Brewers spring into fitness in odd ways
Results, not methods, matter most in offseason conditioning
PHOENIX -- Everybody has a secret to staying in shape during the offseason. Brewers third-base coach Nick Leyva's favorite example involves Richie Hebner, the former big-league infielder who earned the nickname "The Gravedigger" because he spent his winters working at a cemetery run by his father.
"Have you ever dug a great big hole?" Leyva asked rhetorically. "That's a hell of a lot of work. He would show up in spring in great shape.
"The rest of us, heck, we ran out to center field and back, did a couple of jumping jacks and started playing. Now, these guys come here totally conditioned. It's unbelievable."
But today's players still have some interesting ways of getting ready for the start of spring that do not include treadmills, stationary bikes or free-weights. In the Brewers' clubhouse alone there's a woodchopper, a couple of Zen masters who practice yoga in a 110-degree hotbox, a former boxer and a handful of others who would be just as comfortable at the NFL scouting combine as on a back field at Maryvale Baseball Park.
The Paul Bunyan wannabe is pitcher Dave Bush, who lives on a wooded acre about an hour west of Portland, Maine. His cabin is heated by a pair of wood-burning stoves.
"I have wood delivered, but anything that falls in the woods, I'll chop it and use it," Bush said. "I also do a lot of hiking and snowshoeing, but that's mostly for fun. I don't only do that for a workout or because I have to."
Bush also shovels his own driveway, and clears a portion of a lake on his property to play ice hockey with his wife and their friends.
"I'm not very good, but it's fun," Bush said. "You have to adjust to the weather and get your work in."
A handful of players practice yoga, including third-base prospect Ryan Braun and pitcher Chris Capuano.
"When I do it, I wake up sore in places I didn't know I had muscles," Braun joked. "You can't get the same workout lifting weights or running. Last season when I started it, I didn't know what to expect, but I really found it helped my balance."
Said Capuano: "It's about strength building, flexibility and injury prevention. It's also mentally calming."
Infielder Tony Graffanino and outfielder Brady Clark take it to another level. Both practice a form of yoga called Bikram, otherwise known as "Hot Yoga." The room temperature is set between 105-110 degrees, and sessions last as long as 90 minutes.
"It's not just sitting around and stretching and chanting," Graffanino said. "This stuff is pretty aggressive."
Graffanino has been practicing Bikram two or three times a week for the last three winters. Clark was turned on to the practice 7-8 years ago but just picked it up again this winter. He practiced four times a week during the offseason and has gone a few more times during Spring Training.
"You have to focus and battle through the heat," Clark said. "There are times where you're dizzy and you want to give up. I'd say the benefits to the mind even outweigh the benefits to the body. It's almost like it cleanses your soul. I'm a big believer in it."
"You're holding poses for up to a minute, so you're stretching one area and strengthening a bunch of others all at once," Graffanino said. "I think this is the wave of the future."
Then there is catcher Damian Miller, who battled myriad aches and pains last year and has dealt with back stiffness for years. Miller takes part in three-times-a week spin classes with his wife at a small gym near their western Wisconsin home.
Miller is also among the players who have practiced Pilates, which stresses core muscles, balance and spinal alignment.
"It really works your core area, your hips, your back -- something I've had problems with in the last couple of years," Miller said. "Baseball is so concentrated on your core that I think it really helps me."
Others turn to the world of football. Catcher Johnny Estrada works with a personal trainer who pushes form, running drills one would see at the NFL scouting combine. The focus is on form, and the goal is to increase Estrada's speed.
He doesn't quite buy it.
"I give in and do it once a week," Estrada said. "He's determined to make me faster. I tell him, it's not going to happen."
But outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. embraces his NFL-style workouts.
"I do a lot of agility work," said Gwynn, who works with the strength and conditioning coach at San Diego State University, where his dad is the baseball coach. "I hop right in there with the guys training for the combine, and I felt last year like it really helped me improve my footwork in the outfield."
It also breaks up the routine.
"That's definitely part of it," Gwynn said. "It makes the workouts fun, doing something completely different from your basic weightlifting. You watch some of the football players and think, 'Man, if I can get my footwork like that it's going to be a huge help.'"
There are other quirky offseason workouts. Pitcher Grant Balfour used to take kickboxing classes. Claudio Vargas and some friends run in the mountains near his home in the Dominican Republic. Shortstop J.J. Hardy spent the past winter rehabbing an ankle injury, but in past winters has played racquetball. Head athletic trainer Roger Caplinger said he knows of Minor Leaguers who work during the offseason as bricklayers or in the lumberyard at Home Depot, with the intention to both stay in shape and to make financial ends meet.
Still, a number of players said nothing prepares them for the first few days of baseball.
"I've come to camp in what I thought was the best shape of my life, and then after the first day you think, 'How can I be this sore?'" Estrada said.
Said Gwynn: "I've heard people say that the best way to get ready for Spring Training is to go stand outside on some concrete wearing cleats. Nothing gets you ready for how sore your feet feel the first day."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.