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Food for thought

Improving attitudes to nutrition are allowing major leaguers to get an edge

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A few years back, players such as C.J. Wilson, Bronson Arroyo and David Lough felt as though they were speaking in a foreign language when they talked to teammates about the benefits of healthy eating.

With advanced knowledge of nutrition, they extolled the virtues of lean protein, organic produce, a gluten-free diet and the right vitamins while many around them were gorging on pizza and lasagna.

It wasn't just fellow players who paid scant attention, but teams as well. Wilson recalls pleading with the brass of the Texas Rangers, his team from 2005 to 2011, to improve the food offerings in the clubhouse as the players dealt with the energy-sapping effects of the relentless summer heat in Texas.

Now, Wilson looks around and is amazed at the changes he sees throughout baseball, both in the players' attitudes toward nutrition and the food options teams provide them at the ballpark.

"In the last four or five years, it has really significantly taken off," Wilson said of the emphasis on nutrition among players. "And from where it was 10 years ago, we're like light years ahead as a group."

The reasons range from a better understanding of the impact of what players consume can have on their performance to the pursuit of an edge in a well-compensated and highly competitive profession.

Finding that edge through chemical means has become more difficult as Major League Baseball has continued to tighten its policy against performance-enhancing drugs. Healthier eating, on the other hand, offers a permissible means to help players withstand the wear and tear of a 162-game season, although it often requires changing long-held habits.

"I'm probably 1,000 per cent more conscious of it now," said San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, a fan of Tex-Mex food and Olive Garden restaurants who has committed to cleaner eating. "You realize how much it affects how you feel every day. It affects your energy level, your performance level."

While it might seem like common sense that pro athletes would fuel their bodies properly for maximum efficiency, that hasn't always been the norm in baseball, a sport in which skill can trump conditioning.

 

Getting on board

Erika Wincheski, performance dietician manager at the EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance) training center in Phoenix, said players usually come in looking to improve their bodies and energy level after getting worn down during the season.

"I would say baseball players, especially now, are usually the ones who are more interested and more inclined to listen to some of the nutritional guidance I can give them," said Wincheski, who tailors plans individually depending on the athlete's needs and the time of year in the sports calendar.

She emphasizes the importance of a meal three to four hours before a game that combines carbohydrates from grains and starches with fruits and vegetables. Baseball players usually consume those meals at the ballpark, and more often than not these days they're prepared by team-supervised chefs.

Realizing the value of providing top-quality nourishment for their players, the majority of major league teams employ a nutritionist. The Los Angeles Angels, Wilson's current team, are the latest entry into a club that has expanded rapidly in the last three to five years.

Several clubs have hired chefs instead of farming out the clubhouse spread to catering businesses or restaurants.

"It's like a different game now," said the Arizona Diamondbacks' Arroyo, a 15-year veteran who has never missed a start because of injury. "When I first got in the league, you got a cup of soup and maybe a tuna sandwich or a jelly sandwich after lunch. Nobody's talking nutrition.

"They didn't have any supplements in the locker-room. It was the opposite. That's when they were supplying all the beer and putting cans of dip in the middle of the locker-room. I used to come out of the game in 2000 or 2001, and every player had a beer on the soap dish in the shower. Guys were still smoking cigarettes in the clubhouse."

That's a thing of the past, as is team-supplied beer in most clubhouses. Healthier diets have been the logical extension. While teams can't mandate what players consume, they can provide better options as a way to get the most out of what are mostly multimillion-dollar investments.

So, out with the candy bars and in with the protein bars.

San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean said his team's nutritionist and chef put together the food choices for spring training and the season.

"We try to dictate the menu as well as what's in the clubhouse as far as the extra snack and sweets," Sabean said. "That's virtually been eliminated from most clubhouses."

Becci Twombly, director of sports nutrition at the University of Southern California, joined the Angels this season in a similar capacity after Wilson and outfielder Josh Hamilton lobbied for a team nutritionist.

Twombly said this facet of sports has been growing rapidly because the benefits are readily apparent in how quickly players recover from the rigors of training for and playing games and also in reducing the impact of injuries.

Baseball players often lose weight as the season drags on and fatigue sets in, and she said proper nourishment can help them maintain their strength and energy.

"My job is to minimize the impact (the game's grind) is going to have over the season," she said, "so when we get to October the Angels are better fueled and better recovered than any other team in the big leagues."

The response to her suggestions has been better than she expected. Typically, Twombly said, about a third of the players on a team would buy into her advice, a third would follow it when injured or tired and the other third would largely ignore her.

Of the Angels, Wilson, Hamilton and since-released pitcher Joe Blanton -- an advocate of grass-fed beef and locally grown produce -- have been among her most devoted pupils. Pitcher Jered Weaver and infielder Howie Kendrick have been more resistant, which she doesn't take personally.

"I don't get offended if someone's going to eat at McDonald's," she said. "I'd say, 'That's fine. What are you going to order?' "

Enhanced nutrition does not guarantee results on the field. Formerly chubby Blanton, for example, remade his body in the last few years with healthier eating -- including cutting out processed sugars -- and working with a personal trainer.

Still, he went 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA last season and the Angels let him go this spring despite owing him $8.5million, and he has since announced his retirement.

The Diamondbacks' Trevor Cahill had his best season in 2010, going 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA for the Oakland Athletics while weighing 245 pounds. Last year, he dropped to 225-230 by trying a gluten-free diet and eating more fruit, but his mechanics were off and he wound up 8-10 with a 3.99 ERA.

"I felt pretty good, but I guess some people pitch better when they're a little heavier," said Cahill, who came into camp around 235-240 pounds.

Gaining acceptance

The game always will have room for the likes of Pablo Sandoval and Prince Fielder, 5-11 infielders who have typically tipped the scales at well over 250 pounds, although Sandoval got into better shape last off-season through a diet and workout program.

For those lacking their exceptional natural ability, tip-top conditioning can make the difference between a major league job earning at least $500,000 and toiling in the bushes.

That's the case for Lough, an outfielder who spent seven years in the minors before breaking through with a .286 batting average in 96 games for the Kansas City Royals last season. This season he is the starting left-fielder for the Baltimore Orioles, although he's off to a .146 start.

Lough, with three per cent body fat and a chiseled body, stands out in his devotion to diet and conditioning, to the point he has a nutritionist certification. He cooks most of his meals, and his menu regularly features chicken, fish, fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, brown rice and leafy greens such as kale and arugula.

"It's such a grueling season playing every single day that you see a lot of guys get injured. There's no recovery period," Lough said. "I think the key to maximizing your potential is through nutrition."

After getting traded to the Orioles in the off-season, Lough found fellow converts, such as slugging first baseman Chris Davis, who ballooned to 265 pounds while in the low minors before giving up fried foods and reconfiguring his diet.

Davis, now a power-packed 6-3 and 230 pounds, said he was "fired up" when the Orioles hired chef Jenny Perez last season as part of VP of baseball operations Brady Anderson's commitment to improving the club's fitness. Davis slugged a franchise-record 53 home runs in 2013.

Even outfielder Adam Jones -- known for bombarding social media with photos of high-calorie junk food he's about to consume -- said he indulges in such treats about once a week. Jones and other Maryland-based Orioles employ Perez in the off-season to cook for them and their families.

Their arrangement seems to reflect the current nutritional reality in baseball, where Wilson, Arroyo and Lough and their type no longer are odd birds, but perhaps not the majority yet either.

"She knows me. She'll make me cheese steaks but also make me quinoa," Jones said of Perez. "So there's a range of things, and in between those two there are a lot of different foods and values."

 

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2014 A1

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