Adrian Beltre interrupted a Prince Fielder media session Friday morning to hand the slugger a pillow, and Mitch Moreland followed with a sweatshirt that he used to tuck in the big fella.
They can all laugh now, days after Fielder was diagnosed with sleep apnea instead of a more serious condition. But any condition in which a person’s breathing is compromised should be taken seriously, and Fielder and the Texas Rangers treated it as such.
Fielder returned to Rangers spring training from Texas after a series of sleep tests that presented a resolution to his sleep woes. Fielder has already started wearing a mask while he sleeps to aid his breathing, and the early returns have been positive.
I wake myself up all the time as if I was having a nightmare. But it’s just me not breathing, and they told me when that happens, your body uses adrenaline to wake up because you’re not breathing and it’s panicking.
Rangers DH Prince Fielder
He suspects that apnea has been a lifelong problem, but now that he’s a bit older at nearly 32, his body had started reacting differently to it.
“I wasn’t panicking. I just wanted to make sure I was OK,” Fielder said. “My wife was always telling me that I was snoring loud and wasn’t breathing. But when you’re young it doesn’t affect you as much. I started to feel it a little bit more. I didn’t feel like I was waking up fresh.”
Sleep apnea is a common condition that affects more than 18 million adults in the United States, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Former Rangers All-Star Mike Napoli has sleep apnea and underwent surgery to alleviate the problem after the 2014 season.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep apnea may lead to hypertension, heart disease and mood and memory problems. Sleep apnea also increases the risk of drowsy driving.
Fielder traveled to Texas on Wednesday for sleep testing, which revealed that his breathing paused 39 times per hour. Doctors told him that sleep apnea becomes severe at 30 stoppages per hour.
“So, that’s probably super extreme,” Fielder said.
Even if Fielder was in bed eight hours, for example, he wasn’t getting quality sleep. When his breathing would pause for extended stretches, he would be startled awake.
That was happening multiple times each night.
“Because I’m not breathing, I wake myself up all the time as if I was having a nightmare,” Fielder said. “But it’s just me not breathing, and they told me when that happens, your body uses adrenaline to wake up because you’re not breathing and it’s panicking.
“Then, I can’t go back to sleep and when I do, it’s just constantly like someone covering your mouth while you’re sleeping.”
Fielder expects the mask to be the answer to his problems. He slept well with it the first night, though he woke up at 4 a.m. and swiped the unfamiliar device off his face after not being sure of what it was.
A Napoli-like surgery, which permanently relocated his jaw to assist in easier breathing, isn’t an option.
“I think I’ll stick to the mask, bro,” Fielder said.
Fielder swatted 23 homers, drove in 98 runs and batted .305 in his comeback season from neck surgery in 2015. He hasn’t hit 30 homers since 2012, his first season in Detroit, after establishing himself as one of the game’s top sluggers in seven seasons with Milwaukee.
50 Home runs hit in 2006 by Prince Fielder, a career-high even though he suspects he had sleep apnea
Though there is no evidence that concretely puts blame for his power drop on sleep issues, he expects that his performance will improve with better sleep.
“Believe it,” Fielder said.
The Rangers were glad to have their starting designated hitter and No. 3 hitter back in camp, and he requested a spot in the lineup Friday against the Brewers.
“He had a good night’s rest,” manager Jeff Banister quipped.
Banister said that the Rangers were relieved for Fielder to have an answer to his problems. Banister saw a more energized Fielder in the brief time he saw him before his morning workout and before Charley Pride’s annual clubhouse concert.
Fielder went 0-for-2 with a walk against his old team, and is now 1-for-11 this spring. Maybe now he has some answers as to why he is struggling.
“Any time you’re not feeling as good as you think you should and find out answers, and when they’re seemingly straightforward, it’s got to be a relief,” Banister said. “He was upbeat this morning. He looked to be the Prince that I’ve grown to love and look forward to seeing every day.”