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Original Issue

Sweet Success

With careful monitoring, the Tigers' Jason Johnson confronts his diabetes

WHEN HE was an 11-year-old baseball star in Florence, Ky., Jason Johnson learned he had diabetes. "My life changed dramatically," says Johnson, 31, now a 6'6", 217-pound Detroit Tigers righthander. "It was tough to realize I was different from everybody else." Different meant, among other things, a unique between-innings routine that Johnson maintained as he moved through high school, signed with the Pirates in 1992 and made his big league debut in '97: After getting a third out, he'd run into the clubhouse and prick his finger to check his blood-sugar level. If it was low, he'd down a sports drink; if it was high, he'd inject himself with insulin. "It was kind of a distraction that I had to do all that and still pitch," says Johnson. "But it was something I had to do."

In Johnson's type I diabetes (formerly known as juvenile diabetes) the pancreas fails to produce insulin. Type I affects 5% to 10% of the 18.2 million people with diabetes in the U.S., and despite Johnson's regimen, changes in his sugar level can lead to dizziness, confusion and fatigue. In 2001, when he was with the Orioles, he began using a pump to distribute a stream of insulin through a catheter in his abdomen. "[Insulin pumps] had been around awhile, and my wife [Stacey] finally got me to try it," he says. "It's worked out great. It keeps my blood sugar at a normal level so when I had it on, I always had the same drive and energy." Johnson wore the pager-sized device on his belt, taking it off only to shower and for games ("I thought baseball wouldn't let me wear it," he says) until he signed with Detroit before last season. Then, Tigers trainer Kevin Rand formally petitioned the league to approve the pump, and after a trial run in spring training showed the device was not a distraction to hitters, the pump got the O.K. Says Johnson, "Now I can come into the dugout and actually concentrate on how to pitch the next inning."

Johnson has always been an avid runner and weightlifter, in part because he felt he had to do extra to prove himself to coaches. Yet overtraining both in and out of season sometimes sapped his strength as the schedule wore on. (Last year he was 8-8 with a 4.26 ERA through July; then he went 0-7 with a 7.13 in the final two months.) He now does power yoga (he demonstrates the Dancer's Pose, above) with Stacey, at a facility near their Tampa home. Johnson also remains on a strict, carb-counting diet--he eats six times a day, supplementing meals with protein shakes and energy bars--which has long been his way of life. As he prepares to report to the Tigers' training complex in Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 17, Johnson is definitely pumped. --Amanda Cherrin