There were times when Buddy Carlyle would sit in the bullpen and pray that he didn’t get the phone call.
The relief pitcher was coming off his best season with the Atlanta Braves organization. In 2008, he pitched 62∏ innings with a 3.59 earned run average while picking up two wins.
But in 2009, things started to go wrong. He lost energy. He lost 30 pounds. His pitching suffered, as did his confidence.
Maybe he was just showing his age, he thought. Maybe at 31 it was time to start thinking about life after baseball.
Carlyle went on the disabled list and visited doctors who diagnosed his problem. Carlyle had Type 1 diabetes.
“It’s scary,” Carlyle recalled of learning his diagnosis. “My little sister’s diabetic, too, so I kind of had a little bit of understanding, but I mean, the first time you go to the hospital and realize you have to stick yourself with needles, it’s really frightening. I don’t care how old you are.”
Now 35, Carlyle continues to carve out a career as a professional baseball pitcher and continues to talk about living with diabetes as an athlete. Since his diagnosis, he has played a season in Japan and has spent most of the last two seasons at the Triple-A level. This year, as a member of the Buffalo Bisons’ bullpen, he has 12 appearances with one spot start. He is 3-1 with a 4.45 ERA through 28∑ innings pitched.
Last Thursday, Carlyle, along with teammate Dustin McGowan and strength and conditioning coach Armando Gutierrez, met with diabetic children and their parents at Coca-Cola Field. It was part of advance efforts with the American Diabetes Association as the organization’s major fundraiser, the bike ride Tour de Cure, is scheduled for June 8 at Niagara County Community College.
For Carlyle, the opportunity as a professional baseball player to talk with others about diabetes is a stronger motivation to stay in the game than chasing dreams of another major league stint.
“One of the reasons I still play, still continue to want to play, is to try to inspire the parents of kids who are diabetic,” Carlyle said. “Sometimes when you find out, you think it’s a death sentence, but then you realize it really isn’t.”
Gutierrez was a three-sport athlete in California playing football, basketball and baseball when he was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic as a junior in high school.
“It was frustrating. It was confusing. I just didn’t understand why or how it could happen to me,” Gutierrez said. “I played sports my whole life. I’ve been athletic my whole life. I wasn’t out of shape. I wasn’t unhealthy or anything, so it was just very confusing. It took a little bit of time to get used to just everything about being diabetic.”
McGowan’s story is a bit different. The pitcher was originally diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2004. It took a year before doctors realized the misdiagnosis.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body lacks insulin completely or produces too little of it. That means the body cannot use sugar properly. In Type 2 diabetes, insulin is produced but cannot be used effectively by the body. The course of treatment for each is different.
Once McGowan received the proper diagnosis of Type 1, he was able to begin his journey of discovering what worked best for his body.
“Every day you keep learning about it,” the 31-year-old McGowan said. “It’s about eating healthy and learning how your body reacts.”
Being diabetic hasn’t hindered Carlyle or McGowan’s careers as professional athletes. In some ways, it’s made them more in-tune with their bodies, understanding how they react to combinations of food and exercise. Both said they like to keep their blood sugar elevated when they’re going to pitch in a game or workout, knowing that their blood sugar will fall during the course of an outing.
Carlyle admits to being somewhat obsessive about checking his blood sugar levels. He said he tests up to 10 times a day. Now, instead of fretting about getting called to action from the bullpen, he sits down the right-field line in Coca-Cola Field, checking his blood sugar up to five times during the game with a supply of glucose pills on hand in case he needs them.
McGowan joked with Carlyle about how frequently he tests his blood sugar. But Carlyle is used to the good-natured ribbing.
“People kind of call me a little anal with it, but it’s my health,” Carlyle said. “I check my blood sugar probably 10 times a day. I know exactly where I’m at. If you don’t, you start guessing; you start guessing, you run into problems. You just don’t ever want to guess.”
While it’s still unusual to find Type 1 diabetes in the ranks of professional sports, it’s no longer unheard of. A number of professional athletes have been outspoken about living with the disease, including former Canisius hockey player and current NHL forward Cory Conacher, Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Hollins, and NFL quarterback Jay Cutler. And the more professional athletes talk about their experiences with diabetes, the more comfortable kids, and their parents, become with the nuances of managing their health.
“The biggest thing I would tell kids is to not be afraid to let people know,” Gutierrez said. “Don’t be afraid to show that you are diabetic in public, like checking on a regular basis, giving yourself injections or using your pump correctly. Because for me when I was growing up, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want people to ask, ‘What are you using needles for?’
“That affected me in a negative way where my numbers weren’t as good as they should have been. … But the more I was open to it, not afraid or embarrassed, the easier it’s been and now it’s normal.”
Granted, it’s a bit of a new normal after the diabetes diagnosis. All three have learned to pay more attention to nutrition and gone through the trial and error of finding the right insulin-delivery system. But all of them have been able to pursue, and thrive in, careers in professional athletics. And they want kids with the same diagnosis to understand that anything is possible for them, too.
“Some parents, when they find out their kids have it, they get scared,” Carlyle said. “They don’t even want to let them go outside and play because they’re worried their blood sugar is going to go low when they’re playing. When they see that there are athletes … who have it and they can function at this high level with it, they realize they can do whatever they want. Diabetes is never an excuse to not excel at what you’re doing.”