Focus on Success Jason Johnson of the Orioles has honed his thinking--and his control

September 02, 2001

There were times last season when the Orioles' Jason Johnson
stood on the mound, sweat pouring down his face, and wondered if
what he was feeling was normal mid-game fatigue or something more
serious. The 27-year-old righthander has had type I diabetes
since he was 11, and whenever he suddenly felt tired on the
mound, he feared that his blood sugar might be plummeting.
Johnson has never had such an episode--often marked by muscle
twitches and/or fainting--on the field. Still, the dread of it
happening in front of teammates and thousands of fans had begun
to play on him more often.

That concern didn't help Johnson as he struggled last season to
establish himself as a major league starter. He went 1-10 with a
7.02 ERA, and though he doesn't blame the disease for his
performance, diabetes was an unneeded distraction in a year that
left his confidence shattered. During the off-season Johnson's
wife, Stacey, suggested he try using an insulin pump. The
beeper-sized device, which attaches to Johnson's abdomen,
maintains his blood-sugar level: If it rises, the required amount
of insulin is injected, through a tube fitted under the skin,
into his bloodstream to normalize the blood-sugar level. Johnson
removes the pump before he takes the mound and reattaches it when
he returns to the dugout between innings. "It's a relief to know
I don't have to worry about my blood sugar when I'm pitching," he
says.

That peace of mind is one reason for Johnson's turnaround this
year. Through Sunday he was 10-9 for a Baltimore club that was
54-76, and he had a 3.43 ERA that was fifth best in the American
League.

A basketball and baseball star at Conner High in tiny Hebron,
Ky., the 6'6" Johnson in 1992 passed on a hoops scholarship from
Morehead State and signed with the Pirates as an undrafted free
agent. He kicked around the Pittsburgh system for five seasons (a
combined 15-38 record) and then nearly lost his career--and his
life--in a December '96 car wreck. Johnson wasn't breathing when
rescuers arrived at the scene, but he was revived and found to
have a fractured skull. He came back to pitch the '97 season and
even made three appearances with the Pirates.

That November, Johnson was taken by the Devil Rays in the
expansion draft, and he went 2-5 in 13 starts with Tampa Bay in
'98. He was traded to the Orioles before the start of the next
season and went 8-7, showing hints of being an effective starter.

After struggling with his control in spring training, Johnson
started last season in Triple A Rochester before joining the
Orioles in April. He lost his first eight decisions and then
bounced between Rochester and Baltimore. By season's end, he
says, "I was really depressed."

Believing he was too easily distracted on the mound by the crowd,
by hitters' movements and by his illness, Johnson spent the
off-season working with a focus coach, who gave Johnson drills to
improve his concentration. In spring training, Johnson developed
a routine to zero in before each pitch; he focuses on a specific
part of the catcher's mitt or shin guard and tunes out everything
else. With his thoughts less jumbled, Johnson's command of his
pitches--a 93-mph fastball, a sharp curveball and a changeup--has
improved dramatically, as has his aggressiveness. In 2000 he gave
up 5.1 walks per nine innings. That number is down to 3.1 this
year. "He trusts his stuff much more now," says Orioles manager
Mike Hargrove.

For Johnson, that's a relaxing thought.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)