One for the Fat Boys
by, 01-25-2013 at 08:34 AM (765 Views)
Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Phillies signed former Twin Delmon Young to an interesting one-year deal. The Phillies set parameters within the deal that stated Young needed to maintain a certain weight in order to have incentives kick in.
As baseball observers may have noticed, over the years, Young’s weight would ebb and flow.
For instance, when the Twins acquired him from the Rays, he had slimmed down to a healthy 215 thanks to a hard regiment in 2008. That number however would balloon to 239 by September 2009. To his credit, at age 24, he dropped over thirty pounds and came into camp at 207 in 2010. That year, in which he hit .298/.333/.493 with 21 home runs, was, by far, his best season of his career to date.
That would not last as Young would add more weight the following offseason.
In an interview with TwinkieTown.com prior to the 2011 season, assistant GM Rob Antony said this about his significant weight loss:
Young showed up to camp in 2011 not only heavier but supposedly more muscular. Of course, he would also witness a sizeable drop in all of his stats as well that year. That’s when the Twins had enough of his poor defense and his inconsistent offensive output and traded him to Detroit for next to nothing.“He definitely was more athletic and got around better at a lighter weight. I think he really struggled with that, because I think he was somewhat miserable. He was hungry all the time, I think he was really going to great lengths to play at that light of weight, and I think as the season wore on and he gained some weight back his production didn't necessarily drop off.”
This past year, Young was said to have been playing at 225. On Tuesday, the Phillies’ physical showed him at 238. Young’s explanation for the fluctuation in weigh since last year was, as he says, due to “some ice cream and good luck cakes” found in the clubhouse.
Perhaps the Phillies have analyzed his performance in conjunction with his weight and realize that he produces much better when he’s between a certain figure. For Philadelphia, they are saying he needs to weigh less than 230 three time and fewer than 235 pounds the final three times for him to obtain optimal production – which would then led to an additional $600,000 for him. If he could offensively replicate what he did in 2010 be worth a little over half a million? Think about it. A team with a savvy numbers-crunching staff may discover the next Moneyball breakthrough based on the scale.
Young’s story is reminiscent of another former Twin – one whose shapely form now greets fans outside of Target Field.
Unlike Young, Kent Hrbek’s tale originates from an era when offseason workout schedules and owner investments’ in players were not nearly as obnoxious as they are now. There was no Twitter to provide a snarky remarks about weight. And, as opposed to modern times, you could be sure there was not an internal statistical analysis department running studies on production based on optimal weight. (Not that this is done now, either.)
Today, almost all players on the field seemingly have bodies like P90X background actors. Outside of Prince Fielder and Pablo Sandoval, there are no Pucketts, Gwynns, Kruks and Hrbeks with such impressive love handles. Even though there were more players in that era carrying a few extra pounds, Hrbek’s weight was no less of a topic of conversation among reporters.
In 1984, at the young age of 24, Hrbek’s physique was compared to a local Floridian celebrity. No, not Miami Vice’s Don Johnson. Rather, it was Shamu, the nearby Sea World’s famous killer whale.
Hrbek, who had entered his major league playing days at a trim 200 pounds, had gained nearly forty pounds in two years. Heading into his fourth season with the team, jokes were flying around the spring camp in Orlando. One report said that during the designated weigh-in, Hrbek stepped on the team scale and it spat out a card saying: Come back when you are alone. While that was a fabricated clubhouse talltale to give the hometown hero a good natured ribbing behind closed doors, one player took the message public.
Tinker Field, home to the Twins’ spring training until they moved to Ft Myers, was, like most low-level minor league stadiums, rung with advertising on the outfield walls. One section pimped out the nearby Sea World. Adored with the famous killer whale, somebody taped the number “14” on the chest.
(This, Hrbek later revealed in his book “Tales From The Minnesota Twins Dugout”, was the work of Mark Portugal. Pretty ballsy work from a guy who was a 21-year-old AA pitcher at the time.)
Of course, this would not be the last his el bees would come into question. While he weighed a reported 236 in 1984 – a year in which he finished runner-up for the AL MVP - that figured climbed to 245 in 1985. By spring camp of 1986, it would be near 250 and be the focal point of the media as the team reported to Orlando. The quarter-ton drew plenty of attention but then-manager Ray Miller did not seem the least bit concerned.
“Everyone has heard his weight and jumped to the conclusion that he’s gotten fat,” Miller told reporters. “But it’s not true. We had people working with him lifting weights three times a week during the offseason and he looks better than he’s ever looked. He told me for the first time he can go to the beach and take his shirt off without being embarrassed.”
Miller had sent him and some teammates to work out over the winter at the University of Minnesota – which was a far more rigorous from his previously rumored offseason workouts which involved bowling once a week.
Hrbek’s habits were infamous. He would drink, smoke and eat in the clubhouse. Sometimes all at once.
In 1988, media members enter the clubhouse post-game to find a shirtless Hrbek housing a cigarette, holding a beer in one hand and an ice-cream sandwich in the other. The first baseman would dip the treat into the beer and then take a bite. He told reporters that “it softens up the ice cream. Maybe there’s some money in it. You know, like when the chocolate hits the peanut butter.”
Roughly around the same time in ’88, when Twins fans showed up at the hotel they were staying at, Hrbek sat at the bar and drank beers with them.
In 1991, Marty York of the Toronto Globe and Mail described Hrbek as “an obnoxious creature with a penchant for annoying those around him. Hrbek’s repertoire of chicanery has been known to include such actions as blowing cigarette smoke in the general direction of a teammate’s face.”
Drinking and smoking are not patterns of a player hoping to play at an elite level for an extended period of time like, say, how a guy like Jim Thome embraced yoga to maintain flexibility at age 41. In addition to eschewing
regular workouts and stretches, dieting on fatty foods, beers and Camel Lights would likely shorten any career. For Hrbek, longevity never was the goal. He went into his age-32 season in 1992 looking to silence the whispers that his ability to play at a high level while pulling a 250 pound piano behind him would not be reduced.
That campaign did not get off to a great start when he busted up his shoulder in spring training and staffers were questioning whether if there had not been a K-Car attached to him, he might not have been injured. Still, he did quite well early on. Through June 9 of that year, he was hitting .326/.446/.570 in his first 167 plate appearances. That day, a Kansas City reporter wrote up a piece which asked the question what Hrbek might be like if he focused on staying in shape:
Hrbek went on to point to fellow National League chubster, John Kruk, who was leading baseball in average, as an example. “The guy’s hitting over .370,” Hrbek said. “That’s one for the fat boys.”"I always get the question `What if?"' Hrbek said. "Who knows? What's wrong with what's happening now?"
The fat jokes do not end when Hrbek is home in Bloomington, Minn. He wears a T-shirt with a drawing of a man busting out of his pants. It was a Christmas present from his wife, Jeanie.
"She gets in the game, too," Hrbek said, grinning. "(She asks): `Why are they always calling you "Fat Stuff?'“ She wanted me to lose a few pounds, so she gave me this shirt. It didn't work.
"I try eating salads all winter long. It doesn't work. This is the way I'm going to be."
Of course, over his final 303 plate appearances after that article, Hrbek hit just .201/.308/.324 with 8 home runs.
Both Kruk and Hrbek would be out of the game before their age-35 seasons – a rather remarkable thought considering the need in the game for power-hitting left-handed designated hitters. Hrbek did it on his own terms, citing his need to step away from the game and be with his family. Maybe emotionally he was ready to make that decision although his body was definitely there on the assist. After playing in an average excess of 140 games per season from age 22 to 28, after that, when he experienced the most weight gain, he averaged less than 112 per year. He was breaking down like a 1980s Ford truck.
In the end, Hrbek was, essentially, a precursor to Park & Recreation’s Ron Swanson. He ate what he wanted, he drank, he smoked, and he avoided all that physical labor and just did not care. He enjoyed himself. That did not mean he did not take pride in his work. He was truly a naturally gifted player who took his talents as far as they could. He could hit the tar out of the ball. The problem was that it was a truncated career. Had he jogged, mixed in a salad, done yoga, whatever, he could have played four more years. Maybe his 1990s would have been more fruitful. Maybe we would be discussing his Hall of Fame potential right now. Who knows?
That, however, is not a part of the Hrbek ethos. He did not need the awards or the accolades. He was satisfied with two very important team awards. He did not care about seeking more money in free agency because he wanted to play at home. He enjoyed himself, even if that meant indulging his vices in exchange for a higher salary or a longer career.