(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
Even now, after a Hall of Fame pitching career, after five Cy Young Awards and a World Series victory and a no-hitter and a perfect game, the first auto-fill on Google for Randy Johnson is about the bird. Fifteen years after the fact, it remains one of the strangest moments in baseball history, a moment so iconic that Johnson himself co-opted it for the logo of his post-baseball photography business: A bird, knocked head over teakettle, shedding feathers.
The real thing, of course, was a bit more shocking—almost Tarantino-esque—in its sudden violence. March 24, 2001. A spring training game between the Diamondbacks and Giants, Johnson on the mound, cutting the same imposing figure that he did throughout his career. He winds, throws, and then ...
"An explosion of feathers," Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks' manager at the time, recalled to Fox Sports.
There is only one shot of the incident, a video taken by Jim Currigan, the Diamondbacks' video coordinator at the time (according to a Fox Sports video from last year, Currigan still keeps the tape on his shelf). That Zapruder-like footage has nearly four million views on YouTube, because how can you not watch this over and over again, just to be sure it actually happened, just to be sure this was not the leading edge of some vast avian conspiracy? The bird was a dove, an international symbol of peace, flying from right to left as Johnson's pitch arced from left to right toward home plate, the convergence of creature and heater like nothing that has transpired in baseball, before or since. There is nothing out of the ordinary, and then there is that burst of white, as if a tiny star had imploded.
"It exploded, feathers and everything, just 'poof," said the batter at the time, Calvin Murray. "There were nothing but feathers laying on home plate. I never saw the ball, nothing but feathers."
"I'm sitting there waiting for (the pitch)," said the Diamondbacks catcher, Rod Barajas, "and I'm expecting to catch the thing, and all you see is an explosion."
Oh, sure, there had been bird-related incidents in previous baseball eras, most notably that time the Yankees' Dave Winfield may or may not have executed a brazen mid-game hit on a seagull at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium in 1983. (That incident brought on an arrest after the game for cruelty to animals, but the charges were dropped the next day.) Four years later, the Braves' Dion James killed a dove and wound up with a double, and in 2009, the Indians' Shin Soo-Choo glanced a ball off a seagull for a game-winning hit (the bird recovered). But never has there been a weirder bird-related moment than Johnson's, in part because it is so inherently startling, and in part because it felt like an inadvertent metaphor for Johnson's threatening presence, as both a pitcher and a surly human being.
And therein lies the irony, because no one felt worse about what happened than Randy Johnson himself. While the pre-social media world began throwing out jokes in the immediate aftermath, Johnson himself was typically taciturn.
"I didn't think it was all that funny," he said.
And others reportedly thought the same thing: Johnson told Fox Sports in that video posted last year that he was threatened with a lawsuit by PETA on the bird's behalf, and that he had to hire a lawyer to protect himself, though there is seemingly no record of PETA coming after Johnson in newspaper or Internet archives. "It was one of those things, what became kind of funny, actually became a very serious moment," Johnson told Fox Sports.
But all that came later. In the moment, it was difficult to even compute what the hell had just happened. The umpire waved off the pitch altogether, so in the official record—as much as spring training counts as official record—the whole thing never happened. After the game, Currigan, who sat out in centerfield and recorded every pitch with a camera, wasn't sure what he'd recorded. Mike Swanson, the team's PR director, sensing the story would go viral, immediately went to Currigan and asked if he'd gotten it. This was Randy Johnson, after all. And so Currigan rewound the tape. Oh wow, he said to himself. That is unbelievable video.
Fifteen years later, it is still unbelievable video. Johnson was 37 at the time, but still threw with the kind of intimidating speed and power that made him a Hall of Famer. In May of 2001, two months after the dove incident, he would strike out 20 batters in a game, and later that year, he would go on to win a World Series with the Diamondbacks. The following year, he would lead the National League in wins, ERA and strikeouts, and he would retire after the 2009 season as one of the greatest pitchers of his generation. But this is the thing people often ask him about first: What it felt like to accidentally immolate an innocent creature.
"Everybody that wants to talk about baseball first wants to talk about the bird," Johnson told Fox Sports. "Crazy. If I could go back in time, I never would have thrown that pitch."
Perhaps the only solace for Johnson: He's not alone anymore. Back in 2012, a high-school pitcher in Illinois struck an unspecified bird with a pitch. Miraculously, the bird got up, dusted itself off, and flew away.