Part 1 – “The healthiest team in professional sports”
**Please see disclaimer in Prologue below…
This is a piece of journalism: it needs to be known that it is my intention that this essay be received as journalistic in nature, not opinion-based. I wanted to acknowledge the current state of nutrition in Minor League Baseball, chronicle what the Los Angeles Dodgers were able to accomplish in the 2015 season in terms of improving their own nutritional philosophy, and ultimately help improve Minor League Baseball.
After all, what else should a coach strive to do – anything less than attempt to make a lasting impact that will not only improve their own athletes but the entire game of baseball?
For full personal disclosure: I am a former employee of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and a current employee with the New York Mets organization. I respect everyone that I had the fortune of working with during my time with the Dodgers. Likewise, I am completely engrossed in the process with the New York Mets, and am wholeheartedly proud to be a member of the Mets family.
As for the purpose of this essay: I am writing this solely to reflect upon the nutritional program instituted by the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2015 season, as it was unique and impactful to me as a person and coach, and I believe that it will have a rippling positive effect throughout baseball over time.
My words: The viewpoints shared in this essay do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of any professional baseball organization – not the Dodgers nor the Mets – nor are these words written to compare organizations.
One final note: The phrase “the healthiest team in professional sports” was not coined by me, and does not assert my opinion. This tagline was developed and used by the Dodgers, and my quoting of it should reflect the goals of that organization at the time, not my opinions of the organization.
In closing: I wish I did not have to preface this essay in this manner, but I want to be as clear and politically correct as possible.
“The Healthiest Team in Professional Sports” –
That was the motto and mission statement of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015.
Quite ambitious if you really think about it. Of the four major professional sports in American – baseball, football, basketball, and hockey – there are 122 “major league” or top-level organizations. All of these teams are undoubtedly seeking to find and establish any competitive advantage possible to enhance performance on the field or court. Hence the increased emphasis on strength and conditioning and the uptick in fitness and sporting technologies (e.g. GPS tracking, sleep monitors, and videography). Nutrition is another frontier that most organizations have began to prioritize.
Nutrition, though, is a very costly avenue to tackle. Not only does simply “eating healthy” cost more than eating junk, but when it comes to providing nutrition – or “fuel” – to a team, there are so many mouths to feed, and so many more days in which to feed them. This is no more the case in any sport other than professional baseball, where long-term development is emphasized above all else.
The scouts call it projectability. Rarely is a player selected in the Major League First-Year Player Draft because he is ready to play at the Major League level today. On the contrary, players are evaluated, chosen, and assigned based on how well they project. In other words, players are evaluated based on the tools they possess now, what the potential is to enhance those tools, and how long it will take for those tools to be ready for competition at the highest level.
With this being the focus of amateur player acquisition, there are nearly 50 rounds in the draft, meaning scores of new players are brought into an organization in a given year. To provide a venue for competition and development for all of the players in an organization’s “farm system” (i.e. the entire Minor League system) there are generally 6-7 minor league teams per organization (not including foreign academies). Altogether, each minor league team has 25-35 players on their roster, and each player will be a part of over 100 games each year when you tally up every pre-season, regular season and post-season game.
You can then see how the money adds up when it comes to providing a healthy nutritional program for an entire professional baseball organization, especially when it is compared to, say, buying a handful of force plates or GPS units for the Spring Training facility. While this may be some seriously exorbitant expenditures, they are usually one time expenses. Meanwhile, nutrition costs will continue in perpetuity.
Clearly, setting the goal to be the healthiest team is professional baseball is an ambitious undertaking in its own right. Striving to be the healthiest team in all of professional sports – where teams belonging to other sports have only one roster to provide for (e.g. the Dallas Cowboys only need to feed the Cowboys, not six other developmental teams and an international academy) – just seems downright ludicrous on the surface.
But, that didn’t stop the Los Angeles Dodgers from trying to do just this during the 2015 season. What’s more, the Dodgers weren’t just trying to serve “healthy” options – they were trying to rewrite the entire script for the organization, from top to bottom.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, and all of their Minor League affiliates – including the Arizona League Dodgers, the Ogden Raptors, the Great Lakes Loons, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Tulsa Drillers, and the Oklahoma City Dodgers – were going organic.
All organic. Only organic.
From 2014 to 2015 I transitioned from a strength and conditioning intern with the Dodgers to a full-time assistant strength coach, a significant progression for me personally. Simultaneously the Dodgers organization underwent a major transition as well, from that of your typical MLB organization – in terms of nutrition – to something quite unique. As their mission statement suggested, they wanted to be the healthiest team in all of professional sports.
Because I got the opportunity to spend three plus months working with the Dodgers in 2014, and then at a greater capacity in 2015, I was afforded the chance to see what normal meals were like in the traditional minor league baseball clubhouse, and what can happen when an organization puts nutrition on the forefront of both their developmental philosophy and payroll.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of this change in approach, I believe it is important that you too see it from both perspectives – which means first understanding what the typical standard is for nutrition and meals in professional baseball.
Walk into most minor league clubhouses in-season and you will see very similar trends when it comes to the meals, or “spreads”. If you haven’t heard about the minor league baseball spreads, you should know that, much like that of minor league baseball in general, it’s not as glamorous or lavish as many on the outside would expect when they envision life in professional sports. Ironically, the typical day of meals in minor league baseball (especially at the lower levels) looks quite similar to the days these players had prior to signing a professional contract:
Breakfast (before a player comes to the ballpark) might be cereal, that is, if they don’t opt to skip it. Lunch might consist of cold cut deli meats from the grocery store. Snacks could include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and granola bar. While dinner might be take-out from the likes of Chilis or Qdoba. Sound an awful lot like your own day, doesn’t it? Not exactly what most people expect when they consider the diet of a professional and elite athlete.
You will also see protein shakes, pre-workouts, and energy drinks quite frequently, although this too is comparable to most amateur athletes or weekend warriors. The only difference being the NSF-Certified for Sport seal that must be present on any dietary supplement that a minor league baseball player chooses to consume.But, before you condemn all of minor league baseball for its underwhelming nutritional standards, it should be noted that those who are directly responsible for the food that is selected for the players’ table are simply doing the best that they can with what they are given. The quality of nutrients and performance “fuel” that the players receive ultimately rests on the shoulders of those who make the much grander financial decisions. This goes way above my pay-grade, so that’s as far as I will take it.
What I do know, though, is that when it comes to the daily process of purchasing foods for the players to consume, it is up to the clubhouse manager to go grocery shopping each day or week to prep the two to three meals provided for the players on game day. The meals provided are usually lunch (although this isn’t always the case), pre-game snack (also known as post-batting practice snack) and post-game dinner. On the road, this responsibility is shifted to the strength and conditioning coach and/or the athletic trainer, as the clubhouse manager rarely travels. And, it is oftentimes the video manager or intern handling the petty cash on the road. Altogether, it is a team effort to get a day of meals prepared for the team.
Whether at home or on the road, there are per diems set for each of these meals. For example, the team may be allotted $250 for post-game dinner, or $100 for pre-game spread. Sometimes, lunch isn’t provided. On the road, though, players are given nominal per diems on an individual basis (coined “meal money”), and this is expected to cover the meals not provided to the team.
Regardless of how much money is slotted for each meal, the same quantity of mouths need to be fed every day. For the majority of minor league baseball, this means 25 players and five to seven coaches/staff members. In certain Rookie-Ball levels the roster can be as much as 35 players, again with five to seven coaches/staff members. Let’s also not forget the roving instructors/coaches/coordinators who visit each affiliate multiple times per year. For an extreme, yet realistic example, a strength coach may have to order for 35 players, six coaches, and five rovers, totaling almost 50 personnel to feed.
So, you can easily do the math yourself: $250 per dinner for 30-45 people won’t get you very far. Considering the monetary limitations and the shear number of games that need to be catered each year, deals and agreements are often set up with local chain restaurants for the most convenient and bang-for-your-buck meals. The likes of Olive Garden, Panda Express, and Applebees are a staple for many minor league affiliates. And, we all know that taste, nutritional value, and price don’t always equate in chain restaurants. Still, dinner can be substantial, at least in terms of satiation.It’s the pre-game spread, though, where it starts to get more bleak. Again, consider the number of players and personnel that need to be fed – this time on maybe half the budget of dinner. Don’t be surprised to walk into a Rookie-Ball or Single-A clubhouse at 5:00pm and see players snacking on candy, deli meats, pop-tarts, and peanut-butter and jelly – while a veggie tray usually sits untouched nearby. Untouched, of course, because very little emphasis has been placed on proper nutrition for sport.
Obviously, education is an integral part of developing a young player when it comes to proper nutrition for the players. If the coach wants the athletes to make the right decisions in the kitchen (or in the clubhouse), they need to educate them as much as they can. And, more often than not, the performance coach does his or her best to educate their players. But, imagine the strength and conditioning coach, in conjunction with the club-house manager, trying to best provide clean fuel for his or her athletes and educate them on this process, when in reality they are providing very few “healthy” food options. As for the “healthy” portion of the spread, a player may only see a handful of individual greek yogurts, a vegetable tray, and some whole wheat bread because that is all that the performance staff can afford that day. To say that a player should then be expected to choose healthy alternatives in the clubhouse (let alone outside of the stadium or in the offseason on their own) is a flawed and idealistic goal at best.
To be quite frank it’s a broken system; a system that can only be rectified by combining a knowledgable approach, a top-down alignment of philosophy within the organization, and a monetary commitment toward providing proper nutrition for the athletes. This is where the Dodgers started in 2015, and I was able to sit in on this ride toward improved nutritional value in the clubhouse, and the integration of solely organic foods during the minor league baseball season.
To be continued…