Insulin Pumps Keep Pitchers in the Game

Dustin McGowan

In baseball, pitchers have been known to sneak a few things into their back pockets or onto their bodies to help with their pitching performance. Headlines were made early in the 2014 baseball season when New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was thrown out of a game for smearing pine tar on his neck to “doctor” the ball. Most famously, a knuckleball pitcher named Joe Niekro was caught red-handed with an emery board in his pocket which he used to scuff up baseballs.

But as of May 2014 Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dustin McGowan has been wearing something on his body to help with his pitching performance, and he’s getting praise for it from his coaches. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as an adult, McGowan has begun to wear an insulin pump velcroed to the inside of his uniform. He credits the shift to pump therapy for helping him pitch deeper into ballgames than earlier in the year.

“I felt a lot better,” he said in an article about a recent strong pitching performance in the National Post. “When my blood sugar is regulated well, I have more energy.”

McGowan switched to the pump because his blood glucose (BG) readings were spiking during games. Like many athletes with T1, McGowan tends to start high at the beginning of a game because of excess adrenaline, but his BG would dip down as the game would continue. This season, however, his BG proved more difficult to control than in the past, and he would grow fatigued. His manager, John Gibbons, has high hopes that the shift to pump therapy will help McGowan in his return as a starting pitcher. McGowan had to work his way back on the mound after arm surgery and was used primarily in a relief role, when he would only be needed to pitch in shorter situations.

By his own account, McGowan has been a bit of a reluctant person with diabetes. As detailed in a Sportsnet profile of the pitcher, McGowan was recovering from arm surgery in 2004 when he was first diagnosed with T1. He first could only bring himself to let his wife do the injections, and he didn’t like the idea of checking his BG levels between innings. The shift to an insulin pump during games came at a time when he was in danger of losing his spot as a starting pitcher.

As he’s been learning about his condition, McGowan says he has been lucky to have a teammate with T1 in fellow pitcher Brandon Morrow. Although Morrow is the younger of the two pitchers, he’s the veteran when it comes to T1, as he was first diagnosed with it in high school. Morrow also uses an insulin pump. Morrow has helped McGowan develop a routine for staying healthy that integrates with his routine as a Major League pitcher. Daily and game-day routines are important to pitchers, but vital to pitchers with diabetes.

Brandon Morrow

“You’ve got to keep your sugar levels stable and in a good range, so develop your routine, especially on game days,” Morrow told the New York Daily News in a 2010 profile. “Find what works for you so then you don’t have to worry.”

Both pitchers have enough to worry about competing in the major leagues without having to have to wrestle with their BG levels. Considered highly-rated pitching prospects when they were signed by the Blue Jays, both have had their share of arm troubles. It’s not believed that diabetes played a role in their injuries, but the condition most likely slowed their healing and recovery efforts after arm surgeries.

But both McGowan and Morrow have achieved measurable success in the highest competitive levels of professional baseball for years, and they’ve earned millions of dollars in the process. They serve as an inspiration for other baseball and softball players with T1 that diabetes doesn’t have to keep them off the diamond.

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Craig Idlebrook is a past editor for Insulin Nation, Type 2 Nation, and Información Sobre Diabetes. He is now the community engagement and content manager for T1D Exchange.

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