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In the face of depression, a Ray's search for healing

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2002

I'm no sportswriter, but Russ Johnson's story hit home hard.

I'm no sportswriter, but Russ Johnson's story hit home hard.

Here was a professional ballplayer, a utility infielder for the Devil Rays, who had pulled himself out of the black hole of depression. He returned to the team last week, after three weeks in a hospital in his home state of Louisiana.

Once he returned, I just had to talk to him. Like so many other people, I am no stranger to depression. Johnson, I thought, might have wisdom to share.

We met Friday after his morning practice at the Rays' training facility in St. Petersburg.

Johnson was square-jawed and green-eyed and walked into the room carrying neither ball nor bat nor glove, but a small Bible covered in brown leather.

This was his story.

Johnson came to the Rays two years ago from the Houston Astros. Last year and this year the same lousy luck hit him. He got hurt and couldn't play for a while. Last year, when he came back -- at the time he was playing second base -- his skills seemed to elude him. This year when he came back he lost his position at third base.

You can imagine what this would do to a man whose passion for baseball remains the way it was, as he said, when he was 7 years old, and who has no idea what he'll do when his age catches up with him and he has to quit.

Johnson's feelings were hurt, deeply hurt, but where in pro sports do you go to talk about your worries, your fears? It's not exactly the definition of the manly thing to do.

The hurt leached out of Russ Johnson in other ways.

He argued with his teammates, puzzled his bosses, upset his family. He was drinking more than usual. He was so out of touch that it puzzled him why people weren't as friendly as they used to be. What could he be doing wrong?

Things came to a head in early July, and the team sent him home to Louisiana. It was his family that took him to a hospital, where a doctor diagnosed him as depressed.

Johnson spent a lot of time in group therapy sessions, listening to people as sad and self-doubting as he was.

But it was the first minutes and hours in the hospital that Johnson said was the source of his cure.

He fell to his knees in tears and opened a family Bible he'd brought with him. The book opened to Revelations, he said, and he read to me the passage he said he had read in the first moments in the hospital.

As he confessed what he called his sins, he said, thunder roared and lightning flashed outside.

Now, he said, he feels himself completely changed. "I feel like a totally different person," he said.

My heart hopes he's right.

My experience tells me depression does not give up its hold on the spirit quite so easily; therapy and drugs are often required, and even then the struggle can be daunting.

And I get automatically skeptical when people speak so enthusiastically about how God worked a revolution in their lives. I can't help it. I wonder what they're hiding from themselves.

Johnson said he has learned one lesson that is worth repeating here. He has had to give up the notion that he can control the outcome of every situation he is in, from the kitchen table to the baseball diamond. If he isn't in control, he doesn't have to blame and berate himself when things go wrong. All he can do is his best, and leave the outcome to somebody else -- God, I think he will say.

Johnson is going to play for a few weeks in the Devil Rays' farm system, to get him ready to return to Tropicana Field in September. When the season ends and he goes home to Louisiana, he said he may go back to that hospital to participate in the group therapy sessions that showed him this summer that he was not alone in his fear and anger, and his search for hope.

-- You can each Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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