This past December, Jason Johnson, 28, a starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles baseball club, was the co-winner of the Tony Conigliaro Award. The award is presented annually to a major league player who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage.
Johnson, a right-handed pitcher who has type 1 diabetes, rebounded from a disappointing 2000 season—in which he won one game and lost 10. In 2001, he posted a record of 10 wins and 12 losses, while becoming a leader in the clubhouse and in the community.
A Big Man Playing a Little Boy’s Game
Johnson—a five-year Major League veteran who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 235 pounds—was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 17 years ago. He recalls waking up seven times a night to drink water and go to the bathroom. His mother, who was a therapist at a hospital, knew what these signs meant and took him to the doctor.
His blood glucose was over 500 mg/dl.
At the time, Johnson knew that some day he wanted to be a baseball player. Although he was scared and confused at first, he was given assurances by his doctors that diabetes should not be a roadblock to making it to the big leagues.
“They told me it was pretty much up to me,” recalls Johnson. “They said if I worked hard and took care of my diabetes, it shouldn’t limit me in anything I did.” Johnson took that to heart and achieved the dream of millions of Little League baseball players.
Johnson remembers that the scariest thing about his diabetes diagnosis was learning that he would have to take shots four times a day.
Today, he has overcome that fear, and he fights diabetes with the same determination he has when throwing 90-mile-an-hour fast balls past the likes of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi.
A Loving and Supportive Wife
Johnson tests his blood glucose seven times a day and manages to keep his levels between 60 and 140 mg/dl. His two-hour after-meal blood glucose, he adds, always stays below 200 mg/dl.
Johnson attributes much of his success to his wife, Stacey, who helps him stay on top of his testing and control habits.
He also credits the insulin pump, which he says not only has improved his control but also allows Stacey to sleep better at night.
“Before I went on the pump, I would have reactions at night where I would start shaking and not wake up,” he says. “And Stacey would have to help me. With the pump, it’s helped me to regulate my blood glucose a lot better. I had a lot of lows before I went on the pump.”
Johnson began using a MiniMed 508 pump in December 2000. He takes Humalog insulin and keeps a basal rate of 0.8 units per hour plus bolus doses as needed at mealtimes.
The only time he does not wear his pump is when he is pitching in a game. He always tests every two innings to make sure he is not going too high. If he is, he gives himself some insulin via syringe injection. At all other times, however, he’s wearing the pump.
“I wear it during batting practice and on days when I am not pitching.”
On game days, Johnson eats a bowl of cereal in the morning and pasta for lunch, which he says stays with him a little longer than some other foods.
“When I pitch, the games usually start around dinner time, and I usually won’t eat until after the game,” he explains. “I like to get my BGs at 160 before I pitch. Because I’m disconnected from the pump and don’t have my basal rate, my BGs actually start to go up to around 180 or 190 after four or five innings. That’s when I will give myself some insulin between innings.”
Johnson says he has never had a low during a game. Despite the thrill of striking out Nomar Garciaparra or the stress of giving up the long ball to Frank Thomas, his blood-glucose levels don’t tend to fluctuate.
“They usually stay pretty much the same,” he admits. “I don’t want that to affect anything I’m doing on the mound or to have the team be worried, so I stay on top of keeping them controlled during a game.”
The Orioles’ trainer keeps a glucagon emergency kit, a testing kit and non-diet Cokes on the bench just in case Johnson’s blood glucose does go too low.
After the game, Johnson reconnects to his pump and heads for the clubhouse banquet. One of the perks of being a Major League ballplayer is the after-game buffet in the clubhouse. Johnson eats whatever the clubhouse manager has put out, but he does avoid one thing—bagels!
“I have learned from doctors that it’s difficult to dial in a bolus for them.”
After a game, Johnson changes his basal rate because he sometimes has delayed low blood-glucose reactions.
“Overnight, around three or four a.m., my BGs will start going low. So on game days, after I pitch, I will change my basal rate to 0.6 units per hour.”
Johnson believes that having diabetes has made his Oriole teammates more protective of him.
“A lot of the guys will keep an eye on me,” he notes. “They know what to look for if I start to get a little shaky.”
Having diabetes has also given Johnson the opportunity to educate his teammates about a disease they previously knew nothing about.
“They didn’t know too much about it until we started playing together. Now you can ask them any question about diabetes, and they would probably be able to answer it.”
The Tony Conigliaro Award
Johnson acknowledges that it was an honor to receive the Tony Conigliaro Award, which is named after the former Boston Red Sox player who, in 1967, was hit in the face with a fastball, only to come back two years later.
“It was an honor to get the award and share it with Graeme Lloyd [who missed the entire 2000 season after seriously injuring his right shoulder and losing his wife to Crohn’s disease],” says Johnson. “I think Graeme should have been the sole recipient.”
Receiving the award has helped Johnson bring diabetes out into the open more and educate children about the disease. He regularly gets to meet kids with diabetes during the season and hosts them on the field during batting practice.
“We’ll talk and take pictures, and I’ll ask them about their control,” he says. “We’ll talk baseball, and I get a lot of questions about how I made it to the big leagues having diabetes.”
Johnson tells the kids that no matter what problems he had growing up with diabetes, it never stopped him from pursuing his dreams while having the same disease they have.
“The big message is that no matter what, you don’t have to let diabetes stop you from achieving whatever great job you want to pursue.”