“If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man, you win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me. The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say, I don’t share your greed, the only card I need is the ace of spades.” Motorhead’s Ace of Spades
Ten years before the U.S. Playing Card Company release its 1990 Major League All-Stars boxed set, Motörhead, one of the most influential rock bands to come out of England, released its fourth studio album. The record, titled Ace of Spades, featured a title track that would become the band’s signature tune. Using poker as a metaphor and a long list of cliches for the lyrics, the tune perfectly summarized frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s penchant for fast living.
Randy Johnson, the man they called the Big Unit, didn’t have that insatiable thirst for self-destruction (at least not to my knowledge), but while on the mound he did exude, note-for-note and beat-for-beat, the band’s music. Johnson was the perfect embodiment of Motorhead’s intensity, ferocity, anger, power and speed. If Lemmy’s pitch for life was marked by recklessness, Randy Johnson’s pitching was marked by wildness- or at least early on in his career.
Still a very raw talent when the Montreal Expos traded him to the Pacific Northwest, the 6’10” lefty wasn’t even the centerpiece of the May, 1989 trade that sent Mariners’ All-Star ace Mark Langston north of the border. While Johnson had the highest ceiling of the return, the two other prospects acquired, Brian Holman and Gene Harris, were considered the safer prospects. If Johnson hadn’t been so wild and erratic early in his career, perhaps the Expos would not have traded the lefty.
The trade was a gamble for 32 year-old Expos GM Dave Dombrowski, whose first three seasons as Montreal GM saw him make 23 trades involving 62 players. Sure, he was sending away talent, but the risk Dombrowski faced was acquiring a pitcher who was going to be a free-agent at the end of the ‘89 season- and Montreal was not exactly a popular destination for free-agents. But he really had no choice. The team was in fourth place and number 4 starter Pascual Perez started the season 0-7 after spending most of the spring in drug rehab.
“No free-agent will come here. Almost every no-trade provision includes Montreal. That puts us in a big competitive disadvantage.” Expos manager Buck Rodgers, in the July 31, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated
Langston lived up to the Ace billing- accumulating a 4.9 WAR while going 12-9 in 24 games, with a 2.39 ERA. The lefty registered 6 complete games, 4 shutouts and 175 strikeouts in 176.2 innings. However, after sitting at 17 games over .500 on July 31st, the team would go into a tailspin and finish the season at 81-81 (they had also been at .500 at the time of the trade)- good for 4th in the NL East.
Dombroski’s gamble didn’t pay off in the long run, as Mark signed with the Angels in the offseason. The gamble did payoff for the Mariners, though. It took a few years, but Randy Johnson became the ace that the team lost when it traded Langston.