Faced with diabetes, Covey had tough choice
Brewers' first-rounder suddenly faced pivotal life decision
MILWAUKEE -- From one Brewers Draft pick to another, David Pember has a message for Dylan Covey: Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong illness, but it shouldn't stop you from chasing a Major League dream.Pember was the Brewers' eighth-round Draft pick in 1999 and pitched three professional seasons, topping out with the big league club in 2002 before arm injuries prematurely ended his career. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 14. Covey was the Brewers' first-round pick in June and was set to sign with the club until a blood test late last week indicated he has diabetes. Further tests on Monday afternoon, only hours before the deadline for teams to sign their picks, revealed with 95-percent certainty that it was Type 1. Covey ultimately declined the Brewers' contract offer to stay near his Southern California home, begin treatment and attend college. He will attend the University of San Diego in the fall. "If you handle diabetes in the right way, it can help you be a better pitcher," said Pember, now an insurance agent in Birmingham, Ala. "It forces you to be focused. It makes you plan things out." Covey will develop his own plan in the coming weeks and months. He'll get used to checking his glucose level and administering daily insulin shots. He'll develop a new diet with a close eye on carbohydrates and sugars. He'll have to revamp his workout routine. Eventually, he will learn to listen to his body when he's on the pitcher's mound. It will take time, according to both Pember and current Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow, another Type 1 diabetic who went through the same adjustment period during his senior year of high school. Morrow attended the University of California-Berkley before the Mariners made him a first-round Draft pick in 2003, and now Covey is hoping to follow a similar path. Covey's father, Darrell, said his son "absolutely" plans to keep pursuing baseball. "Who could have seen this coming?" Darrell Covey said. "All of us were blindsided. There was no time to even sleep on it." A sudden diagnosis Brewers amateur scouting director Bruce Seid said he knew of no examples of a player taking two physicals -- one immediately after the Draft and one immediately before he signs -- so Covey did not undergo his physical exam until five days before Monday's 11 p.m. CT signing deadline. A blood test showed troubling signs of diabetes, but Darrell Covey did not get that diagnosis until Friday, when he was told to immediately take his son to the hospital. On Monday, mere hours before the deadline, Dylan Covey visited Dr. Andrew J. Drexler at UCLA's Gonda Diabetes Center and learned he was almost certainly Type 1. Even after the initial diagnosis, the Brewers made an effort over the weekend to sign Covey. Neither side would reveal the financial terms discussed, though the bonus was likely significantly less than the $1.7 million recommended by MLB for the 14th pick in the Draft. Darrell Covey called the offer "very generous, considering the circumstances." Club officials were just as stunned as the family. Brewers scouts saw the dip in Covey's velocity about two-thirds of the way through his senior season at Maranatha High School, but Seid said such dips are normal for 17- and 18-year-olds. The Brewers stayed on Covey, and Seid said the velocity returned in Dylan's final outing or two. They remained high on Covey right up to the signing deadline. "We talked to doctors, endocrinologists, our own medical staff, from the minute we found out about it," Seid said. "We wanted to make sure we could make the right situation, not just for Dylan but also for us. We had everything in place for him." The Brewers even offered to let Covey spend some time at home -- four months, five months, whatever was necessary -- before reporting for duty. In the end, the player and his family decided the adjustment would be easier in college at San Diego, about 100 miles from the family's home in Pasadena, Calif., rather than in the Brewers' Instructional League this fall or a rookie affiliate next summer. Informed advice Dylan Covey made his decision after a Sunday-night telephone conversation with Morrow. "That's a personal choice," Morrow said Tuesday night in Oakland, where he started against the A's. "I didn't give him any advice either way, but I had a great time going to college, and I think it's a great time for anybody. There's a lot of learning to be done." Catfish Hunter is regarded to be the most accomplished pitcher in Major League history who played with Type 1 diabetes. Morrow is the best-known current Major Leaguer with diabetes and was in the headlines last week when he came within one out of pitching a no-hitter. Morrow is represented by Arn Tellem's Wasserman Media Group, which advised the Coveys during the Draft process. On Sunday night, two days after Dylan found himself in the hospital for more blood work and a day before the Type 1 diagnosis landed with a thud, Morrow offered encouragement over the telephone. "I always talk about developing a routine," Morrow said. "That's all there really is to diabetes. That's the key -- checking at the same times and trying to figure out what foods affect you differently -- that's what takes the most time. He asked me if it would be better going to college or better going to sign out of the Draft, and I told him that they would take care of him either way, both the college and pro organizations would have his best interests in mind." Morrow offered to stay in touch. Dylan will likely take him up on the offer. "The big thing I got from him is that I can compete with it and I can be successful, but it takes a little bit of time to get used to it all," Covey told the website Baseball Beginnings on Monday. "After a while, it should become like normal. I have no hard feelings toward the Brewers at all, not one bit. This became a health question instead of a business decision overnight." Seid and the Brewers respected the decision. Milwaukee will be compensated with the 15th overall pick in next year's Draft, in addition to their regular first-round selection. "The pressure he was under to get such news when he's 18 years old and all geared up to begin a professional career, this was overwhelming," Seid said. "We were prepared to help every which way, and they knew it, but when it came down to a decision, it came down to life, family and getting his health in order. You have to respect the kid's and family's decision." Success stories High-profile athletes in baseball and other sports have thrived after adjusting to diabetes. Recent Major Leaguers with the disease include Cubs outfielder Sam Fuld and Rangers pitcher Mark Lowe, who was Morrow's teammate last season in Seattle. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was diagnosed in 2008 and went on to have a Pro Bowl season for the Broncos. Swimmer Gary Hall Jr. was diagnosed in 1999 and subsequently won six Olympic medals at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games. Chris Dudley played 886 games in the NBA. Golfer Scott Verplank wears an insulin pump on the course and has won five tournaments on the PGA Tour. All of those athletes learned to manage the symptoms, a process Covey is beginning this week. "He's going to have to listen to what his body is telling him," Pember said. "It's going to take some planning on his part. He's going to have to develop a new diet, manage a new workout routine. "And he has to understand that there are going to be days when you do everything right -- take your shots, eat right, check your sugars -- and you're body is just not going to respond. The stronger this kid is mentally, and the more positive his family environment is, those things are going to help him overcome. "There's going to be a honeymoon phase in which the body still produces some level of insulin. Eventually, the pancreas stops producing it altogether. It's going to be a trying, interesting, learning time for him." Pember said medical advancements since his diagnosis will aid Covey, including new, faster-acting medications. Morrow pitches with an insulin pump in his back pocket, an accessory approved by Major League Baseball in 2004 for then-Tigers pitcher Jason Johnson. Does Morrow think diabetes has affected him in his career? "I'd like to say it hasn't," he said. "I have two different routines, one when I was a bullpen pitcher and one now that I'm a starter. ... It didn't affect my Draft status at all. Going through that whole process, we were very forthright with the team and anything they asked for, medical or otherwise, we gave to them, answered all their questions and explained to them my daily routine and how I go through it on game days. I think I made them real comfortable in that aspect. It's always a learning experience, you kind of learn something new every day and keep building toward trying to keep your sugars and your body feeling good." In the 2002 season and 2003 Spring Training, Pember wore an insulin pump off the field but not on it. Sometimes, he felt good and just pitched. Sometimes, when he wasn't sure, he periodically checked his glucose level between innings, and if it was low, he chugged a soft drink. Brewers scouts will continue to monitor Covey. He's on track to be Draft-eligible again in 2013. "Wouldn't it be something if they drafted him again?" Darrell Covey said.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Associate reporter Alex Espinoza contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.