Offseason? What offseason? The grind never stops at the game's top level
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
"This is a simple game," the manager asserts during a legendary shower tirade in Bull Durham. "You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. You got it?"
In reality, it's much more complex than that. Baseball success can be fleeting, and any day that you're not working is a day that you're letting your competitors get ahead. "Listen, 99 percent of the guys that make it to the Big Leagues have a tremendous work ethic," said Yankees third baseman Chase Headley. "There's a select few guys that are so talented, they can get away with slacking. But there's not many guys like that."
Between Spring Training, the regular season and -- should they be so lucky -- the postseason, baseball players spend almost nine months under the strongest of microscopes. And when they retreat out of the spotlight, what do they do? Mostly, they prepare to start Spring Training again. Steve Donohue, the team's head athletic trainer, puts it bluntly, if somehow apologetically: "There's no offseason now."
"If you were to come in and not do anything all offseason, it's going to show," Jacoby Ellsbury said. "The coaches, the first day, they can see who's been working, who hasn't been, who's really put time in and who hasn't put time in."
As far as the Yankees' medical and training staff is concerned, the 2017 season actually began on Oct. 3, 2016, the day after the club played its final game. Before sending the players off for the winter, Donohue -- along with director of strength and conditioning Matt Krause, head team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad and their staffs -- met to discuss each player on the roster and to help develop a plan for their offseason training. They presented it to the player in an exit interview, said goodbye and then could only rely on hope and faith. See you in February. Please take care of yourself.
"From the end of the season, for about the next three weeks, we tell people to be more leisurely," Krause said. "Ride the bike, go for a swim. But nothing structured. Take some time."
Some players, especially as they get older, take a bit longer before the real work starts up again. But the rest is important, both mentally and physically, "just to kind of reset," Headley said. "Let the body heal up and get as far away from baseball as I can. Every year when I get home, the first week, I get sick. Every year. I don't know if that's the body being used to doing something every day and getting out of its routine and shutting down, but it seems like I deal with that every year."
After just a few weeks of taking it easy, though, the work begins anew. While there are general norms that the team expects, each player's offseason is unique. The goal is to find a happy medium between what the player wants, what his personal trainer suggests and what the Yankees want. "At the end of the day," Krause said, "we always want to do what's best for the player."
When the Yankees reconvene in Tampa, Fla., each player arrives having adhered to his own tailor-made offseason training regimen. Here's a look at three in particular:
Heading out to meet Jacoby Ellsbury in January, driving in uncertain circles on North Phoenix service roads and parking lots, the whole thing seems impossible, a rare letdown from an otherwise-dependable GPS app. Could this world-famous gym really be in one of these small strip-mall storefronts?
Uh, no. The whole thing becomes funny once we get our bearings and find the right place. You could probably see this facility from the International Space Station.
While Ellsbury's offseason routine features a variety of disciplines, from boxing to yoga to pilates, his primary work takes place at the EXOS facility, a massive complex that seems like a factory designed to produce perfect athletic bodies. Ellsbury works with the baseball players on one side of the gym, while on the other, NFL prospects train for the Combine. Between reps, many of the baseball players gawk at Brad Kaaya -- the former University of Miami QB who had declared for the draft just a few days earlier -- throwing on the field outside.
The Yankees outfielder showed up today at about 9 a.m. and immediately got to work stretching and using a foam roller. Then he joined his baseball counterparts in the main gym, surrounded by high-end Keiser pneumatic workout machines. The group has more than a few All-Star appearances to its credit, with familiar faces like Edwin Jackson, Miguel Montero and Andre Ethier working together on core exercises. Ellsbury pairs up with AL East contemporary Evan Longoria of the Rays, each taking turns offering resistance while the other shuffles a few paces, then picks up a heavy ball and whips it at the wall. The rotation exercises help the guys build a bit of a sweat before the lifting routine begins.
"Today was a little bit more developing the horsepower and the strength in the weight room, and then putting that to use in conditioning, as well," said Eric Dannenberg, a performance manager and coach at EXOS, who walks around the outside field barefoot, his long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. "We focus on mobility, stability, total body integration, so everything's connected and working together."
Inside the gym, the players consult their own routines, which are printed in their personalized folders. They work with pulleys, a rotational push/pull exercise that mimics a baseball swing, but with about 30 to 40 pounds of resistance. For the most part, they are working independently, each one doing his own thing. There's no yelling; the coaches just walk around offering instruction and assistance as the guys work on weighted knee-lifts. But you get the impression that the music blasting through the room is selected based on careful scientific research into the optimal beats and rhythm for muscle growth. Everything at EXOS is regimented and perfect, and the goal -- fine-tuning athletes to prepare them to perform -- is always obvious.
By working with the players he's going to be facing in just a few months, Ellsbury is able to keep his aggressive fire engaged. "I love competition. It doesn't matter what it is," he said. "It fuels you to see everybody working hard."
But EXOS offers Ellsbury more than just a big, clean gym. It's a one-stop shop for his entire offseason. Everyone in the program also works with dieticians and nutritionists, and there's a restaurant on site from which players can order food specifically calibrated to their own nutrition plan. Before every workout, the players get a quick shooter of vitamins, and when their routine is over for the day, there's a shake waiting for them, filled with oils and nutrients that the dieticians select. (The players, though, choose the flavors -- Ellsbury enjoys a vanilla vegan shake with strawberries and blueberries.)
Erika Sharp, a director of nutrition for pro and elite sports at EXOS, works to suggest the healthy foods and proper macronutrients that the players need. If their muscles are inflamed, for example, she'll suggest fish oils, salmon or cherries. It's a constantly evolving track of keeping the player healthy through the offseason and into the real meat of the year. "It's not a diet plan," she said. "It's a fueling plan. Nutrition is a part of the methodology here."
After finishing with the weights, the group heads back out to the fields for a series of sprints to close out the workout. "You have to push your body to stay at a high level," Ellsbury said. "The one thing I can control is my work ethic and what I'm doing in the weight room. When I'm working hard, when I get to Spring Training, I feel confident knowing that I put the time in."
The mental benefits that Ellsbury mentions ring true to his teammate, third baseman Chase Headley. No slouch himself in the weight room, and with a distinguished career already to his name, Headley realizes that it's exercising his brain that makes for a truly successful offseason, much more so than any number of reps or sets.
"I think the mental side is probably more important than the physical side," he said. "I've always felt that if I didn't work out, there would be questions in my mind about whether I'm really ready to go through the season. It's long and difficult, and you have to put in the work to get ready."
He went into the offseason with a target report weight of 215, and by mid-January, he's pretty content with how it's going. During a visit to New York, Headley works out at Yankee Stadium, away from his usual crew at Chadwick's Fitness in Franklin, Tenn., where he toils with Big Leaguers such as Logan Forsythe and Ben Zobrist. He'll have no trouble getting motivated today working alongside teammates CC Sabathia and Matt Holliday, but whether he's in New York or Tennessee, he sees a lot of value in working with training partners.
"The trainer is more just there to watch, make sure that I'm doing the lifts properly, doing the day-to-day grind of actually writing the workout," Headley said. "But for me, honestly, it's working out with guys that are in similar stages in their careers, and to see how hard they're working. That's the motivation to make me push, as well.
"It's just nice to have somebody else in the same stage, and you see what they're doing."
The whole program is more self-led, less rigid than Ellsbury's. That goes for the nutrition, too. Headley has his breakfasts and lunches delivered to his gym by a company that creates specialty meals for athletes, but Headley, himself, is more focused on putting good, nutritious food into his body than he is on supplemental macronutrients and the like.
Headley maintains a pretty standard Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday schedule. He does his baseball routine first, throwing and then taking about 25 swings from both sides off a tee, then hits about the same number of soft flips. He's just starting to ramp up his live BP, and as he gets closer to reporting to Tampa, the number of swings off the tee and the flips will decrease, and the live pitches will increase. "Right now," he said, "I'm trying to build some healthy habits."
After the baseball section, he gets down to business in the weight room. He's in the strength phase of the routine now -- higher weight, fewer reps. Today, he focuses on lower-body push movements and upper-body pull movements; tomorrow, he'll reverse it. In all, the workout goes from about 8:30 a.m. until about noon or 1 in the afternoon. "You're definitely glad that it's over," he said.
Nikki Metzger, a Nike Master Trainer, barks at her victim for the day, Rob Refsnyder.
"You love it!" she screams. "This is way more fun than your strength and conditioning with the Yankees! It's more fun getting your butt kicked by a girl!"
Metzger is the owner of a boutique gym in Scottsdale, Ariz., called BODI, and she's also a natural repository of caffeine. Refsnyder is alone in her torture chamber today, running through a high-intensity workout that involves a short warm-up, then six stations of quick-burst exercises that are painful to watch. At one stage, while Refsnyder assumes a push-up position, sweat pours from his forehead down to the black floor. "I'm trying to challenge him so that his endurance is getting up, so he can react quickly to things," Metzger said. "Everything we're working with him on in the offseason is more like his speed and agility. Just kind of really going into that true athletic training."
Refsnyder does his best to laugh and crack jokes (when he can catch his breath). No matter how miserable he feels, he's clearly buying in. And in fairness, he did choose to suffer in this way.
"High-intensity training has always been kind of my arch-nemesis," Refsnyder said. "I'm not very good at it, so it's good trying to mix it in. It's good mentally. You definitely want to quit at a lot of different points of it, and the workouts are tough, so you're trying to get an extra rep or push yourself to the next level, and Nikki does a really good job with that."
All the exercises are four reps of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, so Refsnyder barely has time to think. He starts with a ball slam, picking up a heavy ball on one side, arcing it over his head, then slamming it to the other side. He'll follow that with the Arnold Press, lifting 25-pound weights from his chest above his head. The exercises continue at a blistering pace -- stations like a heavy rope wave, a box jump, a rotational toss with a medicine ball and other such work. Breathing heavily, Refsnyder looks to the camera crew filming him work and laughs, "Yankees fans, do you want an exclusive look at Refsnyder throwing up after one of Nikki's workouts?"
This type of workout isn't an everyday thing -- it's a change-up, something that Refsnyder does to supplement his other work, which includes more standard classes, yoga, weight training and baseball drills. Ellsbury suggested that Refsnyder join him at EXOS, but the 25-year-old didn't think that he could make the Rolls Royce workout facility fit into his compact-car budget. Clearly, however, that's not stopping him from going all out.
"I felt like I didn't really deserve too much of an offseason," the perfectionist Refsnyder said. "I wasn't really happy with the way I played, so I think I took like two weeks off, and then I really didn't take too much off with nutrition and stuff like that. I think it's kind of a sink-or-swim year for me in my career. I think you try to put that pressure on yourself every year."
When it's all over, Refsnyder lays on his back on the floor, his grey shirt darkened by a wicked sweat. This might not be the offseason vacation he envisioned when he dreamed about being a professional baseball player, but he understands the value. "It's not all sports cars and luxury things," he said. "It's a lot of hard work, and you sacrifice a lot of things you would like to enjoy. I'd love to have a cheeseburger right now, and a cold beer, or a soda or something, but I'll probably go home and have a piece of grilled chicken and a salad.
"You only have a small window to be as successful as you can and make the most of it. You'll never regret putting the work in."
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.