But, unlike the average couch potato (with extra butter and sour cream, please), the professional baseball player does not require a special New Year's resolution to get into shape. And their plans are not forgotten by February. For the serious ballplayer, preparing one's body is a year-round effort, continuing uninterrupted, even during the times of temptation.
Like thousands of other ballplayers, young men in the Cardinals minor league system have been readying themselves for 2006 competition since that very final inning of the 2005 season went into the record books.
I recently touched base with a representative cross-section of Cardinals prospects - two position players and two pitchers. While the organization provides general directions for each player to follow over the offseason, they all add their own unique twists.
Their approaches vary from yoga and training with a cycling champion, to more traditional methods of lifting, running, hitting and throwing. And, of course, there are other responsibilities to balance during the winter months, too.
Like all the others, Mark Michael, one of the Cardinals top pitching prospects, has a clear plan for his winter. "This offseason, my main concentration is to keep getting stronger and keep on repeating my mechanics. I know my problem is consistency, so I feel I need to perfect that in order to move on up," Michael told me.
Mark shared a bit of his daily winter routine. "My basic day consists of waking up, getting a good breakfast, hitting the gym, then on to work on pitching either by getting reps in, working on the throwing program that was given out by Mark Riggins, or just doing dry work in front of a mirror working on the mechanics."
Of course, the importance of eating right cannot be minimized. Said Michael, "I also fit in meals between the rest. I try to eat the right foods in order to stay in shape throughout the winter."
Conditioning is a key part of Michael's plan, too. "As far as conditioning is involved, I usually do that when I am done working out. I will either do a good two or three mile run or use the basketball court to do some sort of interval training," he said.
Michael sees real value in Minor League Pitching Coordinator Riggins' throwing program and is in the midst of it now. "His throwing program is really good. It starts out with short throwing, then gradually gets longer. It's a nine week program, so all you do is count nine weeks back from the start of spring training. It's a real good guide to get you ready for spring training and it's good that they give us something to follow," Michael explained.
Following the Arizona Fall League and his Team USA play, Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year Travis Hanson returned home to Portland, where he works out with other minor league players from the area. His regular partners include Steve Chamberlain, who pitches for the Kansas City Royals in the minors, and Kory Casto, also like Hanson, was just added to a major league 40-man roster – that of the Washington Nationals. The three played together at the University of Portland before turning pro.
Running is a big part of every ballplayer's preparation, and Hanson is no exception. His new wife is a former professional athlete and is currently a coach, so they hit the road and track together. Hanson also lifts weights at the University.
This winter, Hanson has continued and extended his involvement in the Sports Lab Training Center with Phil Claud, a former professional cyclist and cycling coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Hanson is now sharing his regimen with others in his role as director of the High-Impact Hitting Program at Sports Lab. His program provides one-on-one coaching focused on improving the fundamentals of a player's swing.
Sports Lab also likely provides Hanson a source of extra income. Despite his being added to the Cardinals' 40-man roster this offseason and being in line to attend his first-ever Major League spring training, like other minor leaguers, Hanson is not rolling in the dough. At least not yet.
Speaking of side jobs, I had made an appointment to talk with 2005 20th round draft choice Shaun Garceau. However, I had to wait until he got off work from his part-time job back home in Florida, given a busy schedule not unlike many other 18-year-olds these days.
First and foremost, I had to promise that I would make readers aware that an oft-repeated newspaper report that Garceau had missed his entire senior high school season due to elbow surgery is erroneous and that he has been totally injury-free in his playing days to date.
Still, Garceau was ready for a break after his professional debut. "I took off a month or two following the season. Including my senior year of high school, it was almost a full year of nonstop playing baseball, never quitting. It was my first month off ever – just resting. But, I was still working out. Just not throwing a baseball and giving my arm a rest, especially being a pitcher. I kept on training, working out in the gym; I ran a little bit and I tried to eat better."
Shaun is back to pitching, but on a strict schedule. "Now, I'm getting back into my throwing program - starting by throwing lightly, then 30 pitches in the bullpen and then long toss every day until spring training. They (the Cardinals) give us the throwing program. They mail us with what we should be doing."
"With the program, I am better prepared. I know now what I will need to do in spring training. I work harder now. It is pretty much my job now. It is still fun, but it is my job, too, and I take it seriously," Garceau explained earnestly.
Garceau has some practical goals for next season. "One of my 2006 goals is more consistency in my pitch location – putting it where I want it. Pretty much if you don't, especially with these professional hitters, it won't work out well if you don't get the pitches where you need them. If you make a mistake, they are not here to let it go by. They'll take advantage of you."
Out in California, outfielder Cody Haerther is continuing his 2006 preparation, too. When I asked him about his routine, Haerther told me simply, "It's crazy."
Cody is especially working on getting his balky knee back into shape, as that hampered his play going into the Arizona Fall League. "My knee feels 1000 times better than in the fall. Going from 80 games before, when I had the stress fracture, to this year where I played 110 games or so plus the Fall League, I learned about my body," he explained.
Haerther listed to what his injuries were telling him and knew exactly what to do about it. "I needed to get into a bit better shape. I don't want to miss another game as long as I live because I hate not playing."
His routine this offseason includes a return to a method tried and true. "My very first year, going into Johnson City, I did yoga. And, I didn't get hurt that year at all. I was perfectly healthy. The past two years, I have been hurt and I hadn't done the yoga in the offseason."
Showing a bit of baseball superstition perhaps doesn't bother Cody, because it works for him. "Coincidence or not, I don't know. Maybe it is in the mind or something. But, this year, three days a week, I am doing yoga with Barry Zito and some other big leaguers. It is mainly for pitchers and a few catchers do it for flexibility. I do it for flexibility, too."
Still, Haerther isn't necessarily recommending yoga for everyone. "It's all a preference thing. What works for one person may not work for another. But, I enjoy it."
Of course, Cody is doing a lot more than just yoga. "Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, I hit from 9 to 11 in the morning. And, then I go straight from there to the yoga studio. I get some lunch and go to the gym. So, it gets pretty hectic, Haerther explained.
Haerther is working on his hitting and fielding this winter. "From the local Junior College, I've had the same hitting coach since I was about 12. His name is Joey Arnold. And when they start batting practice, which is next week, then I go out and shag and work on my routes and jumps.
"This year, we have what we call the "Pro Camp", where a lot of minor leaguers come out and hit. It's nice. It has grown to two groups, where we can have one group hit and the other shag. This way, I can get my legs under me, have a throwing program and all that," Haerther said.
Haerther realizes that outfield defense is the weakest part of his game and has set out to address that. "I wasn't so concerned about my defense in my first two years, but now I am. Because now, I know that it is a huge part of my game that needs to improve. Ultimately, I think if I work hard enough on it, I am going to improve. Now I need to concentrate more on my defense and get my defense caught up to where my hitting is. Everyone's goal is to be complete, all-around player. And that is what my goal is."
I asked Cody about his weight training. "When I got back from the Fall League, I was way behind schedule because I was used to working out. I missed two months working out. So, I lifted heavy before, but now it is light weight and a lot of reps to lengthen your muscles.
"It is also precautionary. Spring training is pretty much right around the corner, so you don't want to get hurt. So, you still do it (weights), but you just don't do it as intensively," he explained.
While the 2006 season is underway, Haerther is going to do more than in past years. "This year, I am going to keep up doing it during the season as well, where in the past, I've done it, but maybe once during the week. This time, I am going to do it more because I know the benefits."
Cody is not alone, as many of the minor league teams have facilities for players' use. "In Palm Beach, they have a great gym. Springfield has a gym in there, but they also make outside facilities available. A lot of the teams don't have a strength and conditioning coach. Some organizations do. You can do it on your own."
While his calendar age is still relatively young at 22, Haerther's baseball age is considerably more substantial. To that end, he provides some sage advice. "I've learned as you get older and progress into the higher levels, it is more up to you. It is a matter of how bad you want it – in how much work you are willing to do."
There is no doubt that the effort pays off during the long grind of the baseball season. While Haerther said it, any of the others could have made a similar observation.
"You prepare so much of the offseason because they say, "The offseason is the most important part of your season". The season is almost easier because all you do is go out there and play, as all those things you worked on in the offseason show up."
That is what it is all about. Working hard all winter long to get an edge in which the ultimate measurement will be a successful 2006 campaign on the field of play. That is what is on the mind of these four - and close to 200 other Cardinals prospects, too.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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