George Vecsey writes today about “the incredibly shrinking ballplayer.” There’s a lot of fun stuff in this article, but there’s a lot I’m skeptical about as well. So rather than sharpen some single point about it, I thought I’d change tack and just riff a little bit. Hey, it’s casual day:
Out of the roughly 1,000 major leaguers in spring training camps, a couple of dozen appear to have lost significant weight in the off-season, all in the name of health and agility.
Some of them did it by eating grilled fish. Others played active video games with their children. Some went on diet programs or took up yoga. Others cut back on alcohol. Whatever they did, clubhouse attendants are coming up with smaller uniforms all over Florida and Arizona.
Is this like how Prince Fielder went vegetarian last year and every other player is reported to be “in the best shape of his life?” Pics or it didn’t happen.
Among the biggest losers are Brett Myers and Ryan Howard of the championship Phillies, who lost 30 and 20 pounds.
If weight loss allows Howard to suddenly hit lefties, great. Otherwise, I wonder if this will be a negative for him somehow. Maybe not, because 20 pounds on him is like five on everyone else, but I have always subscribed to the adage “if it ain’t broke . . .” Performance aside, how much of Howard’s MVP support is based on the fact that he’s a fat guy in a muscle-bound world? I’m guessing a lot. If he truly is getting thin, similar numbers in the future will probably bring him less love from the BBWAA.
“You have to be a little skeptical, given the context of watching bodies change,” Dr. Gary Wadler, an internist and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said Thursday. “The explanation then was that they were eating more and working out more. Now if you hear players say, ‘We changed our ways,’ all you can do is be suspicious.”
Point taken, but it’s worth noting that suspicion of PED use = job security when you’re Dr. Gary Wadler of the WADA.
The model for clean living and technique over brute size is Derek Jeter of the Yankees, whose physique and hitting style have never fluctuated since he came up in 1995. Jeter seemed to be quietly seething last week when having to discuss revelations of steroid use by Alex Rodriguez. Not all of us did it, Jeter veritably hissed. That is an important fact to remember as players assert their inner athlete.
Just the latest entry in the “we must be suspicious of every single player — except Cap’n Jetes!” line of reasoning. If you put a gun to my head I’d say Jeter didn’t roid up, but we really can’t know that. If people insist on placing an umbrella of suspicion over everything that’s gone down in the past 20 years, he has to be included, doesn’t he? No more demonizing of individuals who are dirty, but no more extra-credit for those we perceive, but don’t know, to be clean, right?
Something else worth thinking about, Vecsey reminds us, is that all of the bulk players have put on over the years may not have been necessary:
“A lot of baseball is about something called weight transfer,” Dr. Joyner added. “In this context, there have been many superb javelin throwers who are pretty small and at least some shot-putters and discus throwers have been relatively small. “Think about the rotation in Tiger Woods’s hips, or the classic shot of Koufax with his arm essentially being used like a sling shot and trailing his body.”
Exactly. And it was just that sort of technique over brute force that allowed Koufax to retire as the all time strikeout king after leading the Dodgers to victory in the 1977 World Series.
“Remember Mickey Lolich?” he said, referring to the chubby lefty who helped Detroit win the 1968 World Series. “The more weight he gained, the better he pitched.”
Except that he didn’t. Lolich was never skinny, but he truly ballooned up after leaving Detroit, and that’s when he really fell off a cliff. That said, I suspect it was his sadistic early-70s workload that did him in, not his donut-gut.
Of course, players have always been trying to lose weight. I can remember Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard running laps — well, maybe one lap — early in spring training, all of them wearing rubber shirts and calling one another Whale Belly as they staggered from foul pole to foul pole.
Man, George Vecsey is old.
Nowadays, players can afford trainers and nutritionists, and they do not have to supplement their income as bartenders or by selling cars. But it’s hard to forget the first vague impressions of the mid- to-late ’90s, when some players showed up for spring training with enlarged teeth, larger cap sizes, acne on their backs and shoulders rising to meet their ears.
Enlarged teeth? Really? Do we have to take Elway’s Super Bowl rings away?
Yes, I’m just messin’ around here. Vecsey’s sources have a lot of intersting things to say about weight and bulk and technique and everything, and it is fun and worthy subject to consider. But it strikes me that you can’t write an article with a premise of ballplayers being smaller without checking to see if, in fact, ballplayers truly are smaller. We here about guys shedding pounds over the winter every year, and with few exceptions, they all look the same come April. Even if the most obvious muscle heads from the 90s are gone, players still seem a heck of a lot bigger than they were in the 80s and before.
I’m not sure what to make of it. Unfortunately, we don’t have anything approaching accurate player weight data so this subject, like everything else related to PEDs, will have to reside in the land of anecdote for the foreseeable future.