Melanoma a setback for Johnson
Veteran righty battling for more than 'pen spot after diagnosis
TAMPA, Fla. -- Jason Johnson left the house looking for a new pair of contact lenses. So how did a routine trip to the optometrist lead him to an institute in Philadelphia, listening to a doctor prepare him for a cancer diagnosis?
The 35-year-old veteran right-hander is in camp with the Yankees this spring as a non-roster invitee, but you will not see him roaming the practice diamonds at George M. Steinbrenner Field with the rest of his teammates for some time.
Johnson is battling choriodial melanoma of the right retina, which limits him to only indoor activities at the Yankees' training complex. Johnson had reported to camp with sky-high hopes of locking up a bullpen job, but the last two weeks have delivered a sobering change in perspective.
"It's kind of a bummer," Johnson said. "I'm here to make a team and this happens."
A Tampa, Fla., resident who pitched last season with the Dodgers -- his eighth big league club -- Johnson had already thrown his first bullpen session with pitching coach Dave Eiland and was entertaining thoughts of pitching in the new Yankee Stadium.
Johnson noticed that his vision in his right eye was somewhat blurry and made an appointment with his optometrist for a new set of contacts. During the course of a routine examination, the optometrist dilated Johnson's pupils and spotted something out of the ordinary, though he wasn't sure what it was.
Johnson was then sent to a retina specialist, who identified a mass in the back of the retina, close to the optic nerve. As Johnson sat in that Tampa office on Feb. 9, the course of his spring was about to immediately -- and irreversibly -- change.
"I'm pretty sure it's melanoma cancer," the specialist told him.
Johnson was sent the next day to the renowned Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia, where a certain amount of fear began to set in. His first meeting with the staff featured a particularly memorable exchange with a doctor.
"There are three things we do here -- the first thing is to save your life," she said.
Johnson gulped, thinking. Johnson said he thought, "I'm worried about making a baseball team this year, and now I'm worried about my life?"
The next two things they would do at Wills, she told him, were to save Johnson's eye and his vision, in that order. Another doctor asked Johnson how financially stable he was, and Johnson felt shock -- was his baseball career over?
"What are you talking about?" Johnson recalls thinking. "That's kind of a bad thing to start off with."
The process was decidedly less painful than considering that turn of events. A radioactive plaque was molded for Johnson's eye and put in place for four days before he left Philadelphia and flew back to Tampa, ready to regain some semblance of normalcy.
For the purposes of making the team as a non-roster invitee, Johnson's diagnosis is a serious setback. But the Yankees are taking the stance that he will still have a chance to make the team once he gets on the field.
"Obviously, his health is the most important thing," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I had never heard of anyone having that. It's a scary moment. It's something that you worry about his health more than anything. Taking the mound is the least of our concerns."
Johnson's eye appeared bloodshot while speaking on Saturday. He spoke with reporters while wearing glasses, since contact lenses are not an option at this time. But Johnson has been told there is a 98 percent recovery rate for people in his situation, and that he was fortunate to have spotted a change when he did.
"They said a lot of times, people don't even notice it," Johnson said. "The tumor was kind of seeping fluid from it, so it separated the retina a little bit. That caused my vision to be blurred. I knew something was wrong. Some people go for years with this and there's no symptoms."
Had Johnson waited longer, it may have been too late. Instead, at this moment, his biggest concern is getting an infection from dirt, which keeps him confined to throwing and working out indoors at the Yankees' complex.
"He seems to be in pretty good spirits," Girardi said. "He's doing what he can do, and he comes in and does some stuff inside. We'll keep him trying to do that."
Doctors told Johnson he should be able to fully recover to baseball activities -- he can play catch now, but says, "It's a little bit blurry." He plans to join his teammates on the field in early March and hopes he will have enough time to show what he is capable of.
"I'm 100 percent healthy, so I knew if I came to Spring Training, I could make the team," Johnson said. "That's how confident I was this year. It's a setback to deal with, but it's more important to save my life and my eye before I get back to baseball."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.