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Beating the odds

Ex-Curve Johnston a true sports inspiration

December 25, 2007
By Cory Giger
If you’re looking for a late Christmas gift for the young baseball player in your family, the most inspirational player in Altoona Curve history has something to offer.

Mike Johnston, one of only two players ever to overcome Tourette Syndrome and reach the major leagues, is available for one-on-one baseball clinics at The Summit Tennis & Athletic Club.

Johnston married Altoona native Michelle Hunter in 2005 and settled down in Huntingdon County. They have a 16-month-old son, Kaden.

The former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, whose career has been slowed by a shoulder injury, says he can help young pitchers fine tune their mechanics and build endurance.

‘‘By the time their season starts, their arm will be full strength, ready to go,’’ Johnston said.

Johnston, who also works as a personal trainer at The Summit, is offering the baseball lessons nightly from 7 to 9. The cost is $30 per half-hour session for Summit members and $40 for non-members, and Johnston recommends four to six sessions for maximum impact.

‘‘I want to build their way up,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t want to jam their head full of stuff in one session.’’

Johnston’s career took off when he starred for the Curve in 2003, but few people knew back then of the affliction he’d battled since he was 12 years old.

Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes facial and body tics and vocal outburts. Johnston found a way to control the disorder without medication and joined outfielder Jim Eisenreich as the only Tourette sufferers to play in the major leagues.

By the time he made it up to the Pirates during the 2004 season, Johnston’s story was well known. He received widespread media attention in Pittsburgh and other big league cities, making him an inspiration to Tourette sufferers everywhere.

‘‘It was real weird because nobody really talked about it at all my whole minor league career,’’ Johnston said. ‘‘But once you’re in that spotlight in the big leagues, especially as a rookie having a little success when I got there, it really took off.’’

Instead of being embarrassed by the situation, Johnston used his celebrity to spend time with and be an inspiration to children afflicted by Tourette Syndrome.

‘‘Hopefully it reached some kids and helped them out a little bit,’’ he said.

Johnston appeared in 24 games as a reliever with the Pirates in 2004, going 0-3 with a 4.37 ERA, and has battled injuries off and on ever since. The hard-throwing lefty had surgery to repair a torn labrum in October of 2006, which marked the end of his tenure with the Bucs.

‘‘I got released the day I had surgery,’’ Johnston said. ‘‘I came out of surgery to a phone call from [assistant general manager] Doug Strange that I had been released. That’s not the best news coming out of surgery.

‘‘But it’s part of the game. I was part of the 40-man [roster], so they would have had to pay me a lot of money this year. They knew I wasn’t going to throw the whole year, so why take a financial hit when they’re pinching money anyway?’’

The San Diego Padres took a chance on Johnston by signing him to a two-year contract, knowing he wouldn’t pitch in 2007. He spent the season rehabbing his shoulder and appeared in one game in the instructional league in October.

Johnston said he’s finally starting to get back to 100 percent, and the 28-year-old believes he can work his way back to the big leagues. He expects to start the 2008 season at Triple-A Portland, Ore.

‘‘I still feel young,’’ Johnston said. ‘‘I feel like I’m just getting started. I’m still learning, I’m still getting better. As long as I’m getting better and I have something to offer, I’m going to continue to play.

‘‘My goal is to get back to the big leagues this year, and I’m going to do everything I can to get back there.’’

It helps immensely that Johnston throws with his left arm, since there’s always a need for quality lefties in the big leagues. Johnston knows this all too well.

‘‘I’ve been blessed with a great wife who loves me dearly and takes care of me,’’ he said, ‘‘and I have a beautiful baby boy who hopefully is left-handed and is my investment.’’

Cory Giger is at 949-7031 and

Article Photos

Mirror photo by Jason Sipes
Having overcome Tourette Syndrome to pitch in the major leagues, Mike Johnston is offering clinics at The Summit.

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