LAKELAND, Fla. — I walk past, player after player, shaking my head. I am in search of something that was never hard to find. I cannot find it.
Nobody is fat anymore.
“Doesn’t anyone have a pot belly to show me?” I ask. “Some flab in the middle? An extra chin?”
I get only stares. Cool stares from tight, lean bodies. Someone offers me a celery stalk.
Am I wrong to ask? I am not wrong to ask. This, after all, is just the first full week of spring training — a ritual that, if I am not mistaken, was created largely to work off the extra inches ball players once put on during the winter.
Why else do you need six weeks down here?
“A little paunch? I asked John Grubb, winking.
“Naw, he says, his stomach flat as lumber.
“Where’s the beef?” I ask Alan Trammell.
“Sorry,” he says, looking down at his rib cage. “I do remember beef. Prime rib. I used to eat it five out of seven nights.”
“And now?” I ask hopefully.
“Oh, mostly fish and chicken,” he says.
Fish and chicken. And light beer and mineral water. This is the new baseball. This is the fit-for-life baseball. No more man-sized bellies to sweat off in the Florida sun. No more spindly legs shaped like a barstool. Once, spring training was like a long Sunday morning after a boozy Saturday night. Now it is a chance to improve your bench press from 300 to 350 pounds.
“What’s in there?” I ask a clubhouse man carrying a bowl to the food table. “M&M’s? Hershey’s Kisses?”
“Radishes,” he says.
Radishes? Where is the rubber suit?
These are the days of nutrition and weight routines. These are the days of radishes. Everyone will say this is good. I say it’s . . . trendy.
Baseball was once a sport where you didn’t need to resemble young Hercules. If you could play, you could look like Zeus. Babe Ruth was an olive on a stick. Mickey Lolich looked like he swallowed a bowling ball. Maybe two.
But now, if you look like that, they put you on David Letterman. Check out the Tigers’ clubhouse. Darrell Evans, age 40, is trim enough to wear bikini briefs. Kirk Gibson could swing from a vine. Larry Herndon could run the 110 hurdles. These are men for the ’80s. Muscular men. Conditioned men. Thin men in a thinny-thin world.
“You know, when I was with the Dodgers in the ’50s,” recalls coach Dick Tracewski, “spring was the time players used to get in shape. Even Jackie Robinson used to have to lose weight. So did Roy Campanella. They’d come to camp and put the rubber suit on under the uniform.”
The rubber suit? Where is the rubber suit now? Even pitchers these days arrive in condition. Last year, Dave LaPoint was chubby. Dave LaPoint enjoyed a milkshake and french fries. Dave LaPoint, I could relate to.
Dave LaPoint was traded.
Now even Walt Terrell — a man who has turned sitting with a beer into an art form — barely has enough of a middle to separate the top and the bottom.
“Where did all the fat go?” I ask Willie Hernandez, who is a relief pitcher, and therefore entitled to look like Jackie Gleason.
“Money,” he says, sucking in his stomach. Love those frozen chemicals Yes. That is where it went. Money. There is so much to be made from extending your career these days, health has become dollars. “You come in out of shape, you can lose your job,” Evans says. “And since players don’t have to work in the off-season they have all that time to condition.
“Last night, four of us went out to eat. In the old days we would have pounded a few. But we didn’t drink a thing. Just iced tea and Diet Coke.”
Iced tea and Diet Coke. Radishes. Do you know the current rage in the Tigers’ clubhouse? A no-sugar, no-cholesterol, frozen mix of chemicals that feels like ice cream and looks like ice cream and tastes like a frozen mix of chemicals.
“What’s it called?” I ask Dave Bergman.
“Wispy,” he says, taking a spoonful.
What a surprise. But then, no. For these are wispy times. Give us your tired, your plump, your huddled fatties. We’ll shoot them. The only real bellies here belong to the Tigers trainers. “I think,” says pitcher Frank Tanana, “the trainers are here to remind us of what we can become.”
That’s enough. That’s too much. I am walking in a daze now. Wispy? Radishes? Flabby trainers?
I wander aimlessly in deep depression. And then, suddenly — salvation. Suddenly, there is beer and pretzels and mayonnaise. There are jaws chomping and bellies hanging. I can smile again. I have found the fat. I have found the place where baseball’s lack of conditioning is given its time-honored respect.
Thank God for the press box.