an at-bat in spring training. A Dodgers pitcher beat up Ernest Hemingway in spring training. What I am saying is, for as unlikely as the reality was, Randy Johnson killing a bird in the regular season would be more surprising to me than if you told me that Randy Johnson had transmuted into an actual giant bird—if it happened in spring training.

Oh, how I wish it had happened in the regular season. This is another thing about my brain; it dwells on what-ifs. At least monthly I imagine Gordon Hayward’s half-court buzzer-beater attempt against Duke going in. At least weekly I curse the fates for not letting LeBron finish his dunk after blocking Andre Iguodala on the other end. There are many avian what-ifs and almost-weres in baseball, but Johnson’s looms large. Too bad we must live in reality, where it happened in the spring, and thus didn’t fully happen.

Dave Winfield, you are yelling at me right now. The then–Yankees outfielder hit and killed a ring-billed gull with a throw in 1983 Toronto. (I condemn the killing of all birds. But I’d come closest to making an exception for a seagull.) Winfield always insisted it was an accident, but there was apparently some doubt; he was briefly arrested and charged with cruelty to animals, before charges were sheepishly dropped. Sorry, but Dave Winfield also doesn’t count; it happened during warm-ups between innings, and warm-ups don’t count. Does a batting practice home run count toward historic totals? It does not, and a warm-up toss that kills a bird, even if in the middle of a regular-season game, does not count either.

No, I believe there is just one “official” bird-kill in MLB history. On April 12, 1987, Braves outfielder Dion James hit what looked like a routine pop fly to left. The ball struck and killed a pigeon in mid-air, and plummeted to the grass as a stunned Kevin McReynolds retrieved the ball. James motored into second with a bird-corpse-assisted double. “The bird died a hero to me,” James said. Shortstop Rafael Santana picked up the pigeon with distaste and handed it to a ball girl. Mets pitcher Bobby Ojeda couldn’t believe his bad luck (and apparently didn’t think much about the bird’s): ”I looked around and saw feathers, then a bird falling. After this, I might go back and lock myself in my room.”

There is video of James’s double, but it does not show the bird strike. We are once again presented a gift of improbability burdened by the weighty knowledge that it could have been even better.

There is a lesson here for me, I think, and it’s to be satisfied with what life gives me, and not torture myself with what might have been. But there’s a lesson here for you, too: Do NOT ever tell me Randy Johnson killed a bird with a pitch without acknowledging that it was in spring training. Your credibility is on the line.