John McGrath: Spring training in Hot Springs might’ve helped Montero

Staff WriterFebruary 24, 2014 

It’s impossible to imagine Jesus Montero enduring a season worse than 2013, when the erstwhile Seattle Mariners prospect was sidelined by a knee injury and a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Projected to be the starting catcher in Seattle, Montero was a defensive liability and not much better with a bat in his hands. Demoted to Tacoma, he was stuck in neutral before his name was linked to that shady drug clinic in Florida.

Already relegated to the doghouse of general manager Jack Zduriencik, Montero showed up for spring camp a few days ago looking as if his offseason conditioning program was not followed with any particular zealousness.

He was 40 pounds heavier than the Mariners wanted him.

“After winter ball,” Montero said, “all I did was eat.”

Many fans were outraged by Montero’s cavalier explanation, but I’m inclined to cut the kid some slack. The season, last time I looked, isn’t scheduled to begin for another five weeks. If everybody’s supposed to be in game shape on Day One of spring training, what’s the point of spring training?

Montero might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I like his old-school baseball thinking: Play ball between April and October, eat well between November and January, then look at February and March as, like, payback for eating so well.

Dropping 40 pounds can’t be accomplished overnight, but losing one pound a day seems doable and, in any case, underscores why baseball’s

founding fathers came up with the concept of spring training in 1870.

“Early camps were more fat farms than baseball camps,” author Charles Fountain wrote in “Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training.”

Continued Fountain: “The players of the day were given greatly to off-season dissipation and frequently showed up in the spring ‘looking like aldermen.’”

An 1896 Brooklyn Eagle headline — “The Men Are All Overweight” — suggests Jesus Montero was born 120 years before his time.

“With their chins crowded into the collars of their heavy overcoats,” an Eagle reporter observed, “a dozen members of the Brooklyn base ball club boarded the 3:30 annex yesterday afternoon and the trip to the South was begun.”

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up during the second half of the 20th century, but I can’t deny the benefits of living in 1896, and seeing a headline on the Brooklyn Eagle sports page engendering an acute case of spring fever.

“The Men Are All Overweight.”

Solutions?

Between the 1880s and the 1920s, Hot Springs, Ark., was a popular destination for several clubs. Chicago White Stockings manager Cap Anson noted how the naturally warm mineral waters rid “alcoholic microbes” from his players. Babe Ruth reported to Hot Springs as a rookie with the 1915 Red Sox; he liked it so much he returned annually, on his own, before spring training convened in Florida.

Hot Springs had much to offer. In addition to its mineral baths, there was a golf course, a race track and more casinos than a certain Red Sox pitcher, signed to a $2,500 contract in 1915, could afford.

Cleveland Spiders manager Pat Tebeau provided a typical Hot Springs itinerary in 1898: “Get up at 7:30 every morning and eat a light breakfast, report to the baseball park at 9 a.m. and put in two solid hours of batting and fielding the ball. At 11 a.m. the boys will run around the bicycle track 10 or 15 times, ending this sort of work by a lively run to the hotel. A plunge in the bath and a brisk rubdown will come before lunch.”

At 2 p.m., the players returned to the park for an intrasquad game, followed by more sprinting, another lively run to the hotel and, of course, another bath.

The Spiders hit only 18 homers in 1898, which is surprising. They sure didn’t lack for cleaned-up hitters.

Baths before lunch, baths before dinner — mixed in with 36 holes of golf here and a day at the race track there. No wonder Babe Ruth went to spring training before he went to spring training.

As for the catching-prospect flop who waddled into camp 40 pounds overweight, without a position, his destination in doubt, I almost felt sorry for him when Zduriencik took one look and went ballistic.

“I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero,” Zduriencik said last week. “Any expectations I had are gone ...

“He’s got a ton to prove.”

A ton to prove? First things first: He’s got a ton of weight to lose.

One day at a time, big fella, one pound per day. Spring training wasn’t invented with you in mind, but then again, it was precisely invented with you in mind.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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