You can now read 10 articles each month for free on BostonGlobe.com.

The Boston Globe

Magazine

Are fat baseball players a problem?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind after the turbulent, truncated end of the 2011 Red Sox season.

C.J. Burton

THE MINOR LEAGUE OUTFIELDER jumps rope with great efficiency in the Fort Myers, Florida, sunshine. A rhythm seems to play through his head, a syncopation that keeps the leather rope moving in an almost invisible blur. His hands control the wooden handles at his sides, his feet move and dance. He has a determined look on his face, serious. A rolled-up bandana is tied around his head to keep the sweat from running into his eyes.

Take away the uniform of the Boston Red Sox, the practice edition with the red shirt and gray pants, and he could be a welterweight boxer, maybe a middleweight, training for a shot at the title. Leave the uniform on, though, and he looks a bit strange. He is a baseball player.

Continue reading below

Jumping rope?

“We didn’t do that,” Hall of Fame hitter Jim Rice says while watching the kid from the driver’s seat of a golf cart. “None of us did it. I’d show up to spring training, get my glove and go in the field, get that 36-36 [his 36-inch, 36-ounce bat], and go in the cage and start swinging. That was it.”

“No one did this,” a teammate from the 1970s, pitcher Luis Tiant, agrees from the passenger seat. “No one jumped rope. No one lifted weights. Try to lift weights — they’d tell you to stop.”

“We got in shape to play baseball by playing baseball,” left-handed onetime philosopher Bill Lee adds, part of the group.

The place where the minor league outfielder does his work this day is a stretch of artificial turf outside the weight room at JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’ new spring training home. Inside the room are all the toys of modern fitness training: the large inflated balls, the polyester tubes to aid in rolling around the floor, the mats, the barbells, the assortment of resistance machines, grim and foreboding.

Continue reading below

Every morning, the players spill out of the room to do various exercises, bending and pushing, twisting and sliding, then go back into the room to do more. On the fields, there are further drills, one special area lined like a football field just for workouts, rows of players sprinting or skipping, not a baseball or bat in sight. Little plastic cones are laid out as obstacles in some of the drills. Little plastic cones?

The old world smiles at this new world. The old world has a combined 49 big league seasons of experience.

“I went to spring training with Cleveland for the first time in 1964,” Tiant says. “I’d been 15-1 in Triple A at Portland [Oregon]. I had a little eight-pound weight I sometimes used in my room. Built up my arm a little. I had a five-pound weighted baseball that I sometimes threw in the outfield, because when you did that, the real baseball felt like nothing. The trainer told me not to do either of them, they were not good for you. I said: ‘I was 15-1 in Portland doing this. Forget about you, I’m doing it here.’ ”

“You came down here to get in shape,” Lee says. “Sparky Lyle . . . the Red Sox were worried about his weight one year. They put a clause in his contract. He drove down to spring training. He was 217 pounds when he left up north. Great. The trip took three days. He was 231 pounds when he got here! George Scott, the Boomer, offered to let him wear his rubber workout jacket. Boomer would report heavy every year, put that thing on, and 10 minutes later he’d be sweating so much he looked like a black Lloyd Bridges from Sea Hunt. It was all different.”

“We had one trainer, three coaches,” Rice says. “Now . . .”

The Hall of Famer thinks about it all. Same as Tiant, he wears the Red Sox practice uniform as one of the many coaches and instructors at this camp. Weights? Cones? Exercises? He gets out of the golf cart, stands on the pavement, and starts to jump an imaginary rope, same as the minor league kid, no more than 30 feet away. He jumps the imaginary rope quite well.

“So I’m out in left field. . .” Jim Rice says.

“So I’m jumping rope. . .” he says.

“A ball is hit out there. . .” he says.

“Is this jumping rope going to help me get it?” he asks.

What kind of shape, anyway, does a man have to be in to play . . . baseball?

***

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE RED SOX’ conditioning arose, of course, at the turbulent, truncated end of the 2011 season. When the local edition of the Boys of Summer nose-dived to that 6-18 record after September 3, blew a nine-game lead in the wild card spot, and finished with that dramatic final embarrassment, unable to collect the final strike for that final out in the final inning of that final game in Baltimore, knocked out of the playoffs, a collapse of historic proportions even by local terms, the players quickly became known as the Fat Boys of Summer.

Fingers were pointed everywhere, but most often at a number of puffy stomachs. Reports arrived about takeout orders of Popeyes fried chicken washed down with frosty lagers in the Red Sox clubhouse during games. Names were named. A sequence of Before and After photos was laid across sports pages and websites as Exhibit A.

On the left, pitchers like Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, and Clay Buchholz smiled with lean ambition, happy confidence. On the right, presumably after that extended relationship with those $10.99 eight-piece Popeyes boxes (two legs, two thighs, two wings, two breasts), perhaps bolstered with some signature sides like Cajun-battered fries and mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy, biscuits, and maybe some red beans and rice, not to mention that demon alcohol, jowls were heavier, smiles were gone. The pitchers looked more like Nick Nolte after a night on the town than threats to Nolan Ryan’s career statistics.

The narrative that developed quickly as manager Terry Francona was fired and replaced by Bobby Valentine, as general manager Theo Epstein took a job in Chicago and was replaced by assistant Ben Cherington, as assorted roster changes were made, was that this would not happen again. Fat would not be a factor. The new Red Sox, the 2012 version, would be in shape, damn it.

To underline the point, management fired strength and conditioning coach Dave Page, fired assistant trainer Greg Barajas, told Dr. Thomas Gill he no longer would be their chief medical officer, and reassigned clubhouse personnel, switching Tom McLaughlin, visiting clubhouse man, to the home locker room. Different voices would be brought onto the scene to perhaps reawaken the troops.

Disappointment was hung on a convenient hook.

Page, the strength coach, had worked with the Sox for six years. He was a baseball guy, a former player at the University of Southern Maine who had followed a winding road through the minor leagues in two different organizations before he landed in Boston. He had tailored exercises for each of the big leaguers, individual workout plans to be followed during both the regular season and the offseason. His concentration was baseball fitness, exercises that would help baseball skills.

“I’ve always in the past used the example of cutting wood for the wood stove,” he said on WEEI sports radio after he was dismissed. “If you’re going to get through the winter at the end of the year, you’d better have some wood to keep yourself warm. I think some guys ran out.”

Page said he was as amazed as anyone at the grim finish. He said he had been available every day, at home and on the road, for workouts. Sometimes, yes, a few players had missed those sessions as the year progressed. The Red Sox had been the best team in baseball for the middle four months of the season. How had that fallen apart so easily at the end? He was surprised when Beckett admitted what everyone else saw, that he had gotten “a little sideways” as regards his weight. The surprises kept coming.

“I had a good conversation with one player at the end of the year in Baltimore that really kind of opened my eyes,” Page continued. “I said: ‘Hey, what’s going on here? It seemed like you pulled the plug a little bit. Why?’ He kind of looked down at the ground, looked back at me, and said: ‘I don’t know why. I can’t answer that question.’ Which was kind of a shock.”

So Page and Francona and those other people in charge were gone. Apologies of sorts eventually were twisted out of different players. Beckett said that a sprained ankle had kept him from running and that the impending birth of his daughter had captured some of his attention, but that he had done his other workouts and tried as hard as he could. Lester said, “We stunk, I stunk,” but claimed he always had done his workouts and promised to spend more time on the dugout bench during games this year. Team owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner, and president Larry Lucchino mumbled the appropriate mea culpas. Valentine came in and banned alcohol in the clubhouse. The image of the Red Sox ballplayer was dusted off and dry-cleaned as well as possible, brought back for the new year on a hanger inside a plastic bag.

And Mike Boyle was hired as the new strength and conditioning coach.

***

“I HAVE TO GET THE TERMINOLOGY down,” the new man said as he installed his system at Fort Myers. “Every sport has its own language that you have to use. Like I keep calling Bobby Valentine ‘the coach.’ He’s very nice about it, but I have to start calling him ‘the manager.’ That’s baseball.”

Fifty-two years old, born in Malden to a Boston University Hall of Fame football player, Boyle has been around the Boston athletic scene since he earned his master’s from Springfield College in 1982 and started as an assistant trainer at BU. He was one of the first, maybe the first, full-time strength and conditioning coaches in the country. As the field has expanded and as more and more money has poured into professional and college sports, his business and stature have grown. He has helped a range of athletes build bodies for football, basketball, baseball, and especially hockey from his MBSC gym, which is now based in Woburn. He spent eight years in the 1990s working with the Boston Bruins. He has a website, DVDs, a list of clients that runs from the famous to exercise beginners.

The call from the Red Sox was a refreshing challenge. Yes. Sure. Why not?

“I wanted to do this,” Boyle says. “I’ve always said that Major League baseball players are the best athletes in the country. People forget how good they are. Think about it. They were the stars. Not many of them played just baseball in high school. Not many of them played the positions they play now in the big leagues. Everybody was the all-star shortstop, the big pitcher, the quarterback, the point guard in basketball. These guys are the best of the best.”

His job, he thinks, is to add a foundation of strength and fitness to that natural athleticism. (“Everybody can be better in whatever they do. Isn’t that the truth? I can be better, you can be better. Everybody.”) He isn’t looking for bodybuilders, honed for competition. He is looking for better-conditioned baseball players.

“I think there’s a common denominator at work among athletes in all sports,” Boyle says. “Everybody needs to warm up. Everybody needs to stretch for flexibility. Everybody needs a little weight training.

“That doesn’t mean that baseball isn’t a little different. They’re deceiving, baseball players. They sometimes don’t look like a lot of other athletes. They can operate with an extra layer of fat and do fine. If you’re a hockey player and you lose 20 pounds, that can really help. Twenty pounds is a lot of extra weight to be dragging around on the ice. Not so much in baseball. You’re not moving around so much.”

The baseball player traditionally has been one of the least athletic-looking millionaires on the professional sports grid, perhaps more fit than professional golfers, perhaps not, but definitely behind the athletes in most other sports. The chiseled bodies the game has seen often belonged to the biggest steroid users of the past 20 years, different from the long continuum of baseball players. Were Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and, yes, Roger Clemens cheating? Their bodies were the evidence.

The beauty of the continuum always has been that players come in all sizes and shapes. Dustin Pedroia can play at a listed 5-feet-8, 165 pounds. David Ortiz can play at 6-feet-4, 230 pounds. And 27-year-old Prince Fielder, listed at 5-feet-11, 275 pounds, can sign the largest contract of the offseason, $214 million for nine years with the Detroit Tigers. “A thing people have to realize is that baseball players aren’t supermodels,” Josh Beckett said in a recent interview. “We don’t all look like Jacoby Ellsbury. I wish I did, but I don’t. I never have and I never will.”

The 162-game regular season, half of those on the road, plus spring training and potential playoffs limit how much exercising players can do once the season begins. Boyle already knows his programs will be modified, reduced, especially for position players. Just being in the games is a lot of exercise.

“This isn’t football. Just one game a week,” Boyle says. “That’s another thing people miss out on when they talk about baseball players: There’s a mental and physical grind that doesn’t exist in any other sport. They’re playing every day. Playing and traveling. It’s a lot.”

This does not mean that exercise can’t help. Even Babe Ruth, the greatest hitter in the game, the first fat baseball player that comes to any mind, legendary for his consumption of hot dogs, beer, and bicarbonate of soda, not to mention for his late-night schedule, added a physical fitness regimen for the second half of his career. A miserable, injury-laden, scandal-filled season in 1925 at the age of 30 sent him off to find a personal trainer. His choice was Artie McGovern, a former boxer who worked in Manhattan with Wall Street tycoons and clients like composer John Philip Sousa and bandleader Paul Whiteman.

“About the middle of December, 1925, Babe Ruth came into my gymnasium a total wreck,” McGovern said in Collier’s magazine. “He weighed 254 pounds. His blood pressure was low and his pulse was high. He was as near to a total loss as any patient I ever had under my care. He had lived a life of excess and was suffering the inevitable consequences. His stomach had gone back on him completely. His eyes had been affected. The slightest exertion left him short of breath. His muscles were soft and flabby.”

McGovern made the Babe cut out red meat and sweets, stuffed him full of salad and fruit, made him drink glasses of hot water every day. The workouts — much like Mike Boyle’s idea — were not baseball specific. McGovern said Ruth’s baseball muscles were fine because they were used so much. He wanted stronger legs, a stronger and more slender core. In the six weeks before spring training started, Ruth lost 44 pounds. His waistline shrank 8¾ inches, down to 40. His blood pressure rose from 107 to 128. His pulse rate dropped from 92 to 78.

In 1926, the reconditioned Babe led the league in home runs (47) and runs batted in (146) and had a .372 batting average. In 1927, he hit his record 60 home runs. Artie McGovern was part of his life for the final 10 years of his career.

“Old players will talk in all sports about how nobody needed training,” Boyle says. “Derek Sanderson will talk about how the Bruins used to smoke cigarettes between the periods. But a lot has changed since then. If you told me 20 years ago that the captain of the Bruins would be a 6-feet-9, 275-pound defenseman, I’d have said you were crazy. It’s the same in baseball. How many pitchers were throwing 100 miles an hour? I’d say there’s a lot more now.”

So he works every day to bring his training concepts from other sports to baseball, to recondition the local troops. So sometimes players jump rope as if they are getting ready to climb in the boxing ring. So sometimes they slide back and forth as if they are getting ready to face the Montreal Canadiens instead of the Tampa Bay Rays. So sometimes they bend and sprint as if they are trying out for the New England Patriots. The discontent of the fall is replaced by the optimism of the spring. Trouble always brings change.

“Friends back home gave me a lot of grief,” Boyle says. “They said: ‘Wait’ll you try to work with these guys! The Red Sox!’ Well these guys have been great. They’ve all been open. . . . I haven’t had one guy refuse to do anything. And the older guys, they’ve bought into it more than anyone.”

***

EVEN THE LEGENDS ADMIT THEY would be doing plyometrics, lifting weights, and all the rest if management wanted them to. The legends maybe don’t think conditioning is the answer — or that lack of conditioning was the problem a year ago — but they understand the dance that is being done. The boss is the boss. Times are different. The baseball life is different.

The more simple life is gone forever.

“I played winter baseball for 22 seasons,” Luis Tiant says. “Not many guys play winter ball now. I was never out of shape. I’d pitch over 200 innings in the big leagues — nobody does that, either. . . .  I’d pitch 175 innings or so in winter ball, depending on how far we would go into the playoffs. So I’d take a week off, maybe two, and I’d be back pitching again.”

“We’d only have 45 guys in camp,” Jim Rice says. “Not like today. So you’d pretty much play seven or nine innings every day while you were down here. That was the way you’d get in shape.”

“I’d pull into Winter Haven, Florida, a week early in my 1962 Chevy,” Bill Lee says. “I’d go out to the field and the first thing I’d do, all by myself, is lie down, feel the sun. I’d bring a football with me, and after a while I’d get up and punt the football. Then I’d run and get the football. Then I’d punt it again. Then I’d run again.”

Come to think of it, he says, the lined football field of today would have been perfect for his workouts. The lines would have told him how far his punts traveled. And how far he ran. He would have felt almost legitimate.

“Would you keep kicking the football when the rest of the team appeared?” the left-handed onetime philosopher is asked.

“Oh, no. I’d put it away. They wouldn’t want to see you kicking a football. You’d get in trouble.”

Leigh Montville is a former sportswriter for The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated and the author of numerous books, including Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero and The Big Bam, a biography of Babe Ruth. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than $1 a week