Here’s a dirty open secret about minor league ballplayers: They eat just horribly, many of them.
Part of that’s simply just a reflection of age and culture. Think about what you were like at 18, 19, 20, away from home for the first time. Think about the garbage you probably ate. That’s just human nature, the first crack at a life without restrictions. A few years ago, there was even a Tumblr that cataloged tweets by minor leaguers professing their love for Chipotle, of all places. It’s a deadly combination of young men without much money in their pockets — Jeremy Barfield, a seven-year minor league veteran, tweeted in November that he’d made $7,400 before taxes all season — working irregular schedules with intense travel in small towns. It’s a recipe for disaster, or worse, Burger King.
To share just a few publicly-known anecdotes…
Dirk Hayhurst, speaking to Jonah Keri, 2012:
“I’m trying to make it to the big leagues and I couldn’t even afford a gym membership. I remember going to speak at my old high school. Any questions? ‘Yeah, what do you drive?’ A rusted-out Honda Accord that I bought for $1,000 on eBay. You go to the minors, it’s supposed to be so fulfilling. But you have no money, you can’t do anything. It’s a hard reality check to realize how limited you are.”
For minor leaguers, being broke also means subsisting just about entirely on fast food, a curious way for teams to develop finely tuned athletes.
Russell Carleton, Baseball Prospectus, 2012:
Players’ nutrition habits are part of the unseen underbelly of Minor League Baseball. Now, in fairness, it’s not fast food all the time. In talking to a couple people in the know, I learned that sometimes, a team will spring for a post-game spread for the players, although the frequency of these meals varies from organization to organization and even from level to level within a system. But especially on the road, players do end up eating a lot of fast food—in a business where prime physical conditioning is something of a job requirement.
Howard Megdal at Vice, just last fall:
When minor leagues talk about buying healthy food, they usually mention a tough choice between eating adequately and spending beyond their meager per diems. Besides, have you ever attempted to find something healthy to eat in a small town at 1 AM?
“Going to Applebee’s was splurging,” Garrett Broshuis said with a laugh. “I can remember numerous times when I had to make a decision whether I was going to eat someplace like Applebee’s, or eat someplace like McDonald’s. And a minor leaguer has to make that choice day after day after day.”
This is, of course, insane. It’s one thing for college kids to be eating terribly, and it’s another for people who are trying to make an entire career off their physical skills. It doesn’t help them get into a position where they can perform at their best, and it doesn’t help the organization that’s trying to develop assets internally. I’ve often felt — and I’m far from the first one to say this — that simply focusing more on nutrition in the minor leagues is the next frontier for baseball, but as you can see, it never seems to happen. Why? Because it’s hard to show a return on investment to ownership. Because prospects who aren’t on the 40-man aren’t represented by a union that cares about them.
Needless to say, when the Dodgers hired Gabe Kapler last fall, I was extremely excited. Kapler is such a unique presence in baseball, a guy who fully respects and understands advanced statistics and is a noted physical fitness freak, but someone who can also bring a viewpoint that young players will listen to given his decade-long career as a player. Though the Triple-A Isotopes already ate well last year, I’ve been hoping that Kapler’s arrival would lead to better nutrition throughout the system, helping the Dodgers gain any small edge possible.
Earlier this week, Dustin talked to Dodgers prospect Ross Stripling on the Dugout Blues podcast, and the topic came up:
[Kapler] is really helping us out with food. Food is incredibly hard in the minor leagues. You’re pretty much subject to whatever the clubbies can get. Gabe’s going to go out of his way to get better food for us, which is a huge advantage. Nutrition is a huge deal that no one really thinks about, and that can be a huge advantage for us if we’re eating much better than our competitors, it really does create a huge advantage for us.
What we ate for those couple days in LA were some of the best meals I’ve ever had, it was completely fresh food, it was awesome. That would be unbelievable if we could eat like that, it’s probably too expensive to do that, but even something towards that direction would be huge.
I’ve eaten more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the last three years than in my first 22 years, it’s crazy.
He’s right: That is crazy. It seems easy to do better. It seems ludicrous that teams haven’t done better, and now it seems like the Dodgers will. I’m not sure that we’re ever really going to know what impact this sort of thing can have. It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to ever say that Scott Schebler or Julio Urias or Jharel Cotton succeeded or didn’t because of the food they had available.
But then again, that almost seems like it’s beside the point. It’s just straight common sense, isn’t it? Young players fueled by fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins should be in better position to perform than those fueled by Taco Bell. Young men who learn healthy habits early are more likely to retain those habits over their careers and lives. It’s just smart thinking, really, and that’s the entire point of this front office, isn’t it? Smart thinking.