Roberto Hernandez was the only player in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays clubhouse following a victory at Tropicana Field. Sitting in front of his locker, the team’s closer sipped a beer from a plastic cup — just like players did back in the old days.
Where was everybody else?
The answer was simple – though it would have been hard to believe for those from baseball’s “old school.” Hernandez’s teammates were in the gym pumping iron.
Baseball’s attitude toward weight training has changed over the years. When asked about weight lifting, Hall of Famer Al Lopez, who caught and managed in the big leagues, exercised his mind trying to recall a name. Finally, a look of enlightenment came over his face.
“Elmer Riddle,” Lopez recalled. “Won over 20 games for Cincinnati one year. Was going to be a good one but he lifted heavy in the off season and bulked up with muscles. He didn’t have it after that.” Riddle was 21-11 in 1943, then won just 17 games in the next five years.
Mark McGwireFast forward to the 1998 baseball season and front row center stands St. Louis first baseman Mark McGwire, an advocate for weight training and proper nutrition.
“I just feel better,” said McGwire of his weight lifting regimen. “It has helped me [become stronger] and battle injuries. I don’t know how anybody could say it was bad for you.”
Judging from McGwire’s record-setting season that saw him hit 70 home runs, surpassing the previous single-season mark of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961, weight training does indeed have a place in baseball. Imagine former major league manager Whitey Herzog’s reaction to such thinking. The “White Rat” is remembered for, among other things, belittling the fitness craze, noting the modern player needed to put away the barbells and go out for a thick steak and a few beers.
Herzog’s point of view would officially make him a dinosaur today. Throwing steel was once a baseball taboo. But today, if you’re not lifting, you’re falling behind.
“I personally believe that weight lifting and proper nutrition are essential for anybody who plays baseball,” said McGwire, who has hit 180 home runs over the last three seasons (ending in 1998), many of which landed in the general vicinity of space station MIR. Tampa Bay’s Wade Boggs remembered the mindset of baseball organizations when he first became a professional in 1976.
“You never saw weight rooms,” Boggs said. “[The coaches] used to think if you had muscles you were too bulky and you could get tied up with high fastballs. Now they’re throwing high fastballs and [players are] hitting them 500 feet. [They see that players] can put on muscle mass and still retain flexibility.”
Devil Rays coach Frank Howard said players aren’t any stronger than they were 30 years ago. “I just think there are more of ‘em,” said Howard, who knows something about size. “Hondo,” who stands 6-foot-7, was the biggest of them all during his playing days.
“[Players] are in year-round conditioning programs, supervised programs that enable them to maintain tremendous body build and body strength. Players take better care of themselves today. It behooves them to, the salary structure being what it is. No question we’ve got some amazing specimens playing the game of baseball. When you start seeing middle infielders hit the ball the other way 420, 430, you know they’re doing something right.”
Management likes the way players take care of themselves today. Some might wonder about the what-ifs for players from the past. What if late Yankee great Mickey Mantle had spent the hours after a game lifting weights instead of lifting hi-balls? His reported hangovers had to hurt his performance, not to mention the residual effect drinking had on his liver. Mantle died of liver cancer in 1995.
Any discussion about the size of today’s players brings up the question about other contributing factors. McGwire’s admitted use of the performance-enhancing supplement androstenedione came under intense scrutiny this season, even though the substance is not banned by Major League Baseball.
“When a guy goes from 165 to 195 [and adds] lots of muscles during the off season, you’ve got to wonder,” said one scout, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I know everybody is wild about creatine. And steroids are still being used. Particularly in the minor leagues where the kids know that the difference between having the power to hit 15 home runs and 30 home runs can get them to the majors. Getting to the majors means good money.”
But steroid testing is not routine in major league baseball. And the jury is still out regarding the long-term effects of creatine. Creatine is a supplement which is said to enhance weight training and performance in high-intensity, short duration sports by supplying more “energy” to the muscles.
“I’ve had positive results from [creatine],” said Boggs. “It increases the amount [of weight] you can lift faster.”
“We have not come out with an official stance [on creatine],” said Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar. “And we probably won’t until it is documented that it is a hindrance to a player’s performance. But I’ll also tell you that until it’s proven that it’s not a hindrance, we’re not advocating it.”
Regardless of whether players are getting bigger and stronger through the use of weight training, supplements, or steriods, fans like what they see. More home runs and a more offensive game of baseball.
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