A Year of Organic Nutrition in Professional Baseball – Part II

Contents:

Part 1 – “The healthiest team in professional sports”

Part 2 – The organic guidelines and implementation

Part 3 – Results, reception, and lasting impact l

**Please see disclaimer in Prologue (found here)…


The prospect of adding organic nutrition to our already cumbersome responsibilities as strength and conditioning professionals seemed daunting at best when it was first presented to us prior to the 2015 season. To put it mildly, it’s one thing to be handed a couple of hundred dollar bills each series – whether it be at home or on the road – under the pretenses that you would be spending it at CostCo (for pre-game) and Applebees (for post-game). It’s an entirely and overwhelmingly different task to be responsible for identifying top-notch meal providers that could adhere to the strict nutritional standards set forth by the Los Angeles Dodgers front office. Let alone negotiating over contracts that involved the exchange of thousands of dollars with every series.

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The nutritional standards themselves could seem deeply intricate and foreign at first blush,  since nutrition is only covered to a certain extent by the strength and conditioning scope of practice, thus setting the bar relatively low for knowledge of nutrition as it pertains to sport. And, justifiably so, the title “Strength and Conditioning Coach” doesn’t exactly illicit immediate thoughts of significantly deep nutritional considerations.

Yet, as the strength and conditioning coach’s title has evolved – more notably and ambiguously known as a “Performance Coach” in many circles – so too has the scope of practice. Thus, when an organization such as the Dodgers sought to determine just who would be the ones implementing their new nutritional plan, they looked no further than the Strength and Conditioning staff.

The front office made their philosophy and corresponding nutritional standards very straight-forward. Their mission was to be the healthiest team in professional sports, and the means by which they believed they could attain this feat were clearly outlined: 

All affiliated Minor League clubs, from Rookie-Ball through Triple-A would provide three meals to their players. These three meals would be a combination of pre-game breakfast and/or lunch, post-batting practice snack, and post-game dinner, all of which needing to explicitly consist of:

  • Protein sources that were grass-fed, cage-free, free-roaming and nitrate free;
  • Raw grass-fed dairy sources (milk or cheese);
  • Absolutely no processed or packaged materials;
  • Condiments, dressings, etc. made entirely from scratch;
  • Only raw nuts and butters;
  • All organic products that were locally sourced and farm-grown

Although these explicit guidelines were more thorough than just about anything professional baseball had ever seen in terms of nutrition, a few other notable stipulations needed to be carefully addressed with prospective caterers. For example, there would be no need for deserts, sugar-additives, sodas or juices, and bread was no longer a viable option – unless of course it was ezekiel bread, a very dry, crumbly substance derived from sprouted grains.

Additionally, the removal of soda machines was requested for all home stadiums, and road clubhouse managers were asked to hide any processed snacks and treats that would normally be complimentary to players and coaches. This was only the beginning. Visit any professional baseball clubhouse or dugout and you will inevitably see the pink, sugary Dubble Bubble gum (the kind whose flavor fades in the amount of time it takes you to open the wrapper of your next piece). But, in the dugouts of Camelback Ranch, the Dodgers Spring Training complex, you will find its slightly healthier variant, Sugar Free Dubble Bubble.

Like the dugout, the coach’s locker room at Camelback Ranch was no longer a safe-haven from the grips of the new nutritional guidelines. While some comfort foods like soda remained in the refrigerators of the coaches’ quarters to quell any animosity toward the new programmany healthier options had been introduced, such as Odwalla bars coming at the cost of candy and other treats. Coffee was no longer the same for the coaches either as Sweet’N Low, too, had been replaced, now in favor of organic cane sugar.

Ultimately, it was Spring Training – the ground-floor of the 2015 season – where the Dodgers strived to have the most resonating impact on their players. All 200-plus players were on site to experience the transition during this time, as well as every member of the strength and conditioning staff who were there to facilitate this progression (on top of their traditional duties). This process essentially came at two levels, the first being an educational approach whereby the strength coaches attempted to set a positive example by eating the organic meals at the dining tables with players, casually making conversation about the foods being served; what the players did and did not like; what a healthy and proportional plate looks like, etc.

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Meanwhile, the strength coaches also needed to think and plan ahead for the 2015 regular season. This required diligent searching and thorough communication with prospective caterers in both the home and road cities. For some affiliates, such as the Triple-A club, finding organic options (in cities like Oklahoma City and Nashville) proved to be easier than other affiliates. Conversely, the Short-Season club had to sift through minimal catering options in order to find organic providers in small-town USA (i.e. Idaho and Montana), and those who would adhere strictly to the guidelines while staying within the allotted budget.

Serving as a middle-man for legally binding contracts between the legal/finance department of the Dodgers and the caterers was every bit as challenging as the search process. Again, the strength and conditioning coaches took on a greater responsibility, as they needed to clearly request food for the appropriate amount of players and coaches, for (and on) the appropriate days, and at the appropriate price-point. Needless to say, mistakes were made and lessons were undoubtedly learned for future seasons and endeavors into nutritional programs.

The first couple of months consisted of conference calls between the strength staff – which was now spread across the country – all sharing the various pitfalls they had encountered in the initial stages of the new nutritional program. Of those pitfalls, the most common were the caterers who managed to bring foods that were clearly on the banned list, those who were late for drop-offs, those who broke contract, and many others who simply did not bring enough food.

To the latter problem, a new pseudo-guideline was instituted from first-year Director of Player Development, Gabe Kapler: there must be enough food so that the players would be allowed to go back for second and third-helpings. However much organic food that they desired to consume, especially post-game. Although seemingly idealistic it seems to feed 30-45 people as much as the want three times per day with the highest quality of foods, the front office’s pockets seemed to be just as deep as the players’ stomaches. The athletes certainly ate the food, most with little to no concern about taste – just quantity.

In fact, it was a known expectation in the lorcker rooms from the front office that players were not going to be forced to eat the food provided for them. They are grown men after all (most of them, anyways) who are free to make their own decisions. But, the caveat was every player/man would be held accountable for his actions, and would be judged on those actions as well. So, whether they truly were intrinsically motivated to eat  organic and healthy meals or not, most players still chose to indulge on the majority of food provided to them.

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This isn’t to say that there weren’t any compliance issues. In the Short-Season clubhouse you might see a player on any given day walk in at lunch time with Costa-Vida take-out in hand. In a Triple-A locker room you might even see a former big-leaguer paying the clubhouse manager to fetch enough Chik-Fil-A nuggets to feed the whole team, while the organic pre-game spread sits on a table nearby, only slightly picked-over.

These apparently blatant transgressions against compliance were never enough to tip the scales away from rendering the nutritional initiative a successful one though. In fact, monotony is inescapable in baseball, and nutrition is no exception – monotony seems to transcend just about every aspect of the long professional baseball season. Even when using multi-regional caterers that each have their own unique expression of healthy and organic cuisine, it’s egg frittatas, chicken, salad, and vegetables were more often than not that is included at some point during the day, which can certainly wear on even the most health-conscience player over the course of six months.  File_004(2)

Overall, though, it was the caterers that went above and beyond that made all of the difference with the players. For example, there was the caterer that once brought lobster tails for pre-game lunch. The very same caterer also dedicated a handful of nights to the Latin players, providing the team with Dominican or Mexican-styled foods.

One caterer in particular, Chef Rob Walton in Utah, made a lasting impact with the players of the Short-Season Ogden Raptors. Combining humility and enthusiastic service (not just a simple and hasty drop-off) with the freshest meals possible – he made each and every meal on a food-trailer outside of the stadium and delivered the meals hot right out of the kitchen – the players couldn’t help but appreciate the efforts he was making to fuel them for their performance. File_003

Upon finishing their last game with Chef Rob’s services, the team honored Walton with a signed game ball. The organization too recognized Chef Rob’s services to the team, writing a letter of recognition and spreading the news of his great servitude to every staff member within the Dodgers. This success in Ogden, Utah, also exemplified the overall results that the entire organization had experienced with the new nutritional initiative. The program could certainly be deemed a success. 

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But, for every positive that came out of a year of organic nutrition in professional baseball, just as many questions could be raised.

For instance, what would happen when the season ended and the players return home? What change would occur to their eating habits when the constraints of time, money, convenience, availability, and personal preference were reintroduced to their decision-making process? What about the international players who would return to dramatically different lifestyles and diets? And, while this model was successful for the big-market Los Angeles Dodgers, what about other teams, sports, and circumstances?

More to come…

Respectfully,

RJF

 

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