Spring training has shed its weight for today's year-round fit athletes

John Steadman

February 15, 1993|By John Steadman

It used to be expected that only the richest of baseball players could afford the luxurious ritual to remove fat. They would wobble off to Hot Springs, Ark., or French Lick, Ind., and have themselves massaged, pounded with salt, follow a schedule of steamed baths and hunker down in square boxes with light bulbs inside intended to create an artificial heat that would induce perspiration. An ordeal with one simple aspiration: lose weight.

Then they would submerge their bodies in the waters of the spa for what healing magic they possessed. Maybe it was more psychological than physical. But the athletes playing baseball today come to major-league training camps without need for special diets and visits to health resorts. Stomachs are flat and hard.

In a word, they are fit to play, which is maybe the most important difference baseball has witnessed the last 50 years. Salaries are the source of such physical motivation. When fringe players can command multimillion-dollar contracts, there's no way a man is going to be fool enough to eat himself out of the league and shorten or terminate a career.

Players living in the upper half of the country, the so-called "frozen north," have been taking indoor batting practice and extending their arms in throwing drills, courtesy of domed or indoor facilities, for six weeks. Most of the preliminary work has been done before they even arrive in training camp. Another positive change.

Again, most candidates, veterans and rookies, report in excellent shape, ready, if need be, to run wind sprints the first day of arrival. That was unheard of in the not so dim and distant past. The first 10 days of camp were generally spent on conditioning, calisthenics, running the perimeter of the outfield, foul line to foul line. And they even had an almost worthless piece of equipment called a medicine ball, which was something out-of-shape business executives tossed around in their leisure when visiting a gym.

With the progressive aspect of players being in first-rate condition is the awareness that the purity of fun has vanished from training camp. It was inevitable, a situation altered by a salary scale that has elevated baseball to more of a business for a player than ever before.

Most major leaguers once considered themselves fortunate to have a wintertime job, maybe driving a heating oil truck, to cover off-season living expenses. Again, a contract worth $1 million has almost become bottom-line so, in this era, there's no need for a second job.

Baseball is a full-time occupation, with the pay and benefits at such a peak, a man would be a fool to take on excess pounds in the off-season or endanger a future by "eating himself" out of the league. The competition is too severe. That's why players don't wine and dine themselves to anything remotely approaching obeseness.

Team hotels in spring training were always crowded with players. Not any more. There are more coaches and club executives holding forth there than members of the training camp roster. The players have rented condominiums to enjoy the best of Florida and Arizona living and drive expensive cars to the ballpark. It used to be the start of a training camp day meant the entire team walked en masse from the hotel to the practice site, which used to be done to "help get the legs in shape," and returned the same way.

How times have changed. It's a far cry from Babe Ruth, green as grass, in training camp with the Baltimore Orioles, seeing a hotel elevator in Fayetteville, N.C., for the first time, and riding it ad infinitum, as though he had found a new toy. And then there were the perennial snipe hunts. Unsuspecting rookies would be given a burlap bag, a baseball bat and told that at nightfall they should go into the brush, beat the ground and hold the sack open for the snipe to enter. All they ever caught was a bundle of air.

It has been estimated in 1935, the height of the Great Depression, that 400 boys and grown men either hitch-hiked to Florida or rode the rails with a clothes roll and a baseball glove -- looking for tryouts in major-league camps. A scant few were signed to minor-league contracts, but the migration suggested the desperation of a country where playing baseball for a living might be a way to making a dollar for the out-of-work factory employee or farmhand.

The most celebrated of all training camp characters was Lou Mandel, who made the tour of the workout sites, describing the number of strikeouts he had recorded the day before at some other place or how far he had hit a batting practice pitch. Some of the regulars looked out for Mandel, giving him a place to sleep, like the floor of their hotel room, and buy him a meal for the unknowing entertainment he provided.

Usually, the manager and general manager invited him to leave. But, undeterred, he'd move on to the next Florida village or hamlet, where a major- or minor-league club might be bivouacked. In the evenings, he'd stand in the hotel lobby, act the part, and, suddenly, a player would ask him if he had been spending any time in the sliding pit.

"No," he'd say. "I'm a natural slider and don't need to practice. Watch this." And with that he'd sprint across the lobby to where the floor had been buffed and fall into a hook slide. Usually, the players would applaud and the registration clerk behind the desk couldn't believe what he had just witnessed.

The Lou Mandels aren't around any more. And that's sad. But neither are fat baseball players in the springtime and, realistically, that's how it should be.

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