Just in terms of sheer unlikeliness, Randy Johnson vaporizing a dove with a pitch is one of the most improbable things to have ever happened on a baseball diamond. That fact that it was Johnson, an ornery flamethrower if there ever was one, makes it feel almost inevitable in retrospect. The birds should consider themselves lucky he was satisfied with one.
March 24, 2001, the Diamondback and Giants in the seventh inning of a spring training game. Calvin Murray was at the plate and Johnson delivered a fastball.
“It exploded, feathers and everything, just ‘poof!’” said Murray. “There were nothing but feathers laying on home plate. I never saw the ball, nothing but feathers.”
The bird pinwheeled, wing over wing. It was dead before it hit the ground. It still bounced a few times. The play was ruled a no-pitch.
There is pathos here, but of what sort is left to the observer. There’s surely grim humor in Jeff Kent proudly displaying the still-warm corpse like a trophy.
Just as there’s something beautifully tragic about the photo of a groundskeeper, having failed to clean up the mess with his pushbroom, reduced to plucking individual feathers off the ground by hand.
Of all the 15th anniversary coverage you may read today—and for all of Johnson’s great Hall of Fame career, he’ll never not be thought of first in connection with the bird, no matter how little he likes talking about it—the best comes from Newsweek, which spoke to a bunch of ornithologists.
The entire article is worth your time, but I want to highlight the perfect comedic timing of the responses to this one question:
Were you aware of this when it happened, and what did you think about it as somebody who studies birds?
Clait Braun, researcher with the Wilson Ornithological Society: I remember it well. I was appalled, as I study mourning doves.
Jerry Jackson, emeritus researcher at Florida Gulf Coast University: I vaguely remember when it happened. Sad, to say the least.
Justin Lehman, ornithology graduate student at the University of Tennessee: I was 11 at the time, so I’m sure I found this event incredibly funny.
Amazingly, we were very close to never having video footage of the bird incident, and having it go down as nothing more than an urban legend. This was in the days before nearly every spring training game was televised, and there was just one camera in the ballpark. It belonged to Jim Currigan, the Diamondbacks’ video coordinator, who was set up in the centerfield camera well filming at-bats for the team’s coaches and scouts to refer to later.
Currigan, who appears in this Fox Sports video piece on the birdmurder (which, in an odd stylistic choice, is narrated by the bird’s ghost), says he keeps the tape on his office shelf to this day.
“I didn’t think it was all that funny,” Johnson said at the time. He has not softened much in the intervening years, though he did make a dead bird the logo for his photography business. “Funny” is probably not the precise word for what went down, though it feels like a waste of time to try to pinpoint a more appropriate descriptor—we’ll never have need of it again. That dove’s sudden death by fastball was a singular happening.