Strength and conditioning emerged as a priority activity among Major League players in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You could see the change in player size and body structure in the clubhouse and on the field. More clubs were hiring strength and conditioning coaches and more clubhouses had weight rooms, some even for the visiting teams. These rooms were equipped with free weights, barbells and dumbbells. When it started, dumbbells went up to 50-pound sets, then to 70 and finally 100 pounds and guys were using them. This era also saw some players hiring personal trainers with backgrounds in bodybuilding and football, all emphasizing the use of heavier weights and prolonged workouts. The challenge for the strength and conditioning coach became how to separate what was needed to be successful in baseball from the muscle building programs that were being advocated by outside influences.
Another influence in the early 90s was the acceptance among the strength and conditioning profession of Tudor Bompa’s concept of periodization training. Bompa’s work provided scientific reasons for specificity, variety and year-around training and many coaches and players bought into it. Using Bompa’s guidelines, coaches found that they could help players avoid plateaus by dividing the year into training phases in which the volume, intensity, frequency, exercise selection, rest and recovery were varied at different times of the training year. Periodization helped players make consistent gains which motivated them to adhere to the programs.
Nolan Ryan signing a three-year contract for slightly more than one million dollars per year was another major influence. In the late 80s the typical veteran player was making about a million dollars a year. Larger salaries meant that fewer players needed a job during the off-season to make ends meet, and we saw a transition from playing yourself into shape in spring training to treating baseball as a full-time job with year-around conditioning. The MLB minimum player salary was approximately $36,000 when I started in baseball in the late 70s. It quickly jumped to $64,000 then over $100,000. Now it’s over $500,000. With more money came more time to train and players went from selling tickets in the front office in the off-season to working out.
Another influence was the legacy established by previous great players. After Nolan left, we had players like Ken Caminitti, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio who liked to lift. Teammates were embarrassed not to come in when three of the best players in the game were always in the weight room. When you looked around the league, you saw big guys like McGwire, Sosa, Palmero, Conseco etc. and it became obvious that some players were becoming chemically enhanced. The increase in size of some of the best players in the game strengthened the resolve of others who were not chemically enhanced to take strength and conditioning more seriously and train harder.
Influence of Personal Trainers. While these individuals are no longer allowed into MLB weight rooms, they had a significant influence during this era. Players had money and time, and they wanted to spend it on something. They would walk into a gym and see a big guy who was big because he was genetically predisposed to gaining size, chemically enhanced or both. The mental attraction to these individuals was the same as you often see in baseball — you see a good player do something, and naturally you also want to do it. This guy (personal trainer) is big, so he knows how to 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 the Mitchell report advised MLB to ban them from clubhouses and weight rooms. As a result, personal trainers were not involved with many Houston players but by then, the NSCA developed an on-line list of certified strength and conditioning coaches (CSCS). For example, Adam Everett and I found three CSCS coaches who near his home outside of Atlanta and called them. We spoke with each and Adam eventually chose the one that he felt could work best with. We handled the personal trainer situation for most of the non-Houston based players the same way. We also found a trainer who owned a gym in LA who had a good track record with several Dodgers player and had him work with some of our players in the LA area. Others players went home and worked with their collegiate strength and conditioning coaches.
Communications with these outside trainers and players was a lot more challenging in the late 80s and early 90s. Few players had cell phones, the interned was just gaining traction and we had limited or no access to emails and social media. We sent personalized workout programs by the US mail and made person to person long distance phone calls to access the progress.
PEDs and Its Influence. Performance enhancing drugs changed the profession of strength and conditioning coach and it changed the game. The game went from pitching speed and defense to power. Hitting home runs almost became an obsession to many in the game. Some of the baseball athleticism fell by the wayside. There were future Hall of Fame players like Ozzie Smith and Craig Biggio 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 infield and outfield players got bigger and stronger. Speed was diminished because the “bangers” didn’t see a need to work on it as much and some of the less powerful players tended to follow suit.
PEDs put a lot of pressure on players and strength and conditioning coaches. The Astros played indoors in the Astrodome, a very big stadium. We also played on Astro Turf which was more suited to pitching, speed and defense. We had some players get bigger and stronger than average but we didn’t feel like any of our players were on the juice back then. We (strength coach, athletic trainers and team physicians) talked with the players and answered questions concerning the positive and the negatives effects of PEDs and we never saw anything during the season that made us suspicious.
The next post (Part 4) will continue with the turn of the century and discuss the role of the NSCA in the evolution of the profession and the emergence of the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Society.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.