Brandon Morrow: Closing the Deal
For pitcher Brandon Morrow, facing big-league hitters and managing diabetes are all in a day's work
Brandon Morrow is the future of a shaky Seattle Mariners pitching staff, a 24-year-old phenom with a bazooka arm that fires 98-mph fastballs and sliders in the high 80s. Morrow also famously developed a diving curveball in the minors that last year held the New York Yankees hitless for almost eight innings. But perhaps the biggest curveball in Morrow's life had him on the receiving end.
In 2003, Morrow was a high school senior with major league stuff that blew away hitters and scouts alike. But then he started feeling fatigued. His eyes would unexpectedly blur, he lost weight, his performance dragged, and his future seemed suddenly in jeopardy. During conditioning one day, Morrow mentioned his symptoms to a teammate, who happened to have done a research project on diabetes. He urged Morrow to see a doctor. When Morrow did, his blood glucose was so high that he was immediately hospitalized—and diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
July 26, 1984,
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Rohnert Park, Calif.
University of California—Berkeley
2006 amateur draft, fifth pick overall
Major league debut
April 13, 2007
With insulin and a new diet, Morrow became the comeback kid of Rohnert Park, Calif., about an hour north of San Francisco. And in 2006, the Mariners drafted Morrow out of the University of California–Berkeley in the first round. Last season, as a relief pitcher, Morrow posted a 1.47 earned run average with more than a strikeout per inning, one of the few bright spots on a team that finished last in its division. Morrow has always been pegged as a future ace starter, but after spring training this April, he asked to stay in the bullpen, disappointing many Mariners fans. Still, Morrow's electric stuff will be put to good use as the team's new closer, and he says that pitching in relief makes it easier to manage his blood glucose, making him more effective on the mound.
Though Morrow, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound righthander, is a potentially dominant force in the high-pressure role of closer, many baseball fans still view him as a youngster learning the ropes. But Morrow has taken on another level of responsibility. In an unexpected twist, fellow Mariner reliever Mark Lowe was diagnosed with diabetes last year. Now Morrow is helping Lowe cope with the news and change his diet. In short, the young fireballer has become something of a seasoned veteran and personal coach—on the fine art of being a professional athlete with diabetes.
You were a superstar high school pitcher prepping for the 2003 Major League Baseball draft. Then you learned you had diabetes. How did you handle the news?
I thought it was something you got when you were old and out of shape. On commercials and on TV, that's all you see. You don't really hear about any athletes having diabetes or anything like that. It was a scare at first. You don't know what to expect. But once you get on track, you realize nothing is really different. I think I adapted to it pretty well.
What was happening to your body at the time?
I was waking up during the night having to urinate. My tongue would feel like a piece of wood. I had lost about 15 pounds. I had deep, dark circles under my eyes. My vision would get blurry. I was drinking so much water and going to the bathroom all the time. My mom thought I was doing this popular diet at the time where you drink lots and lots of water to trick yourself into thinking you are full or something.
How did your parents respond?
I told my mom, and of course she didn't want to believe that. We talked about it, and finally I was like, "Hey, this is something we should get checked out." So we went, and I had a blood sugar of 715. My mom was scared—just motherly concerns, of course. And she thought it was going to be a lot more tough to deal with early on.
Scouts have long billed you as a potential Cy Young Award–winning starting pitcher. But you've opted to stay in the less glamorous bullpen. Did diabetes play a role in your decision?
You know, it's very important to have a routine. The last two years I've been in the bullpen, and I've developed what I think is a pretty good routine to keep blood sugars in check and keep myself healthy for a full season. But there were many other considerations, too. Diabetes was not the main concern for going back into the bullpen.
But do you have to set your glucose levels differently to start a game, as opposed to coming in as a reliever?
There were times I would have lows during the game. Warming up, especially, was when I would have my lows and when I would try to get my blood sugar too perfect. With the anticipation, anxiety, and everything, I would drop low. And sitting there before the game trying to really get my sugar up to the right levels, it was hard to concentrate on the game. If you can't get your sugar up in the first inning, then you can put your team at a disadvantage.
Some fans were upset with your decision to stay in the bullpen. Why did you do it?
It takes time to learn your body and know what you need to do and how your body will adjust. It's a long process. It's trial and error, and to do that at the big-league level is definitely a serious undertaking for me. I developed a strong routine in the bullpen, and that's what's going to keep me healthy and strong. If you can't keep it under control, you're not going to be able to compete and you're not going to have a very good career.
You take off your insulin pump before pitching. Why?
I'm a bullpen pitcher, so I have the luxury of being able to sit in the pen with the pump on for the first six or seven innings. So when I begin my stretching routine, I check on my sugars, and then I just unclick it from the port in my stomach and wrap it up and keep it in my jacket pocket.
Why not pitch with it?
When I first got my pump in college, I tried to pitch with it for a little while. But I didn't like having what feels like a pager on my belt as I'm trying to pitch. It's a little uncomfortable. But the tube is really what agitates me and pulls at times. It pulls your jersey out sometimes if you're not careful, or it can get caught on things, and it's not something I want to deal with.
Is diabetes a liability for an athlete? Do your coaches or teammates view you as different?
No. Everyone has given me every chance to be on an equal playing field with everyone else. That's all I've ever asked for. If you have it under control, there is no disadvantage.
Mark Lowe has struggled with controlling his diabetes, moving from a diet regimen to insulin in the past year. What's been your role in helping him adjust?
At first, they were having him monitor it with diet, but it developed to where he is now on insulin. I think it's good for both of us to have each other there to compare blood sugars and keep each other in good range and not slack off with eating habits or schedules.
Has this brought you two closer?
We were close to begin with. We're about the same age and have a lot of interests in common. And, you know, this can only bring you closer, to have that in common and be able to talk about it and talk about routines and foods. A lot of our discussion has been about food and how different foods affect me and how different foods affect him. Also, I count carbohydrates. He's going to learn how to do that.
Do you see him struggle with the same things you struggled with?
Mark is a strong guy, and he's handled it very well. But there have been times—not where he thought he couldn't handle it, but where he just needed to talk about having a routine and foods and how different things will affect his body. Like, sugar cereals give me trouble. I really like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but I can't eat that anymore because it shoots my blood sugar real high. That's just something you start to figure out on your own. He hasn't had it long enough to really figure those things out.
How do the other pitchers handle having two relievers with diabetes in the bullpen?
Everybody is fine with it. Everybody knows what's going on, so it's really not a big deal. They get concerned sometimes and will come up and ask where you're at with your blood sugar or they'll ask if they can get you anything. Maybe they'll give you a fist pound if you have good numbers.
Do you have advice for other young athletes with diabetes?
Develop a strong routine. That was the biggest thing for me. I feel that when I have my routine down and I can set my clock by when I'm going to check my sugars and I know when I'm going to do it, and I know where I want those sugars to be, that's the most important thing I can do for myself. That's going to help you stay consistent.
Seattle lost 101 games last year. What are your predictions this year?
I'm going to say we're gonna win more than we did last year.