Strength and its development emerged as a priority activity among Major League players in the late 1980s. You could see the changes in player size and muscular development from the stands. More clubs were hiring strength coaches and more clubhouses had weight rooms, some even for visiting teams. These rooms were equipped with free weights, barbells, dumbbells, bikes and Stairmasters. When it started, most dumbbells went up to 50 pounds, then to 70 and finally 100 pounds and guys were using them.
Because the 1980’s had been a time in which the role and requirements of the strength coach in MLB had been vaguely defined, a number of problems began to arise in the1990s. The early1990s ushered in an era in which of some players began going outside the organization and hiring personal trainers with backgrounds in bodybuilding and football who emphasized the lifting of heavier weights. Players on teams that limited the size of dumbbells and the amount and volume of weight that could be lifted quickly found that that intensity was the key. Those who had been limited 3 sets of 12 -15 reps on guided resistance machine exercises found that performing more sets of fewer reps with heavier loads with free weights produced quicker and more dramatic increases in size and strength.
Another influence in the early 1990s was introduction and acceptance of Tudor Bompa’s periodization model. Bompa’s book provided scientific credibility to what the players tried to achieve during the off-season and the players bought into this. It showed them how to avoid plateaus by alternating intensity and volumes on different days and in different phases. This increased the gains they made and motivated them to stick with the programs.
Nolan Ryan signing a big contract for a million dollars was another huge influence. In 1980, the minimum salary $30,000 and the average salary was $143,756. By 1990, the minimum had increased to $100,000 and the average was $578,930. This meant they no longer needed to work at a job in the off-season, so we saw a transition from working during the offseason and trying to play yourself into shape in spring training to treating baseball as a full-time job. Players no longer had to have off-season jobs selling sporting goods, hardware or season tickets for the club.
Another influence was “monkey see, monkey do.” After Nolan left, the Astros had players like Ken Caminitti, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio each of whom liked to lift, especially Bagwell. The others were embarrassed not to come in if your three best players were in the weight room. When you looked around the league, you saw the “Bash Brothers” – McGwire and Conseco – and guys like Sosa and Palmeiro hit 50, 60, 70 HR and it became obvious that some of them might be chemically enhanced. This strengthened the resolve to train hard. Caminitti once said, “You can’t take those drugs and sit on a sofa.”
Influence of Personal Trainers. In some circumstances the 1990s were the “Wild West”. It was approximately one and a half decades before the Mitchell Report, before the approval of the Joint Drug Prevention Program Between the MLB Players’ Association and Office of the Communizer of Baseball and before the Players’ Association required that all strength and conditioning coaches be NSCA certified and registered. The challenge became finding a blend of what we knew was needed for baseball and the muscle building programs being provided by outside influences.
While these individuals are no longer a part of baseball, they had a great influence on this era. Players had money and time, and they wanted to spend it on something. They would walk into a gym and see a guy who was big as a result of genetics, chemicals or both and think “this guy knows what to do”. It is the same mentality in baseball, you see a good player do something, so naturally you also do it. This guy is big, so he will help me get big. If players were in Houston, they worked out in the Astrodome. No personal trainers were allowed in the clubhouse even before MLB came down with the rule. As a result, personal trainers were not involved with Houston players but by then, the NSCA came up with a certification a list of certified strength coaches. For the first time, we could contact the NSCA and find professionals who could help players train during the off-season in or near their residence. It was also possible to identify certified coaches on college campuses for those who were going back to college to complete a degree.
Communications with NSCA trainers and players was a lot more challenging in the late 80s and early 90s. There were no cell phones, no internet or social media. We had to send out programs by mail and talk on the phone about the progress that was made.
PEDs. Performance enhancing drugs changed our profession as strength coaches and it changed the game. The game went from pitching speed and defense to hitting home runs. Some of the baseball athleticism fell by the wayside. There were players like Ozzie Smith who were great players and not implicated in PEDs. The up-the-middle players were smaller and continued to play as in the past, but the corner infielders and outfielders got bigger and stronger. Speed was somewhat diminished as teams became more focused on the three run homer and less focused on bunts, stolen bases and getting the runner over.
There was a lot of pressure on players and strength coaches who were asked about PEDs. Houston played indoors on Astro Turf which was more suited to traditional speed, pitching and defense. We had players who got bigger and stronger but we honestly felt that we did not have any players on the juice back then. We talked to the players about the positive and the negatives and I never saw anybody during the season do anything that made me suspicious.
In the next issue, we will continue with the turn of the century and discuss the evolution of the profession educationally, the emergence of our professional society and address other issues.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012, has been a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers since 2013 and is currently Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.