As she lay in a hospital for 23 days with second-degree burns, caused by an allergic reaction to chemotherapy, Deirdre Johnson took comfort in knowing her husband Jeff never left her side.
That was last August, and even though there was still a month left in the minor league season, baseball was the furthest thing from Jeff Johnson's mind. His beautiful wife, just 35 years old and battling cancer in her chest, and two precious daughters -- who look just like their mom -- were the only priorities in Jeff's life.
So, the pitching coach took a leave of absence for most of the 2011 season to look after Deirdre and the girls, going from teaching young men how to throw fastballs and curveballs to becoming Mr. Mom. That meant having to learn how to do the girls' hair, take care of the laundry and do everything else Deirdre has always done primarily by herself as a baseball wife.
Curve pitching coach Jeff Johnson with his wife, Deirdre, and their daughters, 9-year-old Jaden (left) and 7-year-old Sarah.
Deirdre Johnson with daughters Sarah (left) and Jaden.
"He was a tremendous help because he basically did it all," said Deirdre, whose cancer is in remission. "I was not able to do anything with the kids and was basically bed-ridden all summer. I was very sick, so he took care of the kids and took care of me.
"He's been my rock. I feel very blessed to have him by my side."
Johnson, in his first season as the Curve's pitching coach and a former New York Yankees pitcher, speaks with a serious tone about his craft. Ask him anything about the game or one of his pitchers, and you always get a straightforward answer.
Ask him about his wife and daughters, however, and the guy everyone refers to as "JJ" can't hide his smile or twinkle of love and pride in his eyes.
Last week, following a Curve game at Peoples Natural Gas Field, Johnson left the clubhouse as soon as his postgame duties were finished and jogged down the tunnel to the field, where kids were allowed to run the bases. He didn't want to miss a single moment with daughters Jaden, 9, and Sarah, 7, as they raced around the infield until they were out of breath.
"It brings all the perspective back to where it needs to be," Johnson said of spending those rare and precious moments with his daughters during the season. "These games that we play, all these things are important to try and develop players, but at the end of the day, this is what's important."
It's just as important to his little girls, who don't get to see their dad much because of the demanding grind of the baseball season.
"It's a lot of fun," Jaden said after running the bases and then running into her dad's arms. "I love it."
Given everything they've been through in the past year, the Johnson family members have come to love simply being able to spend time together.
Deirdre first learned she had cancer on May 13 last year, and three weeks later she was diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma called anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
The cancer is in Deirdre's chest wall muscle, said Jeff, who was with low-A West Virginia early last season before taking a leave of absence the final three months to be with his wife. That leave came with the Pirates' full blessing.
"The Pirates have been tremendous with me," Jeff said. "They've been tremendously supportive, from [president] Frank Coonelly, [owner] Bob Nutting and all the way down."
When he went home to Charlotte, N.C., to take care of his family, Jeff quickly had to adapt to a much different lifestyle than that of a baseball coach.
"Now he knows what it's like to actually be here with the kids by yourself because we're away from him for basically eight months out of the year," Deirdre said.
"To be here taking care of everything and running the whole house by himself, he has changed tremendously. So he has a whole new respect for me and how he looks at things with me being here by myself taking care of the kids."
Deirdre's health is much better this year, so Jeff was able to return to work and was promoted by the Pirates to be the Double-A pitching coach.
Johnson has faced adversity from a sports perspective, but the family adversity has made him look at life much differently.
"We work our butts off here with players, and in the earlier years, it was hard not to take it personal if their development didn't go the way you thought it should go," he said. "But once we've gone through this, you don't take it personal.
"Actually, I've learn to appreciate the players more because I know how important their lives are other than baseball. So you do more character building and long-term focus and things like that with them about what's important to them. You can relate stories and experiences with them that way."
The Johnson family still has some tough times ahead as doctors plan to have Deirdre undergo a stem cell transplant beginning in a month or two.
Since she initially wasn't responsive to chemotherapy, the doctors said she would need stem cells from a donor. To help find a match for her or other cancer patients, more than 100 Pirates minor league players submitted cheek swabs late in spring training in Bradenton, Fla., with all results going into the national stem-cell registry.
The Johnsons are extremely grateful the players agreed to take part, and Deirdre said one of the players might be a stem-cell match, not for her but for someone else on the registry. She doesn't know the name of the player, and more tests need to be done to prove it's a match.
Deirdre, it turns out, may not need a donor after all. She recently has been responsive to the chemotherapy, and if her stem cell count gets high enough, the doctors may be able to extract enough of them to complete the transplant.
The procedure will take place at Duke University in Durham, N.C., about 2 1/2 hours away from the Johnsons' home. Jeff may need to take a leave of absence from the Curve to be with his wife at the beginning, and Deirdre's mom also will be there to help as much as possible.
"I will take some time early as she starts it because it's pretty ugly to start with from what I understand," Jeff said.
Deirdre has a rare form of cancer and said there hasn't been much research done on it, but she's wonderfully optimistic and determined to beat it.
"I think I'm going to pull through it, and everything's going to be fine," she said. "I have faith in God, and I believe that he's going to pull me through this. My family's come together and grown, and I do believe that I am going to be healed."
Jeff believes that, too, and he's spent the past year doing everything a husband and father can do to be the anchor when his family needed him most.
"He's an awesome dad," Deirdre said. "He's loving, supportive, encouraging and very protective of his girls. They love being around him. I love the look on their faces and in their eyes, and their smiles just light up when they see him."
Note: This story was first published online June 16 and updated June 17.