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11/23/08 2:33 PM EST

A big league battle of the bulge

More players focus on nutrition as part of their conditioning

NEW YORK -- With the bitterness of the Mets' elimination from the 2006 National League Championship Series still fresh, Carlos Beltran unpacked his bags at home in Puerto Rico and made a conscious decision to ward off the return of that same flavor in future seasons.

Beltran could do little about a frozen moment where he looked at a called third strike from the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, and it didn't ease matters when there was a World Series celebration in St. Louis. But sitting down with his wife, Jessica, the Mets center fielder was ready to make a nutritional investment that may help get him back to that stage.

"I really started focusing on things," Beltran said. "If you want to play this game for a long period of time, then you have to keep yourself in shape and watch your weight. I told my wife that I want to hire a chef in Puerto Rico to make the meals -- don't let me choose, because if I have the opportunity to choose something to eat, probably I'm going to choose something that is not healthy."

Beltran soon found a nutrition program waiting at his home in Manati, outlining every meal from breakfast to dinner. There was plenty of salmon -- not exactly a personal favorite, but with many health benefits. Since it's ready to eat, Beltran does, and he reaps the rewards. The Mets center fielder is among a group of Major Leaguers who have started to take nutrition more seriously in recent seasons.

Fueling bodies with proper nutrition can only lead to success, an equation more and more players have recognized. Some, like the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, are particularly meticulous, tracking fat, calories and carbohydrates while planning ahead on road trips in order to find smart restaurants to dine at.

"Alex is unbelievable. Just his diet," Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte said. "He just doesn't put anything bad in his mouth, and it's amazing. But look at the way he looks, and that's why. There's no doubt that he watches extremely closely what he eats, and he's very disciplined. And that's the biggest thing, is a disciplined person."

With hours of physical activity and calorie-burning as part of the general job requirement, most can't be A-Rod and don't try. It can be enough to try to adhere to a general rule of thumb, consuming foods that are likely to help their performance and not hurt it, eating several small-portion meals each day instead of a large, calorie-concentrated lunch or multiple-course dinner.

"With the money that you make, you just owe it to everybody -- not only to yourself, but to your team and to your organization -- to take care of yourself," Pettitte said. "And if you're carrying around more weight than you should, you're probably going to have a hard time."

Beltran said that when he was a youngster coming up through the Royals system, watching food closely would have been the furthest thing from his mind. He could eat whatever he wanted and still go out and hit a home run or steal a base. Reaching his 30th birthday helped trigger a more cognizant attitude; Beltran still allows himself cake or sweets one day per week, usually Sunday, but otherwise the diet is much improved.

"To be honest, when you're young, you just eat whenever you feel hungry," Beltran said. "When I was 21 or 22, I didn't really pay attention to that, but now that I've turned 30, it's different for me to look up things. You burn your calories more when you're younger than when you get older. I feel like I'm where I want to be, 200 pounds, and with the position I play, I have to be able to move. There are some guys that don't have to worry about that, with genetics, they just don't gain weight."

"With the money that you make, you just owe it to everybody -- not only to yourself, but to your team and to your organization -- to take care of yourself. And if you're carrying around more weight than you should, you're probably going to have a hard time."
-- Yankees pitcher
Andy Pettitte

Mike Herbst has been an assistant trainer with the Mets since 2002, and said that even in that timespan, he has witnessed a noticeable change regarding interest in nutrition. Granola bars, nuts and seeds are placed on the bench alongside hydration drinks, and with players needing to clear supplements through an MLB program to determine their legitimacy, the Mets hired a nutritionist to control their buffet.

As a result, the improved spread shows a wide assortment of fruit, vegetables, broiled chicken and fish, with very little fried. High protein lends itself to high performance.

"Mostly, the guys kill the chicken," Herbst said. "They eat a lot of rice, pasta, chicken -- a lot. It's a lot of carbohydrates, and they'll have the protein [shakes] afterward. Most of them drink a lot of water, and it's very, very rare that you'll see a guy drink soda."

So while Coke may not be it, not all of Major League Baseball has changed gears from the old days, when players would wolf down hearty steaks before night games and hit the city streets in search of other liquid refreshment after the final out.

Teams have increased efforts to educate players on proper nutrition in recent years, including addressing Minor Leaguers during Spring Training. Carbo-loading might have had no place in a big league clubhouse two decades ago, but veterans like Luis Gonzalez, now a free agent, are not that far removed from the way it used to be.

"I see a lot of teams making an effort, but I'm an old-school guy," said Gonzalez, who played for the Marlins in 2008. "I came up with guys when smoking was still big. I hate to say it, but health and fitness has become a lot more popular now. I work out a lot, but I'm a fried food eater, I consider myself a Southern guy. It's worked for me this long, and I've put 18 years in, doing what I'm doing."

Gonzalez said that he hasn't started to worry about calories yet, and he probably won't until he retires. Former Marlins teammate Mike Jacobs, since traded to the Royals, said that Gonzalez has the body of a 25-year-old and said the 40-year-old Gonzalez is "blessed" with the metabolism he was born with.

"You'd look at the stuff he eats and say, 'There's no way he's got a body like that,'" Jacobs said. "Some guys are just blessed with the way their metabolism is. Other guys have to be careful with how much they eat, because they get overweight easy.

"I think one of the things about being in the big leagues is that you've got to be accountable for yourself and know what you can and can't do. At the end of the day, it's really on you."

Teams conduct reminder weigh-ins intermittently each month. If a player is tipping the scales on the heavy side, they will receive a notice from the club to take a closer look. Some make a preemptive strike, hoping to keep their bodies healthy and performing in the big leagues.

This spring, the Brewers' Prince Fielder raised eyebrows and created headlines when he announced he was swearing off of steaks, opting to become a vegetarian moving forward. The move was less about losing weight than steering clear of the ugly side of the meat industry, inspired by a book Fielder read over the offseason.

"I really do love meat," Fielder said. "I just had to think about whether I really wanted to keep eating it or not. Since I started, I feel amazing. When I wake up, I'm up. I'm not lying around anymore."

Across the country in Florida, former Indians reliever Joe Borowski reported to camp speaking regretfully about knee injuries earlier this decade that could have been avoided, had he just been a bit lighter.

Borowski's new plan was as follows: an hour and a half of cardio a day, a regular weightlifting routine, no complex carbohydrates and five or six healthy meals a day to kick-start the metabolism, but no meals after 6 p.m. The program may not have kept Borowski in the big leagues all year, but he landed in the Red Sox system and -- more importantly -- on the path to a better lifestyle.

"You don't realize [you're putting on weight] during the season," Borowski said. "It's not all at one time. It just slowly adds up after a while. You think, 'How did I add this weight on?' Then you think, 'Well, maybe that pizza and two beers at 11:30 at night and going to sleep an hour later didn't help much.'"

"I think one of the things about being in the big leagues is that you've got to be accountable for yourself and know what you can and can't do. At the end of the day, it's really on you."
-- Royals first baseman
Mike Jacobs

The routine of playing a 162-game schedule can be anything but routine, and it certainly doesn't lend itself to premier fitness. The ballpark hours change several times each week with day games, night games, flights and the like.

A player may not be able to touch the postgame spread until 11 p.m. ET one night, then have his internal clock thrown off by traveling cross-country to open a new series the next day. Late-night dining is commonplace, with the often-greasy room-service menu just a few finger taps away.

That lends itself to players skipping breakfast, slowing metabolisms and packing on body fat, and eventually fatigue and performance loss. See? There's a reason Mom always said breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

"They try to educate us," Pettitte said. "They do everything they can to have people in the mornings to make sure we get a good breakfast in us. I guess breakfast is sometimes the toughest one for guys that maybe aren't married to get up and have a nice meal."

At least the dining choices are better in the Majors than the Minor Leagues. After a few weeks of life in the Show this season, the Padres' Chase Headley was asked what the biggest difference was, having left Triple-A behind.

"I'd have to go with the food," Headley said. "I've had some great meals since I've been in the big leagues. Minor League spreads hadn't really filled me up as much as the Major League spreads have. I guess that would probably be the No. 1 thing that I have enjoyed so far."

Jacobs spent seven years in the Mets farm system before making it to the big leagues permanently with Florida, so the thought of Minor League food prompted him to smile. When Jacobs was fighting his path to the big leagues, he recalled being provided with a thin pack of meal money per day, limiting his culinary delights to whatever fast-food establishment kept its lights on the latest.

"It definitely changes, because you're not just eating peanut butter and jelly every day," Jacobs said. "Being in the big leagues, you have a little more cash, a little more per diem every day, and you have a chance to put some better food in you.

"You're not budgeting $20 per day and having to go to McDonald's and hoping that it's open before and after the game -- pizza, Subway, anything you can find. If anything, you're definitely not hungry when you get to the big leagues."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.