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Dec 14

In which 2 MiLB insiders thoroughly dismantle my idea

Though lots of people had nice things to say about last night’s post, two Minor League Baseball employees brought up some really valid concerns and counterpoints. I recognize that while I made it out to sound so easy to overhaul nutrition throughout a minor league farm system, of course there would be logistical hurdles every step of the way. So let’s look to two guys who are actually “down in the trenches” to see what a ballclub would have to figure out to explore this potential shift in the baseball culture.


FIRST UP: a clubhouse attendant. His thoughts are in grey boxes; my responses are not.

Love the article and everything that you put into it. I work as a AAA clubby for an organization who takes their nutrition very seriously and imposes very strict dietary guidelines (that make the players very unhappy and they send other clubbies out to buy them McDonalds, etc.). Also some visiting teams, I’ll say 4 to 6 per season, send us guidelines for things that they do not want their teams to have. Overall it is a good effort by the organization to accomplish a competitive advantage, but the main problem is, unless the players buy into the system, it all gets undone when they go out to the bars and drink or buy fast food for breakfast.

A couple thoughts here:
1) I’d be interested to know the identity of some of these clubs. Anyone know? I don’t know what team Anonymous Clubbie (henceforth: AC) works for, so I can’t answer that myself.
2) AC is absolutely right about the players needing to buy into it. In Omaha, the players this past season definitely bought into nutrition and kept each other accountable (in addition to the guidance provided by team personnel). But it really only takes a few players who are good leaders to affect that kind of change. David Lough is a great example of this kind of leadership, which he discussed with Greg Schaum and Clint Scoles in an excellent podcast this week..

As far as the financials of the whole thing goes, $800 per week is incredibly low. For one home stand (8 games) my post game meals we had to cater in cost roughly $1500. Add in the pregame meal, all of the healthy (more expensive) snacks, fruits/veggies, and bottled water/Gatorade and my cost to feed the team/staff is around $3,000 per 8 game home-stand.

I think hiring a private chef would be the best thing that a team could do to help players eat healthier, but even this would cost more than just the chef to pull off. The stadium I work at doesn’t have a kitchen, and we are in AAA! I have to prepare every pregame meal via electric skillets, hot plates, and George Foreman grills. Any respectable chef is going to require a full functioning kitchen, something that a fair size portion of minor league clubhouses lack.

THERE’S the good stuff. OK, that’s quite a wrench in the plans. In my next post, we’ll hear from a chef who can hopefully provide suggestions for how to get around that. Cook off site? I don’t know.

As for the cost of catering: I would imagine that having a chef prepare an identical meal would be cheaper. When you hire a caterer, you’re paying for not only the food, but also the off-site preparation and the bringing it to your site, and possibly also the setup, presentation, and cleanup. Additionally, catering costs what it does because when a caterer is serving you, they are unable to serve anyone else. Your time and convenience is an opportunity cost to them. So if you had a dedicated chef, you could strip away a lot of that cost, thus bringing down that $1500 per homestand figure that AC cited.

While we’re here, let’s take a moment to appreciate clubbies. They work so insanely hard, and are almost criminally invisible.

Now if you want to make sure this all happens on the road, for every level, by my estimates it would cost $435,000 for the food and supplies alone, another $320,000 for chefs to travel with the team, and we are already at a cost of $755,000. I don’t want to do the math, but you incur other costs of travel and hotels for the chefs, renovation of 8 minor league clubhouses to make the kitchens suitable for a chef, and any other rogue expenses that come up along the way, it is more than likely a seven figure adventure for implementing this nutritional program in year one.

All right. I did fail to factor in traveling costs. I think that some future contributors to this series* might have some ideas or real-world examples as to how to make this work.

*a series that was originally planned as a maximum of two posts. Magic!

All in all I think it would be safe to say that you would have to budget $800,000 at a minimum to pull off the plan you are suggesting. While that is still nickels to the parent club, it all won’t matter unless you can get the players on board. For every Alex Gordon, there is a Runelvys Hernandez, and sadly more players fall on the hating the healthy options than embracing them.

I agree fully that there are – and will probably always be – some bad apples out there. But it’s the same as any organization-wide strategy shift. If an MLB club wants its players to adopt a more patient plate approach, some guys might buy in and focus on discipline, but there would always be a few hackers at every level. That does not mean that attempts should not be made to shift the culture of an organization.
I now want to highlight this comment that was left on last night’s post:

I worked as the strength and conditioning coach (CSCS) for a Low A team (lots of 19 year olds and college aged) during 2011. That also included 3 months of off-season and Spring Training. *I* had a 50$ organizational-provided budget for the pre-game “spread.” Only for away games, though. Let me preface by saying that (unlike many strength coaches) nutrition has always been a strong point for me and it’s how I first got involved on the industry.

Let me tell you why nutrition is a tricky subject.

When you talk about improving nutrition? Do you mean as in providing the amount of food of all kinds available for all players? Do you mean having fruits and vegetables available at all times? Do you mean having protein shakes and bars readily available? Do you mean having chicken breast or tuna available with every meal?

There’s a wide spectrum between having a personalized special diet for every player, and what they’re eating now. Just give every guy the opportunity to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The way things are structured now, a lot of young prospects don’t even have access to the right foods.

Education is really the key…but the problem lies on whether the player WANTS to be educated. Or even worse, apply what he learns.

You have to remember these players live on their own. I can have all the fruits of the world in the clubhouse but if X PLAYER wants to eat McDonalds on his way home, there’s nothing I can do. You think a Latin kid that just got out of Dominican after spending the last 2-3 years there wants to hear about the importance of protein and hydration?

Sure, of course. But on the flip side of that, if the only foods guys have access to is junk, they’re going to eat junk. Improve what’s in the clubhouse, and that way at least you’ll be improving the guys’ diets for those meals. That’s way better than doing nothing, isn’t it?

In my case, I bought as many calories as I could with the 50$ budget. There were more players that struggled to keep weight on than those that needed to lose fat. It was a constant battle but I made a decision that would benefit the team the most.

Calories are energy and when they needed 3000 calories in the 16 hours they were awake (minus 2 on buses, 4 on the field, 1 in the weight room) I had absolutely no issues with them eating pb & jelly sandwiches or even twinkies. Yes, evil-killer twinkies. We were lucky to have relatively unlimited access to protein drinks so it wasn’t hard for me to have them complement the “candy” with 30grs of protein.

I am fascinated by this but will leave it to future guest posters to address. I understand that bodies need calories but am really surprised to hear someone “on the inside” say it doesn’t matter where those calories come from. But again, I’m an outsider, and I’m here to learn.

And this $50 budget is insane! That’s why I’m saying clubs should dedicate more resources for food. Players shouldn’t have to eat Twinkies just because that’s what fits in the budget.

Moving on:

Am I saying “don’t eat fruits” or don’t eat “clean”? No, that’s fine. But is that absolutely necessary for ultimate performance as I implied from your post? I don’t think so. Not at all.

We kept close tabs on their bodies. Weekly weigh-ins along with their performance in the weight room and the way they moved on the field. We ended up only having three soft tissue injuries in 4 months. The longest a player was out was 9 days and incidentally, that player was a huge fan of eating Paleo (including his nutritional supplements, but that’s another story).

Again, fascinating, but as a non-expert here I’m just going to seek out additional input on this.

Nutrition IS important. But saying it’d be a competitive advantage? That’d be a stretch. More money for better food in the clubhouse would be excellent. I concur. But your overweight pitcher may just as easily overindulge in [insert 'healthy' food']…and remain overweight.

This is professional baseball. As long as they’re on the field and producing…they can be as fat/skinny/slow/weak as they desire. And it’s only when they struggle that we (the training staff) have to come in and ‘fix’ the athlete. Or in cases, even take the fall for it. (See fried chicken-beergate in Boston.)

The situation in Boston was shameful. Not because of ANYTHING the players did – they’re just grown men asserting their right to enjoy the same foods and drinks that every yahoo who blasted them for it does. But the way that became a job-costing media firestorm was awful. We’re definitely on the same page there.

It would be great having an amazing dining hall like the one Nebraska (or any D1 school) has. But it doesn’t guarantee victories or performance. It may not even guarantee you healthy players.

Sure, but why not try?  What, exactly, would be the downside of creating a culture where better nutrition is the new norm?

As harsh as this sounds, don’t forget whole minor league teams are built around developing and maintaining 2 or 3 potentially legitimate prospects. They are making pennies. If you asked any player if they would prefer a $150 monthly salary raise or better food before games, I’m sure the answer would be more money.

PS. Things are much different in AA and AAA. Older minor league players tend to take better care of their bodies. But even when a player has “better habits,” when we analyze those, they’re not even really that good anyway.

But like some say, “if it got me to AA…”

It’ll never be perfect.

It sure won’t. And sure, players want higher salaries. I want that for them, too. But that issue and this one have the common theme: Players should be treated more like human beings, because they are. It’s ludicrous to expect them to live on what they’re given, both in terms of money and nutritional support.

And now this post is nearing 2,000 words, so I’ll stop. We’ll hear from a chef and from Buddy Biancalana in the coming days. Please, keep the Tweets, emails, and comments coming. This is a great opportunity to examine baseball, and discard the norms that are in place just because that’s the way it’s always been.

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  1. Feeding the Minors - Unofficial Network

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