'It's always a roller-coaster ride'

Originally Published: July 20, 2005
By Jason Johnson, with Dennis Tuttle | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: Jason Johnson of the Tigers has pitched with Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes since he was 11 years old, and the disease follows him to the mound.

Jason Johnson
Jason Johnson is second among Tigers starters with a 3.84 ERA.
When I was growing up, coaches would sometimes say I couldn't go out and play because I have diabetes. It is a serious disease. A lot of kids have it, and many times they are made to feel like they can't do anything because they have diabetes.

That's where I come into play, because I like to talk about it. I'm in the major leagues -- the top level of my sport -- with the same disease that affects about 5.4 million people. Ron Santo, the former Cubs third baseman, played his entire career with diabetes. So did Bobby Clarke, the hockey great, and so did former quarterback Wade Wilson.

But a huge part of the problem for athletes with diabetes is that coaches and teams are, for the lack of a better word, ignorant about the disease. They don't understand that if you manage your blood sugar that you can succeed. That's why a lot of athletes keep their diabetes quiet, because they are afraid the teams will look at them differently.

No question, playing baseball and managing my blood sugar have been difficult. It's an ongoing monitoring. Type I diabetics can't produce insulin to control the sugar (glucose) levels in their blood. If your insulin levels get too low, you can go into a coma very quickly and die.

One time when I was pitching in Single-A for the Pirates, the pitching coach realized I was a little shaky. He hid a Coke under his jacket, walked to the mound like he was going to give me a talk and the whole infield gathered around so no one could see me bend down and drink the Coke. Everyone acted like we were just talking and, sure enough, in a couple of minutes, I was fine and continued to pitch.

That was a very scary moment and something I never want to happen again. Most diabetics need to check their blood sugar only three or four times a day. But when I was pitching I'd have to check almost every inning. I'd go into the clubhouse, prick my finger, do a check and, if it was too low, I'd drink a PowerAde or eat a candy bar to get my levels corrected. Then I would go right back to the mound.

Now, I don't prick my finger between innings any more because baseball lets me wear an insulin pump when I pitch. [Editor's note: The leads are taped around Johnson's waist underneath his jersey, and the pump, which is about the size of a beeper, is attached to his belt.] But I still have to adjust my levels on days when I'm pitching, so it's always a roller-coaster ride.

Some people might think it's a bad break to have diabetes, but I think the disease has affected my career in a positive way. I'm succeeding in life at my chosen profession, and I get a chance to help people, too. I tell kids all the time to never give up. Never let anyone tell you that you can't do something.

Dennis Tuttle is a freelance contributor based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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