Baseball’s Dmitri Young hits a health home run with diabetes
Former professional baseball player Dmitri Young shocked baseball fans and sports media alike when he stopped by a Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals game last summer. It wasn’t because he had retired in 2010. He was simply unrecognizable: He had lost about 100 pounds since he last played in the majors.
Young, 41, of Ventura County, California, was suddenly back in the sports sections of newspapers across the country and splashed across baseball blogs. They called it “amazing” and “stunning.” But the guy known as Da Meathook calls it something else: a total lifestyle overhaul, made necessary by his type 2 diabetes.
Young was diagnosed in November 2006, after a destructive year on and off the field: Battling substance abuse addiction and legal troubles kept him mostly benched before the Detroit Tigers released him. Amid the stress, he was gaining weight. He did not consider that he might have diabetes. “I had all the symptoms,” he remembers. Those included a wound that wouldn’t heal, frequent urination, mood swings, and blurry vision. A trip to an urgent care center revealed his blood glucose level was 987 mg/dl. Doctors wanted to send him by ambulance to the Cleveland Clinic, about 10 miles away. But Young wouldn’t have it.
“As a player, I never went out on a stretcher, so I was damn sure not going out of urgent care on a stretcher,” he says with a laugh. At the time, though, it was no joking matter. It took five days in intensive care to bring his blood glucose to normal levels. He started to heal, and he signed with the Washington Nationals in the spring of 2007. With a new diagnosis, a new insulin regimen, and a commitment to sobriety, Young was back in the game. He was named the 2007 Players’ Choice National League Comeback Player of the Year.
As a professional athlete who played outfield, first base, and designated hitter, he was most concerned with having a big presence at bat. He certainly did, with 171 career home runs and 683 RBIs. And at nearly 300 pounds in his major league days (and 325 at his heaviest), Young is among the top 10 heaviest players in the history of baseball. “My cardio was running bases,” he jokes, but there’s a ring of truth to it. “I wasn’t ready for the lifestyle change.”
He says it took a few years, and some important life milestones, for the seriousness of his health to really click for him. He tore his quadriceps, ending his major league career. He lost his mother to pancreatic cancer in 2009. A friend he lived with while working for the Oakland County Cruisers, a Michigan-based Frontier League team, had a series of mini strokes. And he reconnected with a high school friend, Alycia Burnham, and the two fell in love.
“I said, ‘If I’m going to grow old with this woman, I gotta make a change,’ ” Young says. His doctor laid it out for him: If he wanted to get healthier, he needed to lose weight. So Young worked with his doctor to map out a simple diet and exercise plan that included smaller portions and daily aerobic exercise.
Baseball players and people with diabetes have one thing in common: They live by the numbers. Young is no exception. He shoots for 10,000 steps on his elliptical trainer every day. He knows he can get 7,500 done in one hour. Instead of eating seven or eight pieces of fried chicken, he’ll have just two or three as a treat. Mostly, though, he sticks with vegetables, grilled chicken, and fresh seafood. He takes background, or basal, insulin (Lantus) and rapid-acting insulin (Novolog) every day with his evening meal. And the most satisfying number right now: His weight has stabilized at 210 pounds.
Young also hasn’t had a drink in years, and he attributes feeling healthier and healing more quickly to his sobriety. It’s all part of his advice to other people with diabetes: Stick with a consistent lifestyle overhaul that you can manage. His daily turns on the elliptical and morning walks help ground him in those changes. “The lifestyle change is forever,” he says. “When people look at forever, it sounds like a prison sentence. You don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But for me, it’s about feeling good.”
And at the start of a new year, Young knows there will be plenty of people who join him on his healthy journey—and others, too, who might not stick with it. He encourages everyone to keep going. “A lot of those people who fall off the wagon get that guilt thing going,” Young says. “A lot of times they don’t want to do it again for fear of failing. But it’s about the process, not the finish line. If you are 100 percent committed, everybody on planet Earth will support you because everyone on Earth loves to see a fighter. And when you achieve it, it feels so great.”
“Da Meathook” measures up
Dmitri Dell Young
Type 2, managed with insulin injections, diet, and exercise
St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals
Outfield, first base, designated hitter
Career home runs
MLB Players’ Choice Award for National League Comeback Player of the Year (2007), MLB All-Star (2007), Cincinnati Reds Joe Nuxhall Good Guy Award (2001), Cincinnati Reds Ernie Lombardi MVP Award (2001)
Famous family Younger brother, Delmon Young, is a current Baltimore Oriole
Tips for Getting Off the Bench
Dmitri Young is your base coach for getting healthier in the new year. Here are some tips that have worked for him:
- Choose small portions and avoid seconds. This may be the hardest part of healthy eating. “You think, ‘This one extra cookie isn’t going to hurt,’ ” Young says. But being consistent about not overeating is important.
- Pick manageable goals. And make them mean something! Young likes to see the steps add up on his pedometer. Counting steps—and increasing them as you can—can be a satisfying way of charting fitness success.
- Stick with the program. Hitting a weight plateau can make it feel like all your hard work is for naught. That’s the point when you must stay committed, Young says. “There’s only one way out,” he says. “You gotta go through that wall. I went through that wall. You think you plateaued, but the body is just making an adjustment. When I started, I was in a triple-XL, [size] 42 jeans. Now I’m in an XL or large T-shirt and size 34 jeans.”
- Know when to fold ’em. If you set a goal that just doesn’t feel realistic or attainable, or if you aren’t seeing results, it could be time to meet with your diabetes management team to talk about changing things up. “If there are things that aren’t working, go to something that is working,” Young says.
- Find a support system. Young gets his motivation to be healthy from his fiancée. Family, friends, and pets are all great motivators who can inspire you to live a long and healthy life.