Randy Johnson surveyed Thurman Field, Modesto baseball's Rockwell painting, and the memories rolled back in waves — the bus trips, the cramped clubhouses, the shaky food.
Just like that, The Big Unit walked into his past.
Johnson, a member of the Visalia Oaks for one day, recalled the gleam, the longing to be a big-league baseball player. He again recognized that hungry look in the eyes of both his teammates and his opponents Sunday afternoon.
So at age 43, one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time enjoyed his rehab assignment alongside prospects half his age. For him, the vibe was good.
"I didn't know you can really have a flashback without the drugs," Johnson said. "This is the minor leagues. I was there 20 years ago."
He quickly recited his four-year sojourn: Jamestown, N.Y. (Rookie League), West Palm Beach (Class A), Jacksonville (Double-A) and Indianapolis (Triple-A). During each off-season, he stayed in Florida for Instructional League.
"You had watered-down Gatorade and you were eating saltine crackers," he said. "I made all the stops. I paid my dues."
Johnson prepared for the final stage of his Hall of Fame career with an encouraging, if not overwhelming, six-inning performance against the Modesto Nuts. He allowed two earned runs on four hits, struck out four and walked no one. He threw 73 pitches, 58 for strikes, and extended the speed gun to about 92 mph.
For an old guy with a surgically repaired disc in his back, he did fine, especially for someone who stretched to only about 70 percent maximum strength.
"The radar gun is not going to light up like it used to, but my pitches are where they need to be other than my fastball," he said. "I think I'm still building up. I don't know a power pitcher that can throw 11 innings (his total this spring) and be pleased with where he's at."
That said, Johnson put aside his sometimes surly mood and appeared happy with everything other than the Modesto Nuts' 3-2 win: His form, the warm greeting he received from the 4,192 on hand that included his son and other family members, and the knowledge he's probably only one start away from joining the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"From my standpoint," he said, "I was pretty pleased but not content."
Not to throw water on a feel-good day, but it could have gone worse. Much worse. Call it the residue of the Modesto Curse, but I wonder if others considered a dark vision: Johnson, while a curious national media watches from a distance, clutches his back in pain and ends his career on the spot.
Sorry to be Captain Buzzkill. Never mind. Moot point.
Glad to announce good returns from nearly all precincts:
The Nuts' coffers, thanks to a crowd about 3,000 larger than the usual Easter Sunday turnout.
The Oaks for Johnson's farewell present: A $2,200 postgame spread from Outback. For one special day, they left the peanut butter and jelly on the table.
The Nuts for measuring their progress against one of baseball's scariest sights — the 6-foot-10-inch Johnson flinging that slider seemingly from first base.
"I had not seen a pitch from that angle," said Nuts center fielder Dexter Fowler, who went 0-for-3 vs. Johnson. "He's pretty legit. You get up there and think of him as just any other pitcher, and then he throws that slider and you go, 'Whoa!'"
The Nuts, eager to impress, swung aggressively against the legend standing tall. The matchup was exquisite: The past-his-prime icon against a gang of wannabes.
The result was give-and-take. Johnson retired the first seven until Daniel Carte one-hopped one off the wall in left-center for a double, followed by Eric Young Jr.'s RBI single to left. One inning later, Chris Nelson singled and scored on Phillip Cuadrado's double off the wall. Johnson countered by retiring his last nine.
Young, the Nuts' talented leadoff man, hit the ball hard all three times. In his last at-bat, his line drive was speared by Johnson, who slowly walked to the dugout while he patted his hand over his heart and tipped his cap.
Even then, Johnson's past never was too far away.
"It tells you how old you are when you're facing Eric Young's son," he said in reference to his many duels against longtime major leaguer Eric Young Sr.
"I guess that puts everything in perspective."
When you're 43, you own boatloads of perspective.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.