Beating an Opponent of a Different Kind

PawSox Lefty, Brian Johnson,Overcomes Anxiety Issues With Support From All Corners

By Brendan McGair / Pawtucket Red Sox | March 20, 2017 9:29 AM ET

Brian Johnson was in the early stages of getting treatment for anxiety when a sobering thought crossed his mind.

Life without baseball, a game that had taken the lefthander to a prominent spot on the big-league radar.

"I was in tears thinking about it. Baseball is all I know," Johnson said. "There wasn't a fork in the road. It was kind of, 'Which direction am I going to go in?'

"I didn't know if I would come back. I just knew I needed to get right," Johnson added.

Looking back, the decision Johnson made to step away from baseball in May 2016 was one that was initially met by him believing the worst.

Are coaches in the Red Sox organization ever going to trust Johnson again? Delving deeper, are they going to think he's not mentally strong and not equipped to handle an assignment on the mound at Fenway Park, let alone McCoy Stadium?

"I didn't know anyone who had done or been through what I was dealing with," Johnson said. "I was nervous and scared."

Obviously, it wasn't easy for Johnson to come forward. His biggest fear was how the Red Sox would react. As the 31st overall pick of the 2012 draft, a significant investment had been made in him. He was with the Pawtucket Red Sox at the time of his arrival at a pivotal crossroads, meaning he was the proverbial "one phone call away" from getting summoned to the majors.

In making the Red Sox aware about what was gnawing away at him, a pleasant development arose. Immense relief washed over Johnson after he was greeted and met with support at every possible Red Sox level, from upper management down to the minor-league coaches who had been with him every step of the way.

"I can't express enough how great they were," Johnson said. "That was my biggest fear. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Knowing he had their full backing and unbridled support enabled Johnson to take the next step by moving forward. In so many words, the peace of mind provided by the Red Sox told Johnson to first and foremost focus on his well-being. By the same token, remember that they'll be a nice, crisp uniform waiting at your locker stall upon returning.

The press release issued by the Red Sox on May 21, 2016 touched upon Johnson's bout with anxiety issues. The 26-year-old remembers talking things over with his dad before informing the Red Sox that in order to move forward in life, baseball would have to take a backseat for the foreseeable future.

"I wanted to feel that there was more to life than just baseball," Johnson said. "It's a game that's fun and I was losing sight of that."

How Johnson arrived at this juncture could be traced back to his 2015 season. What started out as a promising campaign where he was selected but did not pitch in the Triple-A All-Star Game shifted to concerning. Not long after making his Red Sox debut that July in Houston, Johnson learned he would be shut down for the balance of the season with irritation in his left ulnar nerve.

Johnson felt like he had dodged a bullet when prescribed rest. Instead of breathing a major sigh of relief that he wouldn't have to undergo surgery, Johnson became morphed into more of a worrier. He couldn't focus. He couldn't sleep. His concerns became so deep that he carried them into the seven starts he made with the 2016 PawSox prior to leaving the ball club.

He posted an un-prospect-like 4.64 ERA in those seven starts and nearly as many walks (22) as strikeouts (28). To Johnson, if it wasn't rock bottom, it was darn close.

"I'd get so worked up the day I was pitching and wonder 'What if I don't find that arm slot? What if it's bothering me too much?' Until I found that arm slot, I'd be on that internal clock where I could never feel comfortable. I'd work myself up to where I couldn't even settle down. I couldn't even collect my thoughts," Johnson said. "I was so nervous my arm was going to bother me that I couldn't pitch."

Johnson left the PawSox abruptly. At the time of the May 21 announcement, the team was playing a weekend series in Buffalo.

"Didn't tell anyone," Johnson said. "I didn't expect anyone to reach out to me. That might have been foolish or naive on my part."

Turns out the island of one that Johnson initially thought he was destined for was pure fantasy. A groundswell of encouragement awaited at the Red Sox spring-training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., from Dr. Richard Ginsburg (the director of the team's behavioral health program), farm director Ben Crockett, and mental skills coach Laz Gutierrez.

"There was nothing but support," Johnson said. Adhering to the mantra of taking it one day at a time, Johnson kept his arm in shape while making sure to keep his daily appointments with a psychiatrist. Slowly but surely, he began to map out a list of goals, which included a return to the PawSox by season's end.

"We didn't want the process of completely building my arm strength up again," Johnson said. "We wanted to keep my arm - obviously not as fresh as pitching on a regular basis - to a point where I could get off the mound when I wanted to."

By early July 2016, Johnson was cleared to pitch in games. Stops were made with the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate and short-A Lowell before arriving back at the level he was at before stepping aside.

The Thursday before his Sunday, July 24 start at Columbus, Johnson walked into a Pawtucket clubhouse that couldn't wait to welcome him back.

"He came in all smiles and was happy to be here. He sounded good and looked good," PawSox manager Kevin Boles said. "He was definitely more upbeat."

Immense relief washed over Johnson after he was greeted and met with support at every possible Red Sox level . . . In his first start back with the PawSox, Johnson was roughed up for four runs on six hits in three innings. He walked four and struck out one on 78 pitches. How he handled the adversity revealed that he truly was a different person now. When Johnson came out of the game, he took a seat at his locker and smiled. He was ready to file it away and turn his attention to his next start.

"Oh my gosh, without a doubt," said Johnson when asked about the anguish that the aforementioned stat line would have caused him at one time. "Sleeping would have been tough and I would have been short with my teammates. It would have eaten me up."

Johnson posted a 3.07 ERA over his final seven starts with the PawSox, an encouraging finish that firmly placed him back on Boston's radar entering the 2017 season.

In the eyes of Boles, the passive approach that for Johnson became all-too commonplace during the first month-plus of the 2016 season had given way to an aggressive demeanor that in turn served him well on days when he didn't have his best stuff.

"Whether I had success or not, I felt I was going in the right direction," Johnson said.

"He looked comfortable in his own skin. He looked healthy," Boles said. "He was secure after looking worried at the start the year."

For the first time in a few years, Johnson enjoyed the benefit of a normal offseason. He took a few weeks off after the PawSox season ended, using the time to visit family and go fishing. He began his pre-spring training throwing program in late November, his elbow and anxiety issues both things of the past.

In many ways, Johnson is a survivor. He's not the first professional athlete to deal with anxiety issues. The odds are pretty good that he won't be the last.

Considering Johnson's chosen manner of such a delicate issue, does he view himself as a source of inspiration?

"I was at the point in my life where I needed to say something. I didn't really think about it like that until I talked to people and they said, 'This is good and something that could really help others,'" Johnson said.

"If it helps somebody, awesome. Without a doubt, there's more people in this game or in other sports who are going through this." "At least now, I know it's not something that's frowned upon."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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