One of the interesting things that came out of my chat with Blake Beavan this morning was a story he relayed to me about his father. Turns out dad had played some college hoops in his day and is a pretty big guy who knows about working out.
Anyhow, here’s what father half-kiddingly said to son late last year.
“He told me, maybe when you turn 23, you’ll get your ‘Man Strength’,” Beavan said. “He’d always tell me I had little boy strength. Well, now I’m 23, so I guess maybe I’m getting there. I want to believe my Dad. Maybe I’m getting my man strength, finally.”
And that’s when it hit me.
Beavan Sr. had hit upon the very phrase I’ve been looking for going on several years to describe the process in which young major leaguers become men. I’ve used words like “maturation process” and “becoming a pro” to describe it.
But it’s usually a physical and mental combination.
We’ve all seen it, where younger draft picks finally lose their baby fat and put on the kind of physique you’d expect would seriously differentiate them from the average guy in the street. Where that happy-go-lucky look of just being glad to be in the majors gets replaced by the steely-eyed toughness required to stay there.
That doesn’t mean every player has to look like King Kong, since even great athletes can be born into more slender frames. It doesn’t mean a guy can’t have fun on the field, or must be a grouch all the time, either. But there is a time and place to get serious, especially when your career could be riding on it.
Go shake Steve Delabar’s hand and you get the feeling he can crush yours like a grape. Try arm-wrestling Miguel Olivo and you’ll feel like your UCL is torn for the next week. And Olivo still managed to go out and drop 15 pounds this winter while maintaining his strength.
It won’t make Delabar into Mariano Rivera, or Olivo into Johnny Bench. But you get the feeling they are maxing out physically to where they need to be and therefore, whatever talent they have to offer up won’t be getting cheated.
You see an item out of New York today on Michael Pineda weighing 280 and admitting he needs to lose 10 pounds? Yeah, he could probably do with a little more work dropping the baby fat. Getting his man strength.
Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, like David Wells or C.C. Sabathia, both of whom have said they perform better with added girth. But why tempt fate by trying to buck the odds? And this isn’t only about trimming fat, it’s about taking your conditioning and strength and endurance and focus to that elite level that’s better than everybody else in your street corner gym.
Let’s face it, if you can’t get your physical act together, where is the mental stuff going to come from? How many first-rounders have we seen flame out around the game — or just in the Seattle organization — because they just couldn’t produce when it was on the line? These guys all have talent. But it takes mental toughness to flip that switch when you need to. The smart players figure that out quickly: that it doesn’t matter how sick, injury-prone, or bad-luck-ridden you are, or how unfair the game has been to you. You only get a certain number of chances and that’s it.
The quicker you figure that out and get your body in top, physical shape by shedding your baby fat so that your mind can be free to think like a seasoned pro, the better your chances of succeeding at a difficult game.
Believe me, after 15 seasons of watching MLB up close, it gets easier to tell who the drivers are versus the passengers. Gets easy to see the guys hitting the gym the way you or I might do it, versus the ones paying big bucks to attend elite physical training institutes.
You can tell which guys are fighting for their professional lives out there versus the ones who expect that something better will always be sitting around the corner just waiting for them to bump into it.
Part of it might be the team’s fault. I mean, who was kidding who last year when the team marveled at Franklin Gutierrez having less body fat than Ichiro when camp opened? Um, yeah, the fact he was sick probably had something to do with it.
You look at Gutierrez today and he’s a different human being on the outside. Different than even three years ago when he wasn’t sick. He was still a slender, lean muscled kid back then. Now, he looks like some Man Strength may have been found. Looks like someone has instilled a sense of urgency in him, as fair or unfair as his plight may have been.
So, yeah, I like this whole “Man Strength” term. Because I can tell you, listening to Eric Wedge this spring, over the winter and late last season, you could see he definitely wanted some of his boys to gain some man strength. To shed the baby fat. To make themselves look visibly different from the average dude in the street.
You could see Mount Wedge about to blow last year when too many of his players — mostly young, but some older guys too — began fading fast as August rolled on. All the young “kids” that some Seattle fans gushed about and the older players who’d been carrying the team much of the year went out and hit the wall collectively. It wasn’t pretty. It was 15 strikeouts per game at the end, some bad glove play in the field and a ton of losses that piled up between the first week of July and final week of September.
Has it changed? I don’t know. This is where the talk has to stop and the action has to begin.
What I can tell you is that the Mariners visibly look to be much better conditioned as a group overall. Anyone can write weight-loss stories or tell muscle-building tales on an individual basis in spring training.
I’m as sick of those types of stories — unless legitimately warranted, like a Mike Carp body transformation in 2011 — as you are. But this is different, because we’re talking about a team-oriented shift. One ordered up by Wedge when he probably got tired of thinking he could take about 80 percent of his squad into a dark alley one-on-one and get the better of them in a fistfight.
That should never be the case with a 42-year-old manager and a roomful of major league baseball players in their 20s and early 30s.
But this is what it looked like last year. The “kids” were here to play and they were kids. The older guys were here, too, and looked like they’d run out of gas at the all-star break.
That had to change. For what it’s worth, last year wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it. I’ve seen a lot of too-skinny, or bad-body young guys parade through this clubhouse the past several seasons.
It’s one thing for a 43-year-old sportswriter like myself to walk around knowing I could lose another 10 pounds if I gave up my love of red wine. Quite a different story if you’re a 20-something professional athlete getting paid six or seven figures to perform with that same body. At that point, you give up the wine and lose the fat. Or, you moderate the wine and train that much harder and longer with a serious pro who can help you get the body you want while having a drink with dinner.
You’d be surprised how many pro ballplayers don’t really get this idea the full 100 percent. How many of them don’t completely grasp how this is now their full-time job and that it will sometimes involve huge sacrifices in how they’ve lived up to this point.
It sounds easy. But it isn’t. I sometimes catch myself sitting here and wondering whether I could ever make those sacrifices and truly train the way these guys all need to be training and gearing up their minds. I suppose I could for seven figures. But it’s not quite as easy as it all sounds. It’s hard work. But so is getting up every morning and going to the factory for minimum wage. Nothing comes easy, and when boys become men in this world, they figure it out.
Right now, the Mariners as a group are looking like they are in better shape. And that’s half the battle. You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but you’re cheating yourself if you go at things with only 65 percent of your physical capabilities.
Not just bench-press strength, either. We’re talking endurance. How many of these guys can run a six-minute mile with all of their muscle? How many can run three six-minute miles in one shot?
When Roger Clemens was with the Yankees, I ran into his trainer, Brian McNamee, who I knew from Toronto days, in a hotel bar. This is back when those two were still on speaking terms and not filling up TMZ air time and McNamee told me he had The Rocket running a seven-minute mile. Clemens was in his late 30s and went about 230 pounds in those days, so that wasn’t a bad time. But I figure if he could do that, most of the game’s middle infielders should be able to approach six minutes. Heck, I know sportswriters who can run a six-minute mile. A professional athlete should be able to. But not all of them can. Not all of them train hard enough to do it.
Some of them run out of gas midway through a season.
But even the ones who do train well don’t always get to that next level right away. Some are just too young and are still maturing physically. Or, they don’t do the right diet combination to go with the exercise.
There’s training and then there’s real, serious training. Look at an older major leaguer who’s been around and they have that hardened look. They have the grip of someone who’s done what it takes to survive in this game.
You can just tell.
And now, thanks to Beavan, I have a name for it. We’ll call it Man Strength.
Let’s hope the Mariners found theirs this winter. The quicker they do, the quicker the kids will become men and we can all look forward to something other than 95 losses per season.