LARRY LARUE; THE TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE
Published: 02/24/09 12:05 am Updated: 02/24/09 2:03 am
PEORIA, Ariz. – The number of diabetics in the United States in 2007 was 23.6 million – about 8 percent of the population – and that total included Brandon Morrow.
Since then, the numbers have increased. Today, they include Morrow’s teammate on the Seattle Mariners, Mark Lowe.
Most Americans, studies show, believe diabetics are obese, that they somehow bring on the disease through poor diet or lack of exercise. Yet Morrow and Lowe are prime examples of just how incorrect those theories are.
Lowe found out his blood sugars were high last spring after his team physical, but he didn’t know much about the condition.
“All I knew about it was watching Brandon prick himself in the finger down in the bullpen every night in the fifth inning,” Lowe said. “I remember the moment that I realized it was pretty serious. I was talking to (assistant trainer) Rob Nodine and he was telling me that the Utah Jazz owner was diagnosed, and the second he was diagnosed he had to have both legs amputated.
“When he told me that, I told him right there, ‘Set me up an appointment. I’ve got to get this under control.’ It’s scary. I never realized how serious it was. It’s not anything to mess around with.”
Morrow, a Type 1 diabetic, learned he had the disease as a senior in high school, a star pitcher who was confounded by sudden symptoms he didn’t understand.
“I was complaining about … waking up in the middle of the night, dehydrated, dry mouth, having to go to the bathroom a lot, losing weight, tired, vision blurry,” he said. “One of the guys on our team suggested that I go get checked for diabetes because he’d just done a research project on it.
“I brought it up to my mom, but she thought that I had unknowingly put myself on a diet where you drink tons and tons of water, that I was losing weight because of that. She didn’t want to believe that I was diabetic.
“We went to the doctor and my blood sugar was in the 700s – 715, I think. That’s officially diabetic.”
Lowe is a Type 2 diabetic, adult onset, and his struggles only began with his diagnosis.
“Basically, they told me to control it with my diet – don’t eat a lot of sugar, don’t eat a lot of carbs,” Lowe said. “It really crept up on me this past offseason. It hit me really hard. I lost about 15 pounds, and I’m down to about what I weighed in high school. Fortunately, when I was diagnosed I had somebody right next to me every day to ask questions to.”
There situations are different. Morrow wears an insulin pump and can use it to control sugars after testing himself. Lowe is trying to control his numbers with medication and diet – with varying degrees of success.
Naturally, being ballplayers, they joke about diabetes. They wager on what their numbers will be before testing, to see who’s closer to their prediction.
“The loser has to eat a whole bag of cookies,” Lowe said, joking.
Both know it’s no joking matter.
“This offseason, it was hard for me to work out,” Lowe said. “I would get in and crush it for about an hour, but when I got home I would hit a wall. I had nothing left. I was really controlling my diet, which could have made me lose weight, too.
“But it was tough. It was tough to have energy because there were no carbs going in, no sugars.”
And during the course of a 162-game season?
“I know it did affect me last year. I would come in some days and be dragging. Some days in the middle of the day I would hit a wall. Some days it was so high that my vision was blurry,” Lowe said.
Morrow has had to watch for the opposite – having his blood sugar dip too low.
“It was the first inning against UCLA my junior year. I’d felt it a few times warming up where you start feeling jittery, getting the shakes, cold sweat and an overall anxious feeling,” Morrow said. “I made it through the inning. Now, I pay a lot of attention to it before I get out there. Once you get it set and level, it’s going to hold through the game.”
Morrow said he thinks Lowe has it tougher.
“It’s almost harder for Mark because he doesn’t have the insulin to take. I think it’s harder to control it by diet,” he said. “I can pretty much eat whatever I want. I don’t have a very strong sweet tooth and I’m not eating pizza every night and stuff.
“I have insulin and when I want to have a cookie, I can hit the button and do it. But Mark has to wait three hours if he wants a cookie, which is tougher.”
Morrow is 24, and has been living with diabetes for years. Lowe is 25 and is still adjusting. The two are close friends, and when Lowe was officially diagnosed last year, one of the first things he did was text message Morrow.
“I was down at West Tennessee for the first two weeks. It was a day or two after he was officially diagnosed when I got called back,” Morrow said. “He’d just gotten his (testing meter). We were messing around pricking ourselves and sharing numbers.”
“It was not fun knowing it was something you’ll have to do the rest of your life, poking yourself with a needle forever,” Lowe said. “But you get over it and know it could be way, way worse. In the long run, its something that will help you – staying in shape, eating right. You have to look at it in the big picture.”
Neither Lowe nor Morrow had diabetes in their families, so the reaction to having the disease hit home in similar ways.
“I remember calling my mom and she started crying. I thought it was silly, but if I look at it from their perspective and got a call from them, I’d be sad too,” Lowe said. “It’s just Mom being Mom.
“I went home for the holidays and all the food was based around diabetes. It drove me nuts. Can you have this? Can you have that? ‘I can have whatever I want, Mom.’ ”
Morrow laughs at the story.
“The first year, everybody is trying to make you special Splenda cookies and stuff,” Morrow said. “It was like, ‘These are sick. Get rid of them.’ ”
Having two diabetics on the team has led to some interesting evenings in the Seattle bullpen.
“The jokes are on us in the bullpen. We’ll sit next to somebody and the other guys will say, ‘Oh, diabetes germs,’” Morrow said. “We have fun with it. But if they see you popping your finger, they’ll come over to see what the numbers are.”
How do they control their blood sugars during a game, when they’re often working hard?
“Being in the bullpen, you have the luxury of six innings and you’ll know when it’s coming on,” Lowe said. “Usually mine is on a routine. Every day at the same time it starts going down and I know what to do. But I haven’t been on these pills while I’ve been in a night game, so that will be something new to me.”
Morrow, now a starting pitcher, has to handle his blood sugar differently.
“I try to get it almost perfect before I go out, then I start dropping during my warm-ups,” Morrow said. “Then you try to get it up, and it goes back up again in the first inning. I try to check it between innings. Maybe by the third or fourth innings, it has leveled out and pretty stable, so I don’t have to worry about it too much by then.”
Occasionally, they talk about what they miss – things they used to eat but no longer can.
“If I was in Brandon’s shoes (using insulin), I would crush food. It hurts me a little bit, but it’s not that bad,” Lowe said.
“I’ll have some ice cream every now and then. But I won’t sit and eat a whole sheet of cookies,” Morrow said. “I never had much of a sweet tooth to begin with. But I do like my starches. I could eat a whole vat of mashed potatoes.”
Once in a while, a diabetic will try to talk to one or both of them at Safeco Field.
“There have been people in the bullpen. There have been parents who push their kids up to the fence,” Morrow said.
The questions come naturally. How have two major league players handled a disease that can be lethal if it goes unchecked?
“Take it serious. It’s a big deal and it’s your livelihood,” Lowe said. “As you get older, a lot of things can change and you’ve got to take care of it for the long run.”
Morrow’s advice is similar.
“Don’t let it hold you back,” he said. “It’s a serious condition, but if you take care of yourself and monitor it, you can be as healthy as anybody else.
“With both of our personalities, we keep it loose. We both take it seriously, but we don’t let it dictate who we are.”