Diabetes doesn't have Johnson down
Tribe newcomer overcomes disease to be model for others
Jason Johnson just wanted to be like any athletically minded 11-year-old.He wanted to play catch with his friends. He wanted to shoot baskets at all hours. And he wanted the freedom to dream of someday being a professional athlete. Then came the diagnosis: Diabetes. Johnson immediately wondered what it meant for his future in sports. "It was scary," the now 32-year-old Johnson said. "My first fear was that I couldn't play baseball anymore. Baseball and basketball were my two favorite things to do. That was tough, as a kid." Johnson also knew the dangers of the disease. His dad's sister had died from diabetes complications. The young Johnson needed encouragement. He needed someone to tell him he could manage the disease, and his dreams of becoming a pro ballplayer could still come true. That's where his father, John, came in. "My dad said, 'Don't let this stop you from doing anything you want to,'" Johnson remembered. "'If you love to play sports, keep doing it. You're not going to be any different than anyone else when it comes to that.' That always stuck with me." It stuck with Johnson through all the insulin shots, all the blood sugar readings and all the steps that have led him to be a veteran Major Leaguer pitching in the Indians rotation this season. To any child with diabetes, Johnson is an inspiration. Because from the day he found out about the disease, he hasn't let it get in the way of his development as an athlete. "At the time I found out, I didn't know anything about it," Johnson said. "I was completely clueless about it. I didn't know what I could do or couldn't do." At 11, Johnson had all the normal symptoms of diabetes. He was constantly dehydrated and often fatigued. Tests revealed what his family suspected. "Normal blood sugar is around 80 to 120 [milligrams per deciliter]," Johnson said. "Mine was around 490." Though the diagnosis was nerve-wracking, Johnson's doctor encouraged him to be a normal kid. Yes, he would have to check his blood sugar often and watch what he ate and drank, but he could still play sports. As his skills blossomed in high school in Hebron, Ky., Johnson began to catch the eye of pro scouts. Some coaches and fellow players were skeptical about the chances of him making it in baseball with diabetes, but he never let negativity get the best of him. The Pirates took a chance on Johnson by drafting him out of high school at the age of 17. Three years later, he made his big-league debut in Pittsburgh. Johnson's career has since taken him to the Devil Rays, Orioles, Tigers and, now, the Tribe, where he'll be the fifth starter on a club hoping to compete for the AL Central title. Though he's a proven innings-eater, the knock on the right-handed Johnson is that he's won just 52 games in 199 starts.
: : : This Edition: April 5, 2006 : : :
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.