The Guide to Getting Old Man Strength

A little while ago, I did something that made a lot of people scratch their heads: I decided to try out to play professional football.

Semi-professional football, to be exact, with the Orlando Phantoms of the Florida Football Alliance. Why were people scratching their heads? Well, I think I know why.

When the conversation comes up about which professional athletes might successfully cross over and play football, 39-year-old pitchers probably aren’t at the top of the list. Add to that the fact that I hadn’t played football in almost 25 years, and I’ll be honest — I wouldn’t have been too high on my chances to pan out, either.

But what not a lot of people realized is that I had always wanted to play professional football. I just never had the chance. And so when I got released by the Astros last year, I thought, Why not? I’ll give it a shot. I didn’t want to look back and wish I would have. The chance to play football was a big draw for me to go to the tryout for the Phantoms.

That said, the opportunity to play football wasn’t the whole draw for me. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to try out was actually to test myself from a fitness perspective.

Throughout my career, I have taken a lot of pride in debunking the notion that baseball players aren’t fit. Both from a personal and professional perspective, fitness has been incredibly important to me. And after all these years, I wanted to see just how well I would hold up in a sport where the fitness of its players is never questioned.

When I got to tryouts, nobody knew what I did or who I was. I am sure they were thinking to themselves, “Who’s this crazy old man out here?” But then we started to play… and I just trusted my fitness to do the work. And it did. It turned out I could hang. Don’t get me wrong — the guys were definitely still thinking, “Who’s this crazy old man?” But it was clear that now they were also thinking, “Hey, this crazy old man is doing a pretty good job.”

By the end of tryouts, my athleticism had turned into a running topic of conversation. Everyone was trying to solve the mystery of what I did in my “past life.” CrossFit? Basketball? Obscure Olympian? I started getting nicknames — NASCAR was one of them. Why NASCAR? Because as a defensive end, I was able to get around the corner on the tackle so fast. Not bad for an old man, right?

Eventually, the jig was up, and everyone found out who I was, and what I had been doing for the past 20-plus years. And they were pretty impressed. But also surprised — which says a lot, I think, about the stigma that exists around the idea of fitness in baseball.

Is the stigma warranted?

Well — yeah.

I’ll admit it. On the whole, baseball players are not as fit as athletes in the other major team sports.

That isn’t a knock on baseball players. It’s just the nature of the game, and of what it demands. Baseball isn’t, and never will be, a sport where the strongest, fastest person necessarily wins. In baseball, simply put, there is a lot of “other stuff.” Of course, most of that “other stuff” is what makes baseball so great. But some of it, inevitably, involves sitting or standing around. There is just a lot of time in baseball where players aren’t — and don’t need to be — active.

And yet, at the same time, fitness does help. In fact, I would say that fitness plays a much larger role in the successes and failures of baseball players than the casual fan has been led to believe. Are you going to make an All-Star team on fitness alone? Of course not. But being in the best shape possible can still do wonders for your career.

I am living proof of that.

I was a 47th-round draft pick, and the odds were against me of having a big-league career from the start. But — 16 years and 893 MLB pitching appearances later — I think I can say that I bucked those odds pretty good.

Oh, and I also played some football games.

I made the team.

Here, two decades into my career, are four essential tips that I’ve picked up along the way — the “hidden” ways that I’ve used fitness to gain an edge:

1. Adapt and anticipate

One of the biggest fitness lessons I’ve learned is that you have to be able to adapt. As a result, my workout regimen has changed a lot over the years. In fact, it literally has changed from year to year. To some people, that might seem extreme. But the reason it changes so often is simple: because the body does too.

A huge part of being able to adapt is being able to anticipate. You don’t have the same body at 30 as you did at 25 — and you definitely don’t have the same body at 35 as you did at 30. That may sound pretty fundamental, but you’d be surprised how hard it is for many athletes to accept — either as a future that’s in store for them, or as a present reality. For a lot of guys, it takes an injury for them to listen to their body. And by then, it’s often too late.

Quick story: There was a time, earlier in my career, when my shoulder was hurting pretty badly. And I tried everything I could think of to fix it. And I mean everything. But eventually, I realized that the only way to alleviate the pain would be to change my arm angle. If you know pitching, you know that this is a very big deal — your arm angle is a significant part of what you do as a pitcher. To change it is basically to overhaul your entire mechanics and release point.

And I think that a lot of guys, if faced with a decision between playing through pain and making that change, would opt for the status quo. Especially if they were playing well, like I was at the time. The thinking in sports, in general, tends to be reactive rather than active. But I went ahead, preemptively, and made the change. Basically went back to the drawing board, and built myself a new arm angle from scratch so that I could pitch pain-free.

It was daunting, for sure — and on some level I was nervous about messing with a good thing. But like I said: The body changes. And as an athlete, you have to change with it. You have to anticipate, and adapt. Who knows what would have happened if I had attempted to pitch through that pain. It could have been nothing. Or it could have resulted in an injury that ended my career.

I take pride in the fact that I never had to find out.

2. Be strong, but be flexibly strong

It’s hard to overstate how important both strength and flexibility are for success in baseball — and how much they go hand-in-hand.

One of the running themes you’ll find in this piece is that, when it comes to fitness in baseball, a lot of people confuse “can” and “will.” Can you play baseball at the highest level without focusing on strength? Yes. Will you? Probably not.

For the vast majority of pitchers especially, strength training is an essential component to being able to max out their potential on the baseball field. The guys who are able to reach the majors without it are the very rare exceptions — the “freaks,” so to speak. But trust me: from injury-prevention, to recovery, to, most importantly of all, performance — strength matters.

And flexibility, while less glamorous, is just as important. If I don’t stay flexible, I can tell a big difference in how loose and free my arms feel. As a pitcher, that’s trouble. Flexibility is what allows you to utilize the strength you’ve built up to its full potential. When you only have one of the two, you might as well have neither. But when you have both, your body can do some amazing things.

Here is a sample workout map of what a week might look like:

Monday — Legs:
Squats; leg press; leg extensions; leg curls; roman deadlifts.

Tuesday — Back:
Deadlifts; wide-grip pull-downs; close-grip pull-downs; seated cable rows; dumbbell rows; back extensions.

Wednesday — Chest:
Incline press; bench press; dips; pushups; cable flys.

Thursday — Shoulders:
Shoulder press; upright rows; front raises; side raises; rear-delt raises; shrugs.

Friday — Triceps & biceps:
Triceps press-downs; close-grip bench-press; skull crushers; weighted dips; dumbbell curls; straight-bar curls; rope curls; hammer curls.

Saturday and Sunday — Active rest.

(Plus three days a week I mix in plyometrics, speed and agility drills, and change of direction drills. And lots of stretching, every day.)

My plan, more or less, is to stagger strength and stretching as focuses between offseason and in-season. During the offseason, I’ll work out hard and heavy: I’ll want to gain as much strength and mass as possible, while being mindful of my limits and staying flexible. But then during the season, my priorities reverse: my goal is to stay maximally flexible and loose, while littering weights in to maintain a functional base of strength.

3. Eat right, play right

You’ve no doubt heard the legends of guys like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and so on — guys who were transcendent baseball players, while, I’m guessing, probably not making regular appointments with a nutritionist. And I am sure that those legends are all true. But it comes down, once again, to “can” vs. “will.” Can you play baseball at the highest level without focusing on nutrition? Yes. Will you? Well, unless you’re Babe Ruth, probably not. Times have changed — and successful athletes change with the times. I firmly believe that, to be able to perform as a baseball player at the highest level in 2015, you need the right nutrition.

Otherwise, there is just too much wear and tear over the course of a season. You might be able to get away with it for a month or two, but eventually the grind of 162 games will catch up with you. They say time is undefeated — and as a baseball player, it is your main adversary.

As far as my day-to-day nutrition habits, I like to take in six or seven meals, which I’ll spread out over every few hours. Here is a sample idea of what a day in my life might look like, from a nutrition perspective:

5:30 a.m. (Meal No. 1):
Meal-replacement shake.

9:00 a.m. (Meal No. 2):
Three eggs; pancakes; cereal with milk; fruit with yogurt and oats; orange juice.

12:30 p.m. (Meal No. 3):
Meal-replacement shake.

4:00 p.m. (Meal No. 4): 
Lean chicken with wheat pasta and veggies.

7:00 p.m. (Meal No. 5):
Another lean protein with wheat rice and veggies.

10:30 p.m. (Meal No. 6):
Meal-replacement shake.

(Plus 1-to-1.5 gallons of water, spread throughout the day.)

I like to think that, every time you eat, you are essentially rebuilding your whole body. It’s not entirely true — but as a mindset, I think it’s right. You’re refueling. And with that in mind, when people ask me about my health-conscious diet, I tell them: You wouldn’t put 88-grade gas into a Ferrari. You would put 100-grade in it.

All fuel isn’t the same. Nutrition matters. And when all is said and done, it really is the cornerstone of high performance.

4. Mental fitness is fitness too

And then finally, there is what I consider to be easily the most underrated part of baseball fitness: mental fitness. Mental fitness is so underrated because, to be honest, there are people in the league who don’t consider it to be a part of fitness at all. But they’re wrong. It’s major.

I would wager that the mental grind of baseball equals or surpasses that of any other sport. There are many reasons for this: the long season (10 times as many games as an NFL season, for example); the combination of teamwork and isolation; the list goes on. But I think the biggest reason of all is that baseball is meant for failure. From the strikeout (for hitters), to the error (for fielders), to the loss or blown save (for a pitcher like me) — in baseball, there is a unique focus on the negative end of the performance spectrum.

To overcome all of that negative mental output, you have to get into a routine of positive input. For me, watching film has helped so much in this regard. In the film room, you are able to see things you would never pick up on during the normal course of a game: What pitches batters are hitting well. Weak spots to attack with certain pitches. And even when your own mechanics are a little off. You might think of me as a “gym rat,” but I’m a “data rat” as well. The information is endless. And once you develop an appetite for it, it’s hard to stop.

It’s in this way that watching film is really no different from doing a set of weights. It’s all about preparation — to excel, and to withstand. And I take pride in my ability to do both. To me, that’s fitness.

With any luck, they’ll be saying, “Hey, that old man’s pretty good” for years to come.