Nutrition in Minor League Baseball: Still Work to be Done

A parent’s favorite aphorism is that nothing good happens after midnight. But what about in those moments right before—the sun is long set, dogs have started to wail at the moon, and when the late-night talk shows are in full swing lampooning Justin Bieber? When most days are ending that’s when the night, or at least the appetite, for many players in Minor League Baseball begins to churn into full gear, and these guys are hungry.

The baseball fan might not feel like he or she has a lot in common with the player on the field, but there is an important trait they all share, and it’s that both fan and player need to eat. While the player, burning calories through exercise throughout the day might require more food, the commonality remains. Baseball players at all levels from the steaming heat of the fields at academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela all the way to the Majors spend countless hours learning how to better hit, throw, and field a baseball. They learn to command their pitches, angle their bats, and tailor their baserunning to minimize their time between bases. But without a healthy and well-fueled body, how can a player perform at his best?

Any radio broadcaster throughout Minor League Baseball can share stories of seeing a player, and many times multiple players, coming on to the team bus after a game with pizza/soda/cheeseburger/name your greasy food option in hand.

The 30 Major League Baseball clubs invest so much time in refining players on-field skills, but how much time is spent helping them shape their knowledge of how they feed and hydrate themselves?

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I reached out to the farm directors of the 16 teams in the Midwest League to ask about what their organizations do along the lines of nutrition education and helping their players make informed decisions. Eight teams responded, and all indicated a good portion of their educational process takes place during spring training, when all of the players are together in one complex.

Doug Jarrow, the Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for the Chicago Cubs wrote via email:

“Our players have 365 access to our organization’s Sports Dietician/Nutritionist.  Our nutritionist is present during Spring Training and also during our off-season camps.  The players are provided group educational segments during these times while also meeting individually (one-on-one) to discuss their personal Nutritional plans.  Also, the nutritionist makes trips to our Academy in the Dominican Republic for the same reasons.

During the season the players have the ability to contact the nutritionist to speak about nutritional plans and how they can be adjusted around the in-season variables (e.g.-travel).  Also, at our minor league affiliates we have the individual Strength & Conditioning coach working with the players day by day.  Every member of the S&C staff has a degree or degrees in Exercise Science and the necessary Strength & Conditioning certifications which allow them to be and stay knowledgeable in the field of sports nutrition.”

Within Minor League Baseball, each team is a group of 25 players, at least three coaches, an athletic trainer, and a strength and conditioning coach. A decade ago, it would have not been quite as common to see a strength and conditioning coach listed on a team’s roster; now, no team is without one.

TinCaps Strength and Conditioning Coach Dan Byrne, in his second season with the Padres organization, earned his master’s degree in exercise physiology from Loughborough University in England, also has a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He’s studied the correlation between nutrition and athletic performance, and helped to train Olympic athletes during the 2012 Summer Games. As with the Cubs system, Byrne says most players get their advice from the strength and conditioning coaches.

Acting as the players’ sustenance Sherpa, he finds he can help players out sometimes just by being there to give a disapproving look when they’re eating something they know they shouldn’t be, like a post-game pizza…for one.

“Usually I’ll give them a hard time and they’ll know. They’ll put their head down and keep walking if I’ve said something to them before. If I can get into their head, and they’re thinking   ‘Maybe this isn’t the best thing to do,’ then I’ve started down the right road.”

That uphill battle is being fought in organizations across baseball. Chris Dunaway, the Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers wrote via email that the franchise’s minor league players have started to pay more attention to what they’re eating.

“We are seeing a shift in the players requesting and expecting more healthy eating choices.  Fifteen years ago, players wanted pizza, hot dogs, and burgers.  Now, players are asking for lean meats, vegetables, and fruits.  The culture and expectations are changing.

“One of the major ideas we have discussed is eating whole foods, incorporating fresh vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, and lean meats into our pre-game meals.  The idea has been described as shopping from the perimeter of the grocery store and avoiding the overly processed foods which are often found in the center of the store,” he wrote. “We have also made an effort to reduce sugar and starch from our diet.  Foods high in sugar and starch lead to water retention, weight retention, and can contribute to inflammation response in the body.  By focusing on vegetables, fruits, and lean meats we are able to help increase energy levels, decrease inflammation responses, and help reduce excess body fat.”

The approach to diet and nutrition, though, remains mostly reactive rather than proactive, Byrne says.

“I think that’s the way it is in baseball. From an energy standpoint, baseball isn’t the most demanding compared to other sports, but nutrition plays a huge factor in how athletes perform mentally and physically.”

Unlike with America’s other most popular pro sports, basketball and football, there isn’t the same demand on the body for oxygen or calories. Nor is baseball like distance running, where many athletes will “carb load” the night before a race, packing their body with pasta and other carbohydrate-rich foods that the body will store and turn into energy.

Regardless of sport, a little bit of education can have a big impact on the choices players make.

“You’ll see a lot of players at this level, 18, 19, 20 years old. If you remember where you were at that age, you were in college, had a terrible diet, and sadly that’s where these guys are at,” Byrne says. “So it’s my job to educate them on making better choices, especially when we’re on the road and it’s 11 or 12 at night and all that’s open is Burger King next to the hotel. It’s all about trying to teach guys to make better decisions as to how they can prepare nutritionally before they get to the field, so they can hopefully not be sluggish before game time.”

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Director of Player Development Bobby Scales was a 14th-round pick of the Padres in 1999, and not only played with the Fort Wayne Wizards in 2000, but also spent time playing in Japan, where the food choices became even more difficult to make because of the language barrier.

“I had a BlackBerry when I played there, and my wife and I would take pictures of the stuff we thought was red meat and would send it to our translator, who would say ‘Buy this….Don’t buy that,’ because we couldn’t read the labels on the packaging.”

Now overseeing the Angels farm system, Scales understands the plight of foreign-born players who come to live in the United States and speak little to no English.

“Going to a grocery store can be hard (for players in the United States) when you’re 16, 17, and 18 with limited resources. Some players will order a hamburger, French fries, and a milkshake because it’s the only thing they know how to say,” he said.

Each team’s strength and conditioning coach can’t be a helicopter parent, lording over a player’s every meal. Think of them more as a guidance counselor in high school—there to let a player know when he’s in danger of failing, and to get him back on track.

“There have been some players who have not taken their nutrition seriously, and you can see that with either weight loss or weight gain,” Byrne said. “I sit them down and say ‘We need to be a little bit more serious, here are some things you can do,’ and try to make them a little more conscious of what they’re putting into their body.”

*****

It’s nighttime after a game and TinCaps pitcher Payton Baskette is hungry. He’s riding the bus back to the team hotel, trying to figure out what his next meal will be. Players on the team are given $25 per day in meal money by the Padres. Each player makes approximately $1,100 per month before taxes.

The team is staying in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and there are more food options around this hotel than most; there’s a Bagger Dave’s Burger Tavern, an American restaurant in the hotel, a Qdoba Mexican restaurant, a Burger King, and even a Meijer grocery store, which stays open until midnight.

Baskette chooses the hotel restaurant, certainly a convenient option, and orders an artichoke spinach dip, chicken fettuccine alfredo, and a Coke.

The 20-year-old pitcher did not stray far during his visit to Grand Rapids when it came to food choices, keeping close to the hotel and alternating between nearby restaurants like Burger King for breakfast and Bagger Dave’s for dinner.

Baskette Food Diary Image

Baskette exemplifies the norm among most players on the TinCaps, who choose convenience and proximity over anything else. But the Fort Wayne roster has a handful of players like roommates Justin Livengood and Kyle Lloyd who avoid the late-night grease-traps of Minor League Baseball and bring their own pre-made food on the road.

“We have a cooler full of food and a cooler full of drinks. Lloyd drinks water like a camel,” Livengood says with a laugh of his always well-hydrated teammate. “We feel like our bodies are in a pretty good spot because of how we prepare things and how we try and take care of ourselves. I know it’s a little bit more expensive to do what we do, but it’s better than putting crappy pizza in your body. Anything that’s going to be a positive alternative rather than fast food is what we try and go for. You spend a little more on the front end, but it’s worth it.”

Both Livengood and Lloyd are college graduates, and pitched together last year with the Short-Season Eugene Emeralds, where as first-year pros they both admit they were not as diligent with their nutrition or hydration. Now they’ll pack pre-made burger patties (although Livengood usually skips the bun), grilled chicken, grilled vegetables, granola bars, water and Vitamin Water. Livengood says an off-season program established for him by Byrne helped make a big difference.

“They are nutritionally the best ones on the team,” Byrne said. “They have great aerobic capacities. They take their nutrition, their intake, their hydration pretty seriously, and I think it shows on the field with their ability to recover.”

The dual-cooler duo is the exception to the rule among players at this level where many players don’t have the necessary education, or a slow enough metabolism, to want or need to make a change in how they eat.

“Everybody gets into their bad moments, and you just do what’s easier,” Lloyd said. “That’s how all of America is now, and what’s easier is the unhealthier option. You have to want to do eat healthier.”

As for the argument that eating healthy is too expensive, which is a common refrain, and not just among the ranks of Minor League Baseball players, that’s not stood in their way.

“A lot of the stuff we have is the store-brand stuff. A granola bar doesn’t have to be a Clif bar. I think you can do it. It’s pushing it, but you can get by with it. You have to stretch the dollar more and look for deals, but the question is how worth it is it to you to go the extra step?” Livengood said.

*****

Kathy Wehrle knows all about what it takes to eat well, and do it on a limited budget. As the Community Outreach Dietician with the Parkview Health LiVe Wellness Campaign she works with all different members of the community, including low-income families and individuals, trying to educate and promote about the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle.

She says that the lifestyle of a professional athlete can be conducive to quick meals, which a lot of times end up being fast food, simply because of convenience.

“With athletes, they’re a captive audience. They’re hungry and they want it to taste good,” Wehrle says.

“Most fast food restaurants do have some healthy options, whether it be a main-dish salad, grilled chicken with all kinds of spinach on it, wraps with grilled chicken, soups or some kind of sandwich that doesn’t have five ounces of meat on it. Most people don’t pick those options, but they are there,” she adds.

The age and educational background of the average player in the Midwest League varies, with most players falling between 18-24 years old. Most usually having a high school degree, if from the United States, and some college education. Few players have a four-year college degree. Those educational factors, combined with what Wehrle says is a decline in culinary knowledge from the millennial generation, make Minor League Baseball players a demographic very susceptible to eating poorly.

“Being in sports, they want their body to perform and be at peak performance. I would think they would be really thirsty for that information. What you eat affects not only how you do in your sport, your immunity right now, your reasoning and thinking power right now, and your health now and in the future.”

Wehrle endorses the idea of packing food, saying that players, like Livengood and Lloyd of the TinCaps, can make healthy choices while on a budget, just like families have to do every week when grocery shopping. A sample meal she says players could pack and take on the road could be yogurt or fruit along with 100% whole grain bagel thins with peanut butter for breakfast, a stuffed whole grain pita with vegetables or beans for lunch, along with a piece of fruit and a couple pieces of dark chocolate, and for dinner a chilled container of pork or chicken with steam-in-a-bag vegetables that can be microwaved in the clubhouse.

Healthy MiLB Meal Options

But if players can’t pack, she says, then it’s ok, every once in a while, to eat at the favorite restaurant of ballplayers across the country—Chipotle.

“The best choice is chicken with brown rice instead of white rice. They’ll have to coach their server on adding more peppers to a wrap or a bowl, and the mild salsa is OK,” she advises. “Keep it light on the cheese, light on the sour cream, and modest guacamole is OK.”

Minor League Baseball players everywhere, famously fond of Chipotle, rejoice at that news. It’s a small piece of information that she believes fits into a larger base that remains untapped by not just athletes, but the public.

“Even though we feel like, ‘Gosh, there’s so much good health information out there,’ I feel like not everyone is getting that health information filtered down to them.

Eating healthy can taste great. A common copout is eating healthy is boring and bland, or that it’s too expensive or complicated. It’s not weird or fanatical to eat healthy.”

*****

If Sam Cooke was right, and “A Change is Gonna Come” to the way baseball players eat, it seems it will be a combination of trickle-down knowledge from parent clubs, combined with a desire to do so from players. More and more teams are investing in the food they purchase and prepare for their players at their home ballparks and spring training facilities, and in the amount of education and resources the players receive.

“We can preach healthy choices all day, but until we provide the foods for these young men, chances are they won’t make the healthy choice.  The time and money investment in the health of our players has the biggest impact,” says Vaughn Robinson, the Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks, wrote via email.

“We are a whole foods organization. We have supplements available for the players, but we are about eating a well-rounded healthy diet, high in fruits, vegetables and lean meats. We also have Vitamix blenders at all of our affiliates to provide veggie shakes for the players.”

The Padres’ Byrne acknowledges that given the age and knowledge level of the players, it’s a difficult, but worthwhile, effort.

“It’s about can you teach these guys and are they willing to listen to what you have to say. It’s a lifestyle change that would require them to alter things in their daily routine. This young they’re pretty stubborn in their daily routine,” he says.

The Angels’ Scales, drafted at 21, and a big-leaguer by 31 four different organizations later, knows the responsibility is shared between player and club.

“Guys are playing so much longer now and part of that is putting proper fuel in your system. If you ingrain those habits early, you give yourself every opportunity to get to the big leagues.”

A horse, it’s said, can be led to water, but not forced to drink. In similar fashion, Major League Baseball teams can educate their minor league players and provide them not only with the right educational information, but also give them the food they want them to eat.

“What your nutrition status is like when you’re in sports can really get you to the top of your game or it can hold you back,” Wehrle says.

The stakes, too, are much higher for the player. After all, a horse can only hope to retire to a pasture; a baseball player aspires for greatness.

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