'Explosion of feathers': Remembering when the Big Unit drilled that bird
Mike Fiala / AFP / Getty Images

With baseball on hiatus, it's a good time to look back at great moments from the game's past. Today, we're remembering when an unfortunate dove got in the way of a Randy Johnson fastball during a 2001 spring training game.

You can count on one hand the pitchers with a more compelling resume than Randy Johnson, a five-time Cy Young Award winner, World Series champion, and first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee who trails only the anachronistic Nolan Ryan on baseball's all-time strikeouts leaderboard.

Throughout his 22-year career in the majors, Johnson also threw a no-hitter and a perfect game - the latter gem coming at age 40, no less - and he won more games (303) than every post-integration left-hander except Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, and Tom Glavine.

Still, Johnson's virtually unrivalled dominance on the mound is usually the second thing fans ask him about.

"Everybody that wants to talk about baseball first wants to talk about the bird," Johnson told Fox Sports in a 2016 interview. "Crazy. If I could go back in time, I never would have thrown that pitch."

That pitch, of course, resulted in the most famous case of avicide in baseball history, and one of the game's most viral videos.

During the seventh inning of a 2001 spring training game between the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks, Johnson - then 37, and gearing up for what would be his third of four consecutive Cy Young-winning seasons - uncorked a fastball to Calvin Murray that never made it to home plate. Instead, about 15 feet from its destination, the pitch connected with a dove, instantly killing the bird in what Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly aptly described as an "explosion of feathers."

"I'm sitting there waiting for (the pitch), and I'm expecting to catch the thing, and all you see is an explosion," Diamondbacks catcher Rod Barajas told ESPN. "It's crazy. There's still feathers down there."

With the sudden act of violence dumbfounding the entire stadium, the home plate umpire ruled Johnson's offering a "no-pitch," a decision that irked Murray, who felt it should've been called a ball. Meanwhile, Jeff Kent, the Giants' decorated second baseman and reigning National League MVP, did the dirty work, picking up the lifeless bird with his bare hands and taking it to the dugout.

And although the game wasn't being broadcast on television, the moment was still captured thanks to Jim Currigan, then the Diamondbacks' video coordinator. He would park himself beyond the center-field wall at Tucson Electric Park and shoot the game himself.

"Randy Johnson's on the mound, I just sit out there and record each pitch," Currigan told Fox.

He continued: "When I get back to my office (after the game), I've got all these people saying, 'Please tell me you got that! Please tell me you got that!' And Mike Swanson, who was our media relations director at the time, is telling me, 'If you got that, I need dubs immediately.'"

Even in the nascent days of the internet age - YouTube, for one, was still four years away from being founded - Swanson knew that video would go viral.

"I said (to Currigan), 'Well, believe it or not, this is going to be pretty big national news when it's all said and done,'" Swanson said. "… It's Randy Johnson."

It did indeed transfix the nation, shocking and awing and buttressing Johnson's badass reputation even further. In the nearly two decades since, Currigan's grainy footage has arguably become the game's archetypal viral video and a baseball YouTube go-to, with one uploaded version (there are multiple, of course) boasting more than 5.5 million views.

While he can laugh about it now, nearly 20 years later, Johnson wasn't amused at the time.

Not only is he a conservationist, according to Swanson, but the hurler also feared potential litigation from PETA, as at one point the group was considering filing charges on the bird's behalf, Johnson said. Any litigation would've been of dubious merit. A charge of causing "unnecessary suffering to an animal" against New York Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, who killed a seagull at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto with an errant warm-up throw in 1983, was ultimately dropped.

“I had to hire a lawyer," Johnson said. "… What became kind of funny, actually became a very serious moment."

Eventually, though, Johnson leaned in, embracing the moment as part of his legacy. The logo that adorns the website for his photography enterprise depicts a bird lying on its back, its feathers all over the place.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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'Explosion of feathers': Remembering when the Big Unit drilled that bird
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