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PHOENIX − As Atlanta All-Star pitcher Chris Sale stood in front of his locker late one night, he couldn’t stop talking about him, praising him and appreciating every fiber of his being.

“Other than my father and my grandparents,” Sale said, “he has had as much influence in my life as anyone.”

“I just wanted to be like him.

“And throw like him.”

Sale spoke about 6-foot-2 Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson.

So how well do you know each other?

“I never spoke to him,” Sale said.

Oh, but you’ve at least met him once, right?

“Never met.”

Have you at least exchanged messages with him on social media? or have mutual friends?

“No.”

And yet here he was talking about a 60-year-old legend and his jersey number 51.

This is the jersey that Johnson, a five-time Cy Young Award winner, including four in a row with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a World Series winner in 2001, wore when he came out of the bullpen for Game 7 against the New York Yankees after less than a day’s rest.

“That’s why I changed my number, in honor of Randy,” said Sale, who wore No. 49 for the Chicago White Sox and No. 41 for the Boston Red Sox. “I wanted a fresh start here. It’s like starting over. So why not start with one of the greatest left-handers of all time?”

“I grew up trying to be like him, and now I get to wear his number.”

Chris Sale, who wears number 51 in honor of his hero Randy Johnson, is back in All-Star form.Chris Sale, who wears number 51 in honor of his hero Randy Johnson, is back in All-Star form.

Chris Sale, who wears number 51 in honor of his hero Randy Johnson, is back in All-Star form.

Johnson, who escaped Arizona’s 115-degree heat by staying at his summer home in Newport Beach, California, listened to the praise on Wednesday and couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Of course, Johnson knows he has been admired and even idolized by other left-handers over the course of his 21-year career, but to hear an eight-time All-Star who finished in the top six in AL Cy Young voting seven times speak of him in sheer admiration was a huge compliment.

“I’m flattered,” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s unbelievable. To have that kind of impact on a young man I’ve never met before is pretty cool. I really wish I had met him back when I was playing.”

“I really admire his work. Tell him he has no regrets.”

“You think you can play forever, but as you get older, injuries happen and the clock is ticking. The window closes and you can’t get back the years you’ve lost. He’s not 25 anymore. He has to make the most of these last few years.”

Johnson, who is recovering slowly from knee surgery last November and has undergone countless surgeries on both knees, not to mention back surgery, knows what it’s like to deal with the vicious cycle of time.

Johnson was the most dominant and feared pitcher in baseball. From 1997 to 2002, he was averaged 20 wins, 340 strikeouts and 248 innings per year, with a total of 19 shutouts. He had three more seasons with at least 16 wins, two seasons with 200 strikeouts and finished the season as 2and At the age of 40, he was a contender for the NL Cy Young vote in 2004, but his body finally gave out.

“Tell him he’s still a young pup,” Johnson said. “I know he’s been hurt, I know he’s had frustrations along the way, but there’s still plenty of time. He’s just got to do everything he can to stay healthy and stay on the mound instead of in the trainer’s room.”

Sale, 35, grins broadly when told of those sentiments. He’s doing everything he can to play his first healthy season since 2017, dominating again, going 12-3 with a 2.74 ERA. He leads the league in wins, is first in strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.18), second in WHIP (.094), third with 136 strikeouts and third with an opponent batting average of .201.

Yes, just like in the old days.

“It feels pretty good, well, really good to be honest,” Sale said. “This is my eighth All-Star team and they all feel pretty special, but having gone through a rough time the last few years with injuries, I’m very happy to be back.”

But to say that Sale believed this day would come is another guess.

“No, not at all,” Sale said, laughing. “Are you kidding? Just playing baseball was satisfying enough, but to be an All-Star is an incredible honor.”

Sale helped the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series and received a five-year, $145 million contract extension, but spent the next five years as a human piñata in Boston, injured every year and averaging just four wins and 75 innings per season.

Name the body part and Sale has injured it.

There was the inflammation in his left elbow in 2019. Tommy John elbow surgery in 2020. COVID in 2021. A stress fracture in his rib, a medical issue unrelated to baseball, a broken pinky and then a broken wrist in a bike accident in 2022. And then a stress reaction in his left shoulder in 2023.

The Red Sox gave him up, paid $17 million of his $27.5 million salary to leave, and signed shortstop Vaughn Grissom from Atlanta in return.

Sale could have stayed in Boston since he had a clause that made it impossible for him to be traded, but why stay if you’re no longer wanted? Atlanta is a perennial power that has won six consecutive NL East titles. And they didn’t trade him out of the goodness of their hearts.

“It certainly would have been easy to jump ship and write me off,” Sale said, “or say, ‘This guy is done.’ You’ve seen that happen a lot, right? It happens a lot. So I’m just grateful and appreciate the people who stuck with me and believed in me.

“Now I get to experience this with them.”

The deal, which was considered a risky gamble at the time, is perhaps the best trade of the winter. Atlanta got a star and extended Sale for two years and $38 million, of which the Red Sox paid $17 million.

“A lot of people throw the word ‘competitiveness’ around lightly,” said Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos, “but he is the most genuine competitor I have ever known. We thought we had a good handle on him as a person and a teammate, but this is even better than anything we expected. His performance was phenomenal and his leadership was incredible.”

Sale has certainly matured. He no longer cuts up everyone’s uniforms like he did in Chicago when he hated their throwback uniforms. He no longer kicks the GM out of the locker room when the White Sox permanently banned first baseman Adam LaRoche’s 14-year-old son from the locker room.

He’s still a fiery competitor, but also a leader in the locker room and a sounding board for every pitcher on the team. His work ethic is unmatched. When he was traded to Atlanta on Dec. 30, he spent the rest of the winter driving three hours a day, three times a week, from his home in Naples, Florida, to Atlanta’s training complex in North Fort, Florida. He did the same thing every single day in training camp.

“Hey, I got a new truck,” Sale said. “I had to break it in.”

Now he’s back to being one of the meanest and fiercest competitors in the game, reminding people of Johnson.

Certainly the guy is one of a kind. Sales’ teammates will tell you he’s the only one they know who doesn’t bother with scouting reports or film. He puts complete trust in the pitch the catcher calls and throws it. You’ll never see him shake anyone off.

“The funny thing is he says he doesn’t even know who he’s facing until he steps on the mound,” Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley said. “Especially in this day and age, that’s a really cool way to approach it. He doesn’t make anything complicated. It’s just my best stuff against your best stuff, here it is.”

Atlanta veteran starter Charlie Morton says, “It’s not that he doesn’t know what pitch to throw. I think it’s more like, ‘I know if I throw the ball right and throw it the way I know how, my skills and execution are good enough to throw somebody out.’

“I don’t know what people think of that approach, like he’s just throwing, but I think he has so much confidence and is so comfortable with himself on the mound that when the catcher puts down the sign, it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s go.'”

When you still have a staggering 98 mph, a devastating slider and a nifty changeup, and hitters are chasing a major league topper who places 35% of his pitches outside the strike zone, it’s easy to trust your stuff. Who can argue with that when you have the highest strikeout rate per nine innings (11.09) in baseball history, with 84 career games with 10 or more strikeouts, and are tied with Hall of Famer Steve Carlton for eighth on the all-time strikeout list?

It’s too late for Sale to win 300 games like Johnson, and he won’t match Johnson’s 4,875 strikeouts, but if he wants motivation as he ages, Johnson can remind him that at age 42 he won 17 games and struck out 207 batters.

“Oh man, I’m not going to play that long,” Sale said. “This is just unbelievable. I’m not Randy Johnson.”

No, but he is Chris Sale, showing the baseball world what it missed in his absence and reliving memories of the days when there was hardly anyone better.

“I’m going to miss him being at the back here,” said the 40-year-old Morton, who is considering retirement after the season. “I was really lucky to be here when he got here. Before that, I was a fan and just watched him from the other side. He was the guy. He was that guy. He was one of the best pitchers in the game. And then I became his teammate.”

“Now I get to know him and understand what a great person he is and how incredible it is to watch him. I will remain his fan as long as he continues.”

Who knows, maybe one day — hopefully before he retires — he can cross another item off his bucket list, Sale said.

“I really want to meet Randy,” Sale said. “One day. One day. It would be so cool to meet him.”

Johnson says: “You know what, I want to meet him too. I’m a fan of his.”

“And tell him: I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he stays healthy and shows everyone what he can still do.”

Follow Nightengale on X: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chris Sale, an All-Star, honors Hall of Famer Randy Johnson

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