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March 16, 2006
Good Eats
Fad diets are out. Smart carbs and proteins are in. When you're a Major League Baseball player the food you put in your body makes a difference in the way you play on the field.
By Larry Aylward

Chicken and other high-protein dishes are staples of a healthy Major League diet.

Aaron Boone may be known for this clutch hitting, but he enjoys a light-hitting breakfast.

"I'm not one of those off-the-edge guys who watches everything he eats," says the 32-year-old Boone, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 202 pounds. An average breakfast for him would be egg whites, cereal, fruit and an English muffin. "But I try to keep it healthy for the most part."

So do most of the Cleveland Indians players, says Lonnie Soloff, the Tribe's head athletic trainer, in his second season with the team. Soloff and the Tribe's team of fitness experts, including strength and conditioning coach Tim Maxey, have worked hard to educate the players about proper nutrition and a balanced diet and the role both play in their on-the-field performances. Maxey says nutrition and diet have become more vital throughout Major League Baseball. Teams take how nutrition and diet properly fuel players seriously to withstand the rigors of a 162-game season.

"We're finally getting away from the Babe-Ruth-hot-dog-and-a-beer kind of attitude," says Maxey, an Ohio native who's in his third season with the Indians. "Because what players eat and when they eat can directly affect their performances on the field and their recoveries the next day."

Victor Martinez has become a student of the nutrition game and is paying more attention to his diet. That's because the 26-year-old catcher doesn't want a repeat of what happened after the 2003 season.

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When the season ended, Martinez went home to Venezuela, where he promptly packed on 12 pounds in a month. Martinez, who went from 222 pounds to 234 pounds, returned to Cleveland a month later and had to shed that excess weight.

Recently, after a pre-game workout on a hot day, a sweat-drenched Martinez says he's been counting his intake of fat, calories and carbohydrates.

"I've been eating more healthy," says Martinez, who lists grilled chicken, rice, vegetables and salad as a favorite meal. "I need to keep myself healthy for the long season."

That's the kind of talk Soloff and Maxey want to hear from Tribe players. It's not just about eating wisely for a week, they say. It's about eating wisely during the season and in the off-season.

Maxey says the training staff doesn't order players to count calories. Instead, they educate players about the fundamentals of fueling. Maxey advises players to fuel themselves throughout the day with several small-portion meals. Consuming a huge, calorie-concentrated lunch or five-course dinner is ill-advised.

Carbohydrate levels are directly related to proper fueling, allowing players to feel energized during games, Maxey stresses. So food with complex and slower-digesting carbohydrates, such as wheat bread, pasta and rice, are on the menu for players if they're playing eight games in 10 days on the road.

Protein is important to help rebuild players' bodies after a game. "We recommend a variety of protein sources," Maxey says, citing chicken, fish and beef.

Produce, vegetables and fruit are also integral to players' diets to help keep them healthy, Maxey notes. "You have to keep your immune system strong to ward off illness."

Proper fueling begins with breakfast. The Tribe's fitness experts agree with the adage that it's the most important meal of the day.

But getting players to eat breakfast can be a challenge, Maxey admits. Some players are apt to skip breakfast, especially if they sleep late after getting to bed in the wee hours of the morning after a night game.

"What has a tendency to happen is players will eat heavy at night after the game and not eat again until lunch," Maxey says. "If they do that over and over, their metabolisms will slow down and they'll start to accrue body fat. So we encourage breakfast." If players continue to skip breakfast, they will eventually become fatigued, Maxey says. "Then you're setting yourself up not only for illness, but for loss of performance and potential injury."

A good breakfast would include wheat toast, oatmeal, pancakes, low-cholesterol eggs or egg whites and fruit juice, Maxey says. It should not include high-fat food or carbohydrates loaded with sugar, which slow metabolism.

Lunch is also important. The fitness staff tells players to eat lightly. Again, players are advised to avoid food that will make them feel heavy, such as anything fried.

As he does with breakfast, Boone takes the light route for lunch. His typical fare might include a turkey burger, cottage cheese and a bowl of

The pre-game meal is crucial, Soloff says, because it must feature food that will keep players energized during games. Most players eat around 5 p.m. for a 7:05 game. The usual spread includes food high in complex carbohydrates and low in protein. A chicken stir fry with brown or white rice is a popular choice.

After night games, the post-game meal features a healthful mix of food high in protein and carbohydrates as well as salad. Soloff agrees it's not healthful for most people to eat at 11 p.m., but he points out that baseball players usually work the second shift and need to eat at that time.

The fitness staff also works closely with Continental Airlines, which provides the team's charter flights, to serve healthful food while players are traveling.

When players are on the road and eating out, Soloff and Maxey realize they have little control over their habits. While they don't expect players to eat broiled fish and carrots for every meal, they do expect them to eat intelligently. For instance, Soloff knows that "guys like their steaks" and are going to eat them. But Soloff advises players to choose the 18-ounce New York strip rather than the 25-ounce portion.

It's the same thing for players who like to scarf down hamburgers on occasion. That's fine, Soloff says, but he encourages players not to load up their burgers with cheese, mayonnaise and high-fat dressing.

Players are also encouraged to eat during games. If they need an energy boost, there's a good supply of energy bars and sports drinks on the bench.

Proper hydration is vital, especially on hot days. "We have some form of hydration product within arm's reach almost every time a player turns the corner," he adds.

"We advise them to avoid any products if they're not sure of the contents," Soloff notes. And trendy diets, such as Atkin's, are not recommended.

"If you go on a high-fat, high-protein diet with no carbohydrates, you're going to tank big time," Maxey says. "There's no way you'll be able to function over time."

Maxey and Soloff say their jobs are not always easy. They're constantly speaking with players about proper nutrition. "Travel and game times make it difficult to adhere to a complete and sound nutrition program," Maxey says. "It's challenging for the players, but it's our responsibility to make sure they're fueled properly."

"It's impossible to control everything these athletes eat," Soloff adds. "They're grown men. But our approach is to educate them about healthy eating habits."

But Soloff and Maxey say the Tribe's players, many of whom are young, have been receptive to the message because they don't want to "eat themselves out of the league," as the phrase goes.

"Our guys are very cognizant of healthy habits and things that will keep them in the game," Soloff says. Soloff relates a story that reveals how health-conscious Indians players have become. During a losing streak, the training staff set out a box of doughnuts for the players to eat. The idea was to try something different to help end the losing streak (you know how superstitious baseball players can be).

"We figured there might be some hits in those doughnuts," Soloff says. "But the players walked by them, looked at them and walked on through. They know what's good for them."

Taking care of his body has become a priority for Martinez, who weighs a lean 218 pounds. "If you don't take care of yourself, you're going to be out of [the league]," he says.

Maxey says Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro is in tune with the team's nutritional approach.

"Mark walks the talk," Maxey says. "He has always been on the cutting edge with nutrition."

Maxey says it's priceless to have a leader of the organization acting as a health-conscious Pied Piper of sorts. Players notice it and it sticks with them. Speaking of which, Boone says his teammate Travis "Pronk" Hafner has been fixated on his greens lately.

"Pronk is getting crazy with his broccoli," Boone relates. "Someone told him broccoli is good, which it obviously is, and Pronk has to have broccoli with everything. Every time he orders lunch on the road, he'll say, 'Can I get broccoli with that?' " Somewhere, Soloff and Maxey are toasting each other with glasses of fruit juice.