The Tallest Man on Turf

On levels of fandom, the limits of myth in sports, and why someone would draw 185 portraits of Randy Johnson with no intention of ever selling them.

Hunter Jack was in Cooperstown, New York, trying to make baseball fans understand something they couldn’t collect. He’d driven from Queens and rented a table in the Doubleday Field parking lot, near the commemorative Sandlot Kid sculpture, to display his 185 hand-drawn baseball-card-sized portraits of Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson. Over the past twenty-four months, he’d obsessed over Johnson’s hawk-like face, his body like a windmill knocked off kilter, and rendered the pitcher in everything from pen and ink to collage.

It was Hall of Fame weekend, and Randy, along with Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, would be immortalized as a baseball legend in the coming days as a 2015 inductee. Fans of the game stopped by the booth where Hunter sat with his girlfriend Caroline, his mom Laura, and a few Canadian friends, to look at the three-by-three portrait grids encased in plastic. Someone inquired if Jack and Johnson were related. Another wanted to know if he could buy a portrait. Jack’s friend Ryan McColeman had to tell the guy they weren’t for sale.

“Why would you make art and not have it for sale?” the fan asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

It seemed as though everyone except Jack was selling something at Hall of Fame weekend. Autographs from retired players who, unlike Randy, will never make it into the Hall of Fame, went for five dollars apiece. A signature from a more storied player cost $100. You could buy game-worn hats, and game-used bats, and bags of dirt from old stadiums. Johnson himself wandered into town on Thursday with four security guards to pick up some vintage baseball shirts from Mickey’s Place on Main Street. (Unfortunately, not everything in the store fit his 6’10” frame.) While there is no right way to be a fan, enthusiasm is often expressed commercially (baseball revenues exceeded $8 billion in 2013), and Hall of Fame weekend is expressive. What Cooperstown really trades in is Americana: Jack’s friends from Canada were counting American flags when they first arrived, but stopped when they saw one made entirely of baseball bats. Hall of Fame weekend is the standout event in a town that trades on baseball, the myth therein, and the money to be made from it.

But Johnson never quite seemed to buy into the myth. A five-time Cy Young winner, ten-time MLB All-Star, and holder of the record for the second-most strikeouts of all time (4,875), he loved playing baseball, but had little time for the spectacle surrounding it. He makes his success sound like a random accident of fate and genetics augmented by a lot of hard work. With his flinty eyes, peaked nose, and legendary height, Johnson’s impossible to miss. “He’s a one of a kind body, like a natural freak occurrence,” Jack said. The popularity that accompanied his success fit him about as well as an off-the-rack suit would a man of his size. His reaction to media and fans sometimes engendered ill will, but Johnson insisted it was a reticence bred of humility, inspired by lessons passed down from his dad. Since retiring, he’s spent his time pursuing professional photography. He talks about being one of the best players in the history of baseball the way most of us talk about the weather. Not to say he takes it for granted. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, he spoke more about others than he did himself, thanking all of them for being there on “his special day.”

But it’s not Johnson’s outsider status, or his artistic pursuits, which led to Jack producing his collection of portraits. When I asked him why he decided to start drawing Johnson one day and then not stop drawing him for two years, his answer was simple: “Because he’s the tallest.”

*

There was no baseball game the day I first met Hunter Jack, so instead of heading to a stadium, we went to Wayne Gretzky’s, a hockey-themed bar in downtown Toronto, just down the street from the Rogers Centre. It seemed like a good place to talk about how to be a fan. As soon as we sat down, Jack complimented an Eighties-style portrait of Wayne above a banquette that looked like the debut album cover of a mall-tour heartthrob, or a Tiger Beat pin-up done in pastel. While Jack hasn’t done any Randy portraits in this specific style, he’s rendered the player pretty much every-way-else. He pulled the plastic sleeves from his bag, and though I’d looked through the drawings on his Tumblr page before, I was struck by the tactile experience of holding them. There was something about the scale, stacked up in the sleeves, the repeated imagery cast over and over in different ways, which felt meditative. It was the feeling of a long run, the feeling of conditioning training. Repetition with purpose that allows you to notice different muscles every time.

But there was also a narrative: Randy with his head in his hands, sitting on the bench. Randy with his leg in the air, impossibly long arm rocketing a baseball in front of him. Randy wound up, ready to explode. Randy as force. Randy as ferocity. Randy as someone staring down the concept of failure and baring his teeth.


Hunter has a story about each grid. He was in a bad mood the day he drew that one, or he hadn’t picked up a pen in a while and he was feeling rusty. Here’s the grid he drew when he found his stride, the one he made when he found his favourite markers. His girlfriend Caroline is an artist, and they spent a lot of time drawing together while he worked on the project, with a medieval detective series rented from the public library or an audiobook by Robert Bolaño playing in the background.

Jack had been drawing since he was young, but sports were the conversation he grew up with. He first went to Cooperstown as a kid with his mom and his uncle. “I remember being wowed by these figures, the immense feeling that is the history of baseball,” he said. Art was always in the back of his head, but he never felt comfortable exploring that world. Sports, however, had always been an organic space for him, a mode of memory, a mode of socializing.

In 2013, Jack’s band Cloud Becomes Your Hand stopped by his childhood home near Plymouth, Massachusetts. He and his bandmate Weston found a box of baseball cards in his old bedroom and started flipping through, landing on Randy Johnson. “Weston was taken aback by the fierceness that is Randy’s visual face,” Jack said. “His neck’s twisted, he’s beet red because he’s working hard. He’s a beast. He’s working his ass off, and he wears all that.” A few months later, the band was planning another tour, and Jack was looking for something to keep him busy in the van. He thought back to the visit to his mom’s house, and decided that he would spend his hours on the road drawing portraits of Johnson based on his baseball cards. “And that led to this crazy, two-year, weird drawing commitment to Randy.” He completed the first page of portraits on that tour—a fitting place to draw a man who has spent much of his post-athletic life taking photographs of musicians. In Jack’s early drawings, Randy, rendered in marker, gazes up at the sky. He winds up. He clutches a ball. In the middle portrait, he stares wildly at the viewer. His moustache, drawn with orange marker, looks almost sentient.

Jack bought 225 Randy Johnson cards on Ebay to add to his childhood collection of 40. In six months, after he had completed four pages—36 portraits—he researched when Johnson was getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. “That seemed like a cool natural deadline,” he said. “I will stop then. I will go there.”

*

It’s 2000, and Randy Johnson is pitching for Arizona against the Cincinnati Reds. He has 19 strikeouts, and the crowd is poised for him to make it 20. He throws that final ball—swing and a miss! It lands in the catcher’s mitt, and Johnson reaches to the sky with a clenched fist like the hero in a Greek myth. Johnson was the tallest baseball player to pitch in the major leagues. ESPN called him “a human cauldron of emotion.” Grantland called him “an unholy mess of arms, legs and velocity.” In 2001, a baseball he pitched went Betty Draper on a pigeon flying through the stadium. The bird, struck by the throw, exploded in a mass of feathers like a powder puff returned too aggressively to its case.

Now, a pigeon lying on its back with x’s for eyes is the logo of Johnson’s photography website. During a press interview at the San Diego Zoo, he tried to throw an apple into a rhinoceros’ mouth while taking its picture, and missed. Uncharacteristically, Johnson gave a lot of interviews leading up to Hall of Fame weekend. In one of them, he told ESPN that he hides behind his camera. Curling up like a snake (one of his nicknames) on the floor of an arena to get a shot, he becomes almost unnoticeable. “Maybe they won’t see me,” he says of himself when he’s taking photos. “Maybe I won’t be 6’10” anymore.”

*

“He uses intimidation as a big gamesmanship quality, because he’s so tall,” Jack told me. For Jack, though, sports, not art, are the defense mechanism. “I had always used sports as a little shield between myself and committing fully to participating in creative pursuits.” Drawing the Randys allowed him to tread into art using something that made sense to him. “It was a nice, easy way to enter into art-making.” The repetitive subject matter was also uniquely suited to someone developing their craft: each new card allowed him to experiment in different styles, hone different skills. But he was still more at home in sports territory than the arts world: “I felt a lot more comfortable going to Cooperstown than I felt approaching a gallery.” Once he’d decided where he would display the work, Jack stopped questioning why he was making it. All would be answered, he felt, when he got to Cooperstown.

“I definitely had some romantic ideas about what Cooperstown would be,” Ryan McColeman said. He headed down to Hall of Fame weekend from Toronto at the last minute to support Jack, and he was the first one to tell me about the project; he and I have been friends since 2011. Jack called the weekend “a real amazing American slice.” Vendors set up shop next to the year-round souvenir merchants along Main Street. This was where players would ride through the crowd in the Parade of Legends, thousands gathered to feel what McColeman called a shared experience, the essence of the “cult-like” nature of being a fan. Induction weekend usually draws between 15- to 20,000 spectators, according to MLB.com. (The highest turnout on record is an estimated 82,000 attendees in 2007, the year Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were inducted.) For baseball fans, McColeman said, it’s like going to a holy place. It seemed like the perfect spot to find an appreciative audience for Jack’s portraits of “The Big Unit.” “How could they not love it?”

The Parade of Legends rolled down Main Street in front of a marquee that read BASEBALL SOUVENIRS AND ICE CREAM. “It’s like the worst parade ever,” Jack said. “There’s no pomp, no music, no confetti, no floats.” The Hall of Famers waved from the back of Ford pick-up trucks customized with a red velvet bench. “Lookin’ good, fellas!” someone shouted from the thousands-deep crowd. The crunch of the slow tires was obscured by shouts and whistles every time a car approached. “Whitey Ford in a white ford!” came a yell as the 1974 inductee drove by. It felt a little like a graduation—the shouts louder for some than for others, which was a little hard to watch. The parade was forty-five minutes long.

Some players were accompanied by their wives, others by members of the US Navy. But Randy Johnson rode alone. In a beige jacket, and lighter-beige pants, as his truck turned onto Main Street, he was standing up, straddling the red velvet bench like a knight on a chariot, holding his iPhone in front of his face to film the crowd. “BIG UNIT!” they shouted, as he smiled and pivoted, smiled and pivoted, taking in the panorama, the phone dwarfed by his hands. As loud as it was when Randy drove by, it was nothing compared to the cheers for Pedro Martinez.


In baseball, like in any sport, there are two kinds of fans: fans of the game, and fans of a team. McColeman called team-centric fandom the original relationship. Everyone appreciates Randy’s ability, McColeman said, but he’s not the man they came to see. That’s because, unlike his fellow 2015 inductees, he spent most of his career moving from team to team. The three other players honoured were strongly associated with one city, and have the loyal fan base that incurs. Not so for Randy. “He doesn’t identify with any place he came from,” Jack said. “He’s an individual within this business, basically.” Or, as McColeman put it: “People love Randy, but he’s not their guy.”

*

When Jack thinks about sports, which he’s been doing a lot these days, that camaraderie, that collective spirit, is what comes to mind. “It’s like church or something. It’s like a constant.” Like religion, sports can be a language that connects both strangers and family. McColeman’s most vivid memory from a childhood visit to the Hall of Fame is sharing the experience with his dad. When Jack’s mom watched the Parade of Legends, she was excited to whistle and cheer for the players she went to see as a teenager.

Baseball fandom isn’t easy. Jack called being a fan of the sport a battle of attrition. In a piece for Grantland, Michael Baumann agreed: “This is a game for nihilists, and it’s played six days a week.” But it’s something you can count on, something that’s been integral to the American character since the early twentieth century. And, as Baumann wrote, “There’s no greater feeling than being a fan of a baseball team that just got good.”

“I looked up the derivation of fandom recently,” Jack told me at Gretzky’s, holding a burger with the number 99 seared into its bun. “Fanatic plus kingdom. A bunch of people thinking the same thing and being crazy about it. That’s where the money and commercialization comes in.”

For Jack, money has changed baseball, and at Hall of Fame weekend, that reality was unavoidable. “In the mid-‘80s, Toronto Blue Jays players had second jobs, they had winter jobs.” Things seemed different, he said, when his mom watched Carlton Fisk in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. “Certain fans can have things now that other fans can’t have.”

Things were prevalent in Cooperstown. In Randy Johnson’s exhibit at the Hall of Fame, there’s the vest he was wearing in 2002 when he struck out his 300th batter for the fifth straight season. The ball from his perfect game. The spikes he wore in ’99, when he won the Cy Young award. His glove from his 3,000th strikeout. Nearby, a case is filled with World Series rings. “They just get bigger and bigger with more jewels on them,” Jody Jackson from Fox Sports Arizona said during a broadcast on Johnson. There are 40,000 artifacts in the Hall of Fame. Seven thousand baseballs, 2,000 bats, 500 gloves. And outside its walls, the spirit of baseball is quantifiably for sale: “I see these baseball legends who are right next to me, but I’ve gotta wait in line for twenty minutes and pay 50 bucks, 75 bucks to get their autograph,” McColeman said. “There’s really cool memorabilia everywhere, but everyone’s just trying to buy it up.” Hall of Fame weekend regulars aren’t disappointed, though. Most baseball fans come to Cooperstown for a specific kind of experience, and that experience did not involve a violin player from Queens exhibiting sometimes-abstract renderings of the tallest man in baseball.

“I was a little surprised with the lack of interest,” Jack said. Not everyone was confused by his work: a contingent from Montreal, where Randy once played, were at Hall of Fame weekend trying to drum up support for bringing a team back to the city. They loved Jack’s portraits. A guy working on a book about tracking down every player featured in a random pack of baseball cards was also an enthusiastic fan. Kids loved them, too. But the majority of the crowd was unsure how to interact with something they couldn’t take home and put in a drawer.

McColeman thought it was a generational thing. Baseball, he said, is behind the times. The crowd at Cooperstown was an older one, reflected by a lack of fan experience for kids. In her Baseball Life Advice newsletter, writer and Hazlitt contributor Stacey May Fowles says of gender issues in the sport, “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been put in a wayback machine.” Baseball broadcasts, for the most part, still sound the way they did in the 1950s. “The people in Cooperstown are looking for nostalgia, looking for these connections to the past,” McColeman said. “To me, Hunter’s stuff is finding life in the present.”

*

Hunter stood on a fence by his booth to watch the Parade of Legends. “Seeing Randy go by, I was like, oh my god. He’s a human. He’s an actual person,” he said. “I see him on these pictures … They’re not people, when you look at these images. They represent shared memories, and we value their existence for our own life. We gain meaning from their actions… Seeing Randy, I felt a little dirty about it.” Baseball, Jack pointed out, is so much about the worship of single male figures, but in the two years he was reimagining Johnson’s face, he didn’t consider the motivation or implications. As Johnson rolled by in the flatbed on that July day, “I felt like I had been trying to not only use the accomplishments of another person to provide meaning for myself, I felt like I had been trying to gain something from that person’s accomplishments. ‘Oh yeah, Randy’s great, right? He’s a Hall of Famer. Me too.’” In the month after Cooperstown, Jack said he spent more time thinking about the project than he did for the two years he was drawing Randy every night in his apartment in New York.


There was a baseball game the night before I interviewed Jack in Toronto. He and his friends thought about buying tickets. It was already the third inning and could have gone either way, so they flipped a coin. They didn’t go. “That’s where I’m at right now.” But a few weeks after Hall of Fame weekend, Jack attended a minor-league game, between the Staten Island Yankees and the Aberdeen Ironbirds, with about 100 other fans. From the stadium, he could see the harbour and the Manhattan skyline. There were family-style competitions between innings. “The saltine challenge! Egg tossing! Baserunning races in sumo suits!” he said. “The Ironbirds won, but it was close! The tying run got thrown out at home plate in the bottom half of the last inning.” It felt good, he said.

On the day it was announced that he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Randy Johnson did a press conference in Arizona. He said the experience he was most grateful for, and the experience that perhaps explains why he chose to represent Arizona in the Hall of Fame, was winning a world series. When fans come up to him at Starbucks, that’s what they talk about. That’s where the players and the fans intersect in experiencing, together, what Johnson might call “a special day.”

“They don’t talk about the Cy Youngs. They talk about the World Series,” he said. “Well, they also talk about the dead pigeon, too.”

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