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Healthy diet now a staple of ballplayers' regimen

In the dining area of the home clubhouse at Great American Ball Park, the food is plentiful.

There's a salad bar, a fruit section, scores of nuts and a fridge full of yogurt. In the back, where the kitchen is located, Tony Walter, the clubhouse attendant in charge of food and meals, offers a glimpse of a typical postgame meal for the contending Cincinnati Reds. The selection is something you'd find at a fancy wedding reception: tenderloin, stuffed salmon, boiled asparagus, baked potato and shrimp with pasta.

A special occasion? Nah. Just a typical day in the life of a Major League ballplayer, to whom health and optimum physical condition are key, and where scores of support staff are available to help them stay on course.

Players have been disciplined in the weight room for a couple of decades, but dietary habits are still evolving. Judging from the clean living taking place inside the clubhouse walls these days, it appears most players are accepting the idea that what they put in their bodies over long periods of time can directly affect their performance on the field.

Good carbs. Bad carbs. Good fats. Bad fats. Who can keep track? Teams started asking themselves that very question less than a decade ago. Today, clubhouse chefs and team nutritionists can be found on nearly every Major League staff, and they have the answers.

It's all about balance and discipline.

"Guys are starting to realize what you eat reflects how you play and feel," said Nationals infielder Chad Tracy. "If you get tired or headaches or you get bloated or gassy ... guys are getting smarter about it. They want the good food now. I think the players have really pushed for this for a while, and especially some of the guys that do keep tabs on what they put in their bodies."

Snacks and munchies are still available in most clubhouses, but not to the extent they were 10 years ago. Finding candy and potato chips is a little more difficult, whereas peanuts, almonds, walnuts, Greek yogurt, fruit and salads are readily available upon entry into the clubhouse lunchrooms.

"Snack stuff is there and always will be there, kind of a grab-and-go," Walter said. "It's just the offerings have expanded."

* * * * *

This was definitely not the standard once upon a time.

"We had some bologna and packages of cheese and some mustard," said D-backs manager Kirk Gibson, who starred for the Tigers and Dodgers through the 1980s. "What's more, players were discouraged from bringing any food -- healthy or otherwise -- into the clubhouse.

"So we had to have the clubhouse boy sneak out and get us some hot dogs. When I played for the Tigers, they had some pretty good hot dogs. You had to kind of sneak that as well."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly -- the popular Yankees first baseman from a generation ago -- remembered "cold cuts and a candy rack" in visitors' clubhouses during his playing days. And like Gibson, he, too, had to sneak a few things at home.

"[George] Steinbrenner didn't like Wendy's and McDonald's wrapper bags in there," Mattingly said. "But we had to eat. You've got to eat."

Going further back to the 1960s, Davey Johnson -- an Oriole and Brave for the bulk of his career in the 1960s and '70s and now the Nationals manager -- laid it out in even simpler terms.

"Cheese. Crackers. Beer," he said.

Incidentally, all three now work for some of the more proactive teams in terms of new-age clubhouse nutrition. The D-backs are into everything from the basics -- like healthy shakes, fruit and organic foods -- to the funky -- such as alkaline water, which supposedly has positive effects on one's pH balance.

Count Gibson -- the definition of the hard-nosed, blue-collar bulldog player during his era -- as one who's on board with today's healthier lifestyle.

"The more you know, the more you get educated about it. It's better for you, it makes you feel better," Gibson said. "Nutrition, I think, has a lot to do with their recovery from tonight's game to the next game you're going to play. We just kind of take the direction of our trainers and strength-and-conditioning guys. They really researched it and initiate that in our clubhouse."

Same goes for Johnson's Nats, even if the skipper doesn't really subscribe to the theory for himself.

"I'm a meat-and-potatoes man," he said. "And I like iceberg lettuce. My wife has been trying to change me over to all this green stuff. He's pushing me in the direction my wife's trying to take me. I don't have a weight problem. So we're at odds."

The "he" Johnson was referring to is Faisal Sultani, a trained chef who owns and operates his own business "Clubhouse Cuisine" and has a seasonal contract as the Nationals' personal chef.

Trained at a culinary school in New York, Sultani is in his second season with the Nats. The club was looking to get healthier, to encourage players to eat a more controlled diet and eliminate as many processed foods as possible. Sultani, who makes everything from scratch, was viewed as a good fit.

"Sports culinary is one of the last untapped markets," he said. "Teams are now starting to really look at food as everything. You want the best performance and the least amount of injuries, and if you eat garbage, your body is inflamed the whole time. From that inflammation, you get injured. You definitely want to treat them right and give them the best."

Everything Sultani prepares is top shelf and made from the highest-quality ingredients.

"I really do believe food is everything," Sultani said. "You don't want to put bad gas in your car. You want the engine to run well. I really want to give them the best, the freshest. And just continue with variety."

The concept is not lost among the players. Nationals players understand they're living the good life during homestands, where not a single day passes without an opportunity to eat a well-balanced gourmet meal, regardless of what they're doing before they arrive to work.

"To me, it's like we have a five-star restaurant right in our clubhouse," pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. "If you miss out on lunch, you have one of the best chefs in baseball in our clubhouse."

Sultani -- known by the players as simply "Bear" -- has a nearly flawless record when it comes to dishes well-received by the masses. But he's not quite batting 1.000. In two years, Sultani can remember two meals that were one-and-done; meaning, he made it once, and once was enough.

One was a rustic Italian dish: braised beef rolled with a little bit of stuffing, fontina cheese and prosciutto, which was cooked in tomato sauce with peppers and onions.

And polenta.

That last part was a problem.

"They didn't like the polenta," Sultani said.

On the Internet, polenta is defined this way: cornmeal boiled into a porridge.

Really, what's not to like?

"That kind of freaked them out," Sultani said. "Then they look at the beef, and that kind of freaked them out. So I made a lot of hamburgers that day."

The other swing and miss: Coq au vin. In layman's terms: stewed chicken in red wine sauce.

Well ...

"They were like, 'Why is it so red and brown?' I told them, 'This is Coq au vin,'" Sultani said.

Well, was Coq au vin. Rest in peace, Coq au vin.

Otherwise, Sultani's menu options have received rave reviews. Chicken parmesan is always a crowd pleaser, even the healthier version Sultani uses. Players like stew, grilled chicken breasts with sliced avocado and sliced tomatoes and, of course, there's always the standard sandwiches and wraps.

Sultani tries to keep fried foods out of the equation, although from time to time, he'll throw in something a little sinful, just to keep things interesting. That's usually met with the same reaction a high school kid has when his parents go out of town.

"Once in a while, we'll just blow it out and say, 'There's chicken fingers for a snack,'" Sultani said. "And everyone's cheering. It's pretty amusing."

For the most part, the players are on board with the fried-free meal plan, especially as the summer months continue and a contending team's endurance is tested in August and September.

"If you can save a percent here or a percent there in a season on your body and keep the muscle you worked hard to gain in the offseason ... they add up to 15 or 20 percent in September," Tracy said. "You're coming down the stretch, maybe 20 percent stronger than maybe the guy who isn't."

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In truth, you don't have to go back to Gibson and Mattingly's era to find a time when nutrition wasn't a priority. Current veteran Major Leaguers remembered those days, too.

Bronson Arroyo, the 36-year-old starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, recalled his peers embracing a different lifestyle just a little over a decade ago when he was breaking into the big leagues with the Pirates.

"If you jumped in the shower with half the team back in 2000, there was probably a beer on every other soap dish in the shower," he said. "Now you never see a beer after the game. You never see anybody smoking a cigarette. The evolution of this game in the last 15 years has been amazing in a lot of ways and definitely in nutrition."

Arroyo grew up in a moderately health-conscious household, mostly void of sodas and processed foods, so while he isn't "OCD about it," he embraces the healthier lifestyle of today's ballplayers. While naturally slender, he does buy into the notion that improved eating habits have helped his peers maintain longevity in this game.

"The days of drinking soda and Red Bull and all those types of things and boosting people's blood sugar, people don't realize how terrible it is for you when the insulin gets dumped in," Arroyo said. "There's so many misnomers out there that teams are really taking this stuff seriously. They're pumping a lot of money into us as players as time goes on. They want us to last as long as possible."

Generally, there appears to be a 70-30 ratio among those responsible for the health and welfare of ballplayers when it comes to healthy eating: A well-balanced non-processed regimen is preferred 70 percent of the time, but there needs to be a little wiggle room so that outside cravings don't become a problem.

"Every once in a while, it's OK to cheat," said White Sox director of conditioning Allen Thomas. "It's OK, because if not, you're going to fail. Every once in a while, if they get a burger, that's fine. It's our job as strength-and-conditioning professionals to just say, 'Hey. You can afford the $10 burger.' The ones with leaner meat instead of the McDonald's drive-through. There's a lot of avenues to take on it."

Sultani had a near-identical assessment.

"Everyone craves a cheeseburger once in a while," he said. "It's 70 percent healthy and you have to throw them a bone once in a while. To make sure they don't leave here unsatisfied, if they're not getting what they want to go to McDonald's or go eat fast food."

Same goes for Rangers strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez.

"Just 70-30," Vazquez said. "Seventy healthy and 30 every now and then ... burgers, pizza, stuff like that. We try to mix it up. It can't be too healthy, because otherwise, they're not going to eat anything."

That's good news for veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski, 36, who admitted he misses some of the indulgences of the old days. And if he wants them, he knows where to find them -- away from the ballpark.

"I'm a grown man," Pierzynski said. "If I want to go out and get candy bars, I can stop at the store. They just don't want to make it readily available here. I miss candy. I always get on [Vazquez] about it. I want ice cream and candy. I always make fun of our chefs at home, because there's no fat in our food."

Ultimately, though, Pierzynski does get it.

"Guys are definitely healthier now," he said. "They're definitely in better shape now than they were when I first came up. Guys now know more. They know more about how to take care of their bodies. They start at a younger age in how to prepare for a season."

And if they really have a strong craving, they just have to wait for a road trip. Charter flights have gotten healthier, but the temptations are still there.

"I try not to go back there so I don't see them eating cookies," Vazquez said. "It was a battle to change the food in the clubhouse. You have to pick your battles."

* * * * *

While most of the general population that eats healthy does so as to not put on weight, professional athletes are different. They have to maintain certain eating habits so they don't lose too much weight, an issue that can become a problem for a lot of them as the season wears on. Not enough of the right foods just exacerbates the issue.

"Their pants are starting to fall off of them, and they're wondering what they can do to try to keep some of that weight on," Tracy said. "The biggest thing is eating and eating the right stuff."

Even the athletes known for having stout builds have to watch it, too.

"You have to be careful," Red Sox veteran slugger David Ortiz said. "The next thing you know, you start losing energy, power, a lot of weight. We play a lot of games. People don't realize we play almost 200 games a year, without counting playoffs. Forty in Spring Training, 162 in season ... you've got to keep yourself together after that many games."

The best way to do that seems to have a lot to do with simple common sense. And less gorging.

"We're always having a protein and a decent vegetable and mixing in enough carbs and fats to keep us going," Arroyo said. "Some guys don't all follow a strict regimen. At this level, there's nothing mandatory that they can make us do. But you definitely see two-thirds of a locker room of guys who are very health conscious."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.