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Nightengale: MLB Players Improvise to Stay in Game Shape

Nightengale: MLB Players Improvise to Stay in Game Shape
Photo: Elise Amendola / Winchester Star

By Bob Nightengale |

They are playing catch in the backyard with their wives, like New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.

They are building makeshift gyms, like Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed.

There is so much free time, but no place to go, no place to even work out.

Major League Baseball clubs are in uncharted waters during this coronavirus pandemic, trying to make sure their players stay in shape with no scheduled opening day, or whether there will even be a season.

The players and MLB are desperate to have even the semblance of a season, no matter if they’re playing in front of empty stadiums, playing World Series games until Thanksgiving weekend.

“I’d be up for anything at this point just to be able to play,’’ Ahmed said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call. “If they said, ‘Hey, you can start games May 15th or June 1st, but you have to wear masks’ — if that’s the only thing holding us back — then I’m sure guys would do it.’’

Baseball has been shut down for three weeks now, and it may be months before they can even begin Phase II of spring training. Once they know there’ll be a season, players have got about three weeks to be ready for games.

This is why it’s imperative, MLB trainers and strength and conditioning coaches say, that the players stay in shape during this hiatus, no matter whether there’s a single bench press, dumbbell or medicine ball in sight.

Major League Baseball ordered all of their stadiums and spring-training sites off-limits last week, and with municipalities across the country shutting down gyms and performance-centers, the players have to improvise.

“We sent plenty of messages and guidelines to follow,’’ says Jose Vazquez, the Texas Rangers’ strength and conditioning coach the last 14 years. “You’re calling guys making sure they’re doing the right thing.

“It’s the unknown that’s difficult. As human beings, we all approach the unknown differently. Some guys stay ready no matter what. Other guys tell me they’ll be ready as soon as they get the word. Others say they’ll need a week. Everybody is approaching it differently.

“All we can do is try to make sure they’re prepared.

The Rangers are one of 11 teams using TeamBuildr, a mobile training and strength and conditioning platform, to keep their players ready. The on-line programs have become instrumental, Vazquez and other teams say, particularly at a time like this when there is no interaction.

You’re training in virtual isolation, with nothing more than a video screen on your iPad or phone, following the instructions, while trying not to be bored out of your mind with no workout partners or trainers.

“We just purchased the TeamBuildr, so it’s come in pretty handy with the circumstances,’’ says Derek Somerville, a strength and conditioning coach with the Diamondbacks’ minor-league teams. “We were so used to seeing guys all of the time, and now with the shutdown, all you can do is reach out to guys maybe twice a week, making sure they and their family members are healthy, and giving all of the guidance we can. I think guys have bought into this, knowing that as long as this goes on, it’s the best way for all of us to stay engaged.’’

It was much easier, of course when the players at least had access to gyms and fitness centers. Few players have the financial wherewithal, and space, to have their own home gym, requiring players like Ahmed to build a makeshift model in his backyard.

Yet, for most of the players, it’s training the old-fashioned way with pushups, sit-ups, running through parks, swinging in their garage, and throwing balls against the wall.

“Unless guys have big money and invested in home gyms,’’ Vazquez said, “they’re going to have to do most of their workouts without equipment, just using their body weight. And for the pitchers, the problem is throwing. You have to have space to throw, and someone to catch your bullpens. You have to get creative.

“We had one guy sending us a video of throwing baseballs into an empty space in his hallway. Some guys are wrapping up balls in their socks, and tying the strap to their wrists. You’ve got to be open to anything.’’

The calendar may read April, but the reality is that it feels a whole lot like December, with two months still remaining before spring training .

Most players, as well as the training staffs, believe that the position players could be ready in about a week when they return, but the pitchers, particularly the starters, will require at least three weeks. If the season resumes, MLB is expected to have an expanded roster of 29 — adding three players — for the first month of the season.

Yet, the longer the layoff lasts, the greater the fear of injuries, no matter whether you’re a pitcher or position player.

“If we do comeback, we need at least three to four weeks to ramp up,’’ Vazquez says. “You can’t assume that everybody is having the same type of training and intensity, but I’d think you’d need at least three weeks. The relievers could get by on two weeks, but the starters need more.”

Said Ahmed: “If it comes to playing with no fans for a little while, as much as that would be extremely weird and strange, we’d be open to it. Hopefully, it wouldn’t have to last for a long time.’’

For now, the players can only keep training, utilizing video in a much different fashion than accustomed, and hope one day they have a season.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.


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