Perhaps it was all just a fever dream, the kind that can be pleasant or mysterious, that can confuse and delight. Maybe that’s what Bethanne Johnson was struggling to summon from the jumbled fog of memory, as she pieced together years and months that culminated in a single afternoon last August.
There was definitely a baseball game, I’m sure of that, she might have thought. Kind of strange, though, that no one was there, and didn’t we also go swimming in the ocean? But Tyler’s there … Tyler’s pitching? Tyler survived, and he’s pitching, and he’s wearing a Yankees jersey, and my dad once gave him a ball signed by Mickey Mantle, so he must have known, no matter what Tyler might say …
How did I get here? you can almost see her asking. I can’t afford this, I’m sick, and I’d rather not accept your help, but the help is nice, but I’ve worked full-and-a-half time all my life and paid impossible bills for two medical nightmares, and now I’m here in Florida, and my son is pitching, and he’s doing well, and he’s alive and he’s happy and oh no, none of this was ever real, it can’t be, because Tyler’s not allowed to play sports, and I’m not allowed to travel and, come to think of it, who let Tyler grow his hair that long, don’t the Yankees have rules against that stuff, and …
Some dreams aren’t meant to be parsed. They’re too disorienting, sometimes just close enough to reality to lead you off a cliff. This strange sunny day was real, though, and more than that, it was normal. Not in the sense that everyone gets to watch their son play professional baseball; just in the way that a lifetime of hard work and good deeds and strong faith sometimes gets rewarded. This was a day long removed from one set of medical terrors, while deep in midst of another, but it was also just an ordinary summer afternoon in the Gulf Coast League, where recent draftees learn the professional ropes. It was real, and it was important, and it was … normal. Except for the hair, of course. That part didn’t make any sense.
When Tyler Johnson was 5 years old, he threatened to fire his cardiologist.
He was a kid, and he thought like a kid, and he wanted to play baseball like the other kids did. But he was also a regular visitor to the doctor’s office, on account of a congenital heart defect that doctors noticed within 12 hours of his birth. Five days later, Bethanne and Corlis Johnson learned that their sweet young boy had a disease called tetralogy of Fallot, and that he had about a 1 in 4 chance of dying. They did heart catheterizations at 5 months and 18 months, and an open-heart operation in between at 6 months. As the name implies, tetralogy of Fallot is actually a series of intermingled defects, and the doctors were able to repair everything except for Baby Tyler’s pulmonary valve; they had to reconstruct it, which left him with an acceptable, but still limiting, back Fallot. Competitive sports would forever be out of the question.
So there was Tyler, a precocious 5-year-old, sitting down his doctor for a heart-to-(repaired)-heart. He understood that he couldn’t run enough to play basketball or football, that when he tried soccer, he’d had trouble breathing. But he really believed he could manage playing baseball. Eventually, the doctor relented, as long as Tyler was willing to wear a special chest protector. “And Tyler just put his hand on his forehead and went, ‘Thank goodness, I thought I was going to have to fire you today,’” Bethanne says, laughing.
Seventeen years after that ultimatum in the cardiologist’s office, the Yankees took Johnson in the 30th round of the 2018 MLB Draft. And maybe you’re inclined to believe that means everything worked out for Tyler and the Johnson family, and maybe, despite what you’re about to read, you’ll still decide that’s true. Tyler and Bethanne believe in miracles and in a God who keeps to a plan, and no doubt that helps when the walls keep finding new ways to crumble. They’ve surrounded themselves with friends and coaches who clutch tight to a similar faith. Maybe you do, too.
Bethanne recalls another day just a few years after the showdown in the cardiologist’s office. Could you do me a favor, can you sit down, can we talk? “And we’re like, ‘Oh god, what’s coming out of his mouth now?’ He said, ‘I just want you guys to know that I appreciate the fact that you’ve let me do what I want to do all my life, knowing that it’s scary for everybody. And if I die playing baseball, know I died doing what I love and it made me happy.’ That’s a 9-year-old. Of course, I’m crying like a big baby, like a mother would normally do. And from that point forward, it was kind of like, It is what it is. God has a plan, and if he’s due to be safe, he’ll be safe. And if something happens to him, that was God’s wish and God’s will.”
So picture Bethanne, sitting near the dugout in Clearwater, Florida, watching her son come in as a reliever for the Gulf Coast League Yankees and strike out two GCL Phillies in an inning and a third. Picture the terror this woman and her husband and their older son, Kyle, had endured, and imagine how it could all lead to this moment. “It’s been my dream since I was 4 years old,” Tyler says, “so I think it was good for her to see that I had accomplished my dream of being a professional baseball player.”
But dreams are complex. They can multiply. And they can overlap.
When Tyler Johnson was 16 years old, a fresh nightmare spawned. It was the day after his birthday, and he was driving with his father when Corlis passed along the news. Bethanne had chronic myelogenous leukemia. “It was kind of the worst day ever,” Tyler says. “I’d probably say it took a year or two to really understand fully what was going on. At first, you just think cancer -- ‘Oh, she’s dying. I’m not going to have her here.’ It’s almost like a ‘Poor me’ kind of thing. But then we switched around to what we could do to make it better for her, as far as how she’s feeling.”
Bethanne never knew why he was growing out his hair. He said it was something he wanted to try, a different look. Then he enrolled at Gardner-Webb University, and the coach there, Rusty Stroupe, noticed that his new recruit’s hair was longer than he allowed. That’s when the quiet, private player confided in his new coach, telling him the plan to grow his hair long enough to make a wig for his mother.
Up to that point, it’s not like the Johnsons’ ordeal had been a state secret. Phil Callaghan, Tyler’s coach at Olentangy Orange High School in Ohio, had been a helpful confidant to the entire family over the years as they endured the stresses of chemo and radiation, the bad days followed by the worse days followed by the OK days, which were actually great days in the grand scheme of things. But when Tyler would pitch, his golden locks whipping behind him, it became impossible to keep the matter quiet.
Then came his first encounter with the school’s Vs. Cancer Foundation fundraiser, when each player on the team would buzz his hair before a game to support the Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina. As he stood alone, his long hair in stark contrast to the military cuts around him, Tyler -- who understood the pain of cancer all too well -- somehow felt the pull of brotherhood more than he ever could have by following the crowd.
But it all was overwhelming to Bethanne. Cut your hair, she told him, concerned that Tyler was being too selfless, that he was internalizing too much of her struggle. But her son was determined. “My hair was absolutely identical to his,” Bethanne says. “It was the same thickness, the same coarseness. It was identical. And he just said it was important. He finally said, breaking down in tears, ‘Mom, there’s nothing else I can do to help you.’
“He’s probably one of the most kind-hearted people you’ll ever meet. Not just for me, but for everybody. He would give the shirt off his back to anybody.”
Tyler dreamed of someday providing for his parents, of offering some unnecessary payback for what they had sacrificed, both financially and emotionally. He hated the fact that his ailing mother was still working 50-plus hours a week as a dietician, running kitchens at two mental health facilities. But he wasn’t close to being there yet financially. Hair, though, he could grow. (Twice, in fact; the first time he cut it to make a wig, it ended up not being long enough, and he had to start the process again.)
That was all just fine and sweet and maybe even a bit happy, until the best day of Tyler’s life offered another wrinkle in the story. Bethanne believed it was fate when the Yankees drafted her son, remembering the Mickey Mantle baseball her father had given him years back. But the Yankees famously demand a certain grooming policy. Billy Godwin, the scout who had been following Tyler, called with the good news on draft day, then made what he thought was a fairly obvious point. “When I got the call,” Tyler says, “he was like, ‘Well, when you get here, you need to be clean-cut and clean-shaven.’ I was like, ‘I can do the clean-shave, but I don’t know if I can do the clean-cut.’”
“I knew that his mom had been through a lot of adversity,” Godwin says, “but I didn’t know that he was growing the hair for that reason. And when he told me, I said, ‘Whoa, do not do anything with it. Let me just talk to our people.’”
Godwin got ahold of Yankees director of player development Eric Schmitt, who called VP of domestic amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer. Eventually, it escalated all the way to the desk of managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. “Under the circumstances,” Oppenheimer says, “we presented the case to him on what was going on, and he was receptive to it. He said, ‘Yup, we’re going to do that. We’ll be fine with it. And once he gets this done, then we’ll have him cut his hair.’”
Oppenheimer can’t recall any other time that the policy has been waived, even temporarily.
When Tyler Johnson was 17 years old, his mother had a dream. To that point, her son seemed like a pretty decent relief pitcher, one who was attracting attention from a smattering of college scouts. But as her health declined, she opened up a bit more than usual to Callaghan. She told him that someday, she was going to see Tyler pitch professionally. Callaghan listened, and nodded, but the whole thing felt wrong. “One, he’s borderline,” he remembers thinking (but certainly not saying). “I thought he was a borderline Division I [pitcher], and then certainly a borderline pro prospect.” His other thought was a bit harder to stomach: “That’s a lot of pressure to think you’re going to live that long with what you’re dealing with.”
A decent freshman year gave way to a disastrous sophomore season as Johnson lost his arm slot and spent all year trying to find it again. His junior campaign was extraordinary, though, and in the Big South Tournament -- just a few days before the 2018 draft -- Tyler showed how just far he had come.
Winthrop had knocked out Gardner-Webb’s starting pitcher after just a third of an inning, and Stroupe called for Johnson to stanch the bleeding. He allowed two inherited runners to score, then got out of the inning. “We put him back out there for the second,” Stroupe says, “and every inning, he got better, and about the fourth or fifth, he said, ‘Coach, I feel great!’”
Johnson kept working quick innings, and he kept going back out. Twice that season he had reached three innings, but as Johnson pushed on -- four, five, six -- Stroupe couldn’t pull him. “We would start warming someone up, and he would come in and say, ‘Let me go just one more.’”
Johnson says he knew by about the seventh inning, I’m finishing this game. “I wanted to do it,” he says. “We didn’t have much pitching left.”
On offense, Gardner-Webb scored a run in the second, another in the fourth and two in the sixth to tie it. With his team ahead, 5-4, after a ninth-inning homer, Johnson took the mound for one last frame. “I could feel being tired,” he says. “The last batter, I think he had a [six]-pitch at-bat or something. He fouled like two off, and I was just like, ‘Dude, strike out. My arm’s tired.’ I was so emotionally and mentally and physically drained after that game.”
Even though Gardner-Webb’s season ended with a loss the next day, Johnson’s 8 2⁄3-inning, five-hit, eight-strikeout, no-earned-runs performance seemed incredible, unless you already knew about the boy who never let himself get fenced in by limitations.
So when the Yankees selected Johnson just two weeks later, it seemed like one-and-a-half pieces of Bethanne’s dream had come true. She was alive (doing quite well, actually), and he was going to pitch professionally. But there was still the part of somehow seeing him. Between the sickness and the cost, Bethanne had been able to travel to see Tyler pitch just once in college. But Callaghan recalled their conversation from a few years back and, perhaps motivated by his own doubts in the moment, insisted on personally flying Bethanne down to see Tyler in action. “I thought, Here he is, he’s got a chance,” Callaghan says. “And I told my wife, ‘This was what Bethanne said was going to happen. We’ve got to do this.’”
Callaghan and Bethanne flew from Columbus to Tampa, and they made their way over to Clearwater to watch Tyler’s team face the Phillies. But the Gulf Coast League isn’t what most people expect of professional baseball; Callaghan estimates there were 11 or 12 people in the stands that day. And as a reliever, it was anybody’s guess if Tyler would even be pitching that day. “But his coaches said that if his mom was coming down, she was going to see him play,” Bethanne says. “And so graciously enough, they put him in, and I saw him in there, and I just cried. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is real.’ It’s still surreal for me at times.”
For Callaghan, though the strongest memory was away from the field as he watched his friend simply enjoy herself for a short time. “The highlight of the trip,” he says, “was to watch her as she was fighting to swim in the ocean in Clearwater, just having the time of her life.”
Tyler Johnson is 22, entering his first full year of professional baseball, and his hair is cut in a fade, well in accordance with New York Yankees protocol. The wig is in the process of being made, and Bethanne’s last few check-ups have looked pretty good. She’s never going to be out of the woods, but the last few months have offered a rare dose of positivity.
And yet … even through it all, Bethanne, Corlis and Tyler had fought against succumbing to negativity. From birth, Tyler’s life was supposed to be about what he couldn’t do. He refused to be defined by that. How could she not follow his example? How could any of them?
She always knew that it was his dream to play, and once she got sick, he made it perfectly clear how much he wanted to be able to support the family. But there was another aim that kept pushing him. “I can make a difference in a child’s life by becoming this pro player,” he told Bethanne. “Whether it’s in the Minors or Majors or wherever. I can be a person that kids can look up to and say, _I can do that. I don’t have to be a cardiac invalid. I have an opportunity to be something that people say can’t be done._”
So Tyler now looks the part of any other Yankees prospect, and he works to add a change-up to his repertoire. He’s excited for another year in pro ball, an impossible dream for anyone, and laughably so for the boy whose life on the sidelines seemed preordained at just 12 hours old.
Just four times since the draft started in 1965 has a Yankees 30th-round pick signed and reached the Majors, but the next person who correctly bets against Tyler Johnson will be the first. You still have to dream pretty big to see a big-league future for the young pitcher. But do you want to be the person to tell him to wake up?
“I know how to deal with adversity better than some,” he says, a ludicrous understatement. At 22 years old, Tyler knows the difference between nightmares and dreams -- knows them well enough to understand how they can be interchangeable. But already, as the sun rises on his professional life, he also understands a lesson most people don’t learn until the end of the line: If you’re not willing to endure the nightmares, you’ll never be able to meet your dreams.