CLEARWATER, Fla. - To help the Phillies reach their first postseason since 1993, Pat Gillick hopes to leave no stone unturned.
And fewer doughnuts eaten.
In the off-season, he approached Frank Coppenbarger, the Phillies' equipment and team travel manager, about bringing in a dietitian to evaluate and possibly improve the types of foods and drinks players consume before and after games, and on flights across the country. Gillick thought better nutrition might be another way to keep his players in top physical condition.
And maybe even play better.
"Any way the players think they can get an edge, they're going to go for it," Gillick said. "But I just wanted to see if we could offer a healthier selection to our players. I thought maybe we'd look into it and try to accomplish this."
Susan Ingersoll, the team's director of baseball administration, found registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, who is based in Tampa. Sass visited the clubhouse last week, and players came away impressed.
"We're trying to be at the peak of our performance," righthander Geoff Geary said. "We're trying to find that edge and energy that gives us the strength that will help us in aiding our workouts."
"What we eat is what our body is made of," rightfielder Shane Victorino said. "For me personally, if I can make that little adjustment, it might make my body feel that much better when I'm playing."
The Phillies are taking Sass' suggestions seriously. They voluntarily removed doughnuts, Pop-Tarts, candy bars and nondiet sodas from the clubhouse. (Nobody has complained.) They had her review menus from the restaurants that cater their postgame spreads. They had her meet with Delta Airlines about the food on their chartered flights. They told her what a day on the road in spring training was like. They told her when players arrived for regular-season games and what they typically ate.
"I always argue that this is more important than training," Sass said. "Because if you go into training undernourished, you can't train as hard or as long. If you can't heal from your training, you end up getting weaker instead of stronger. Once they really get that, they really value it. In terms of athletics, this is the cutting edge: nutrition. Not every pro team has a registered dietitian. But the ones that do, we are seeing a difference."
Sass is board-certified as a specialist in sports dietetics, one of just 58 in the country. She said some of her colleagues have worked with World Series and Super Bowl winners.
"The teams that haven't invested the energy in this are at a disadvantage," she said. "And in professional athletics, everybody wants to be on top. It's kind of a back-to-basics thing on one hand, but at the same time it's cutting-edge."
Sass will speak to Phillies minor-leaguers once their camp opens, and later she will visit the big-league club in Philadelphia.
The plan is to have more options like produce in the clubhouse. (Ryan Madson has walked around the clubhouse with a bowl of fruit the last couple of days, offering bananas and apples to his teammates.) There will be more whole grains, including breads, wraps and pastas. There will be more lean protein like chicken and fish, and less ground beef and fried foods. There will be nuts and popcorn instead of chips.
"The players spend a lot more time at the ballpark then they used to 20 years ago," Coppenbarger said. "No team had a weight room. No team had video. All those things are a big part of a player's day now. Now they get there earlier, their days are longer, and they need to eat. It's just a matter of how they eat."
Sometimes, they don't eat well.
In the clubhouse and on flights, foods like candy, chips, cheeseburgers, cheesesteaks and hoagies have been readily available.
But did they eat because they were hungry? Coppenbarger wondered whether some of the food on flights was eaten because players were bored and wanted to kill time. It's kind of like parking yourself at the buffet table during a bad party. Hey, there's nothing else to do. Might as well go Round 6 on the crab cakes.
Sass said she absolutely correlates better nutrition with better athletic performance.
"I think it's a matter of understanding, hey, here's the connection," she said. "Now give it a try. See for yourself if it works. If they see that it does, then immediately it's really just a change of mind-set. When you talk about going into a game already at a disadvantage, no professional athlete wants to do that. So when you put it in those terms, it's like, wow, that really makes sense, it's not something that they have to commit to doing for the rest of their life, but maybe they say, 'I'll give it a try.' If you can just get that little window open, you get an entire change in a team's culture."
"I'm not saying everybody is going to do it," Gillick said. "If it's five, six, seven guys, it's five, six, seven guys we didn't have before, right? But I think for the most part, they bought into it."