For Twins, nutrition starting to become a big part of training

And so he resisted it for as long as he felt he could.

But by 2018, he knew it was time to make a change. The third baseman’s body was breaking down, forcing him off the field and keeping him from playing the game he loved. He had missed weeks in April, dealing with a shoulder issue. In late May, he strained his left calf, robbing him of his ability to compete for most of the season. He appeared in just 52 games that year, splitting time between the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians.

To be able to sustain the level of performance he knew he could, he decided in June — or perhaps July — that year that it was finally time to adopt new eating habits. The changes were drastic: Donaldson adopted a vegan diet with the hopes of staying healthier.

A year later, in 2019, Donaldson played in 155 games for the Atlanta Braves and was named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year. His diet, he believes, played a role in that improvement from the season before. These days, Donaldson, 35, considers himself a pescatarian, though his diet is still primarily plant-based.

With players and teams seeking every possible advantage on the field and off it, the focus on nutrition and what a player is putting into his body has come a long way. The Minnesota Twins are in the process of bolstering their nutrition department and the food offerings in the clubhouse are continuously progressing to fit player needs.

It certainly wasn’t always like that.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, there were maybe a couple of guys on a team that thought deeply about what they were putting into their body and most guys just ate normally, like a normal person would,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I would not hesitate to crush three cheeseburgers from a restaurant called El Cap in St. Pete after batting practice, and that was the pregame meal.”

Finding a routine

At age 41, former Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz is producing at a higher level than he was 10 years ago. It’s not a coincidence. Nothing about Cruz’s success or longevity is a coincidence. It’s the product of hard work and a meticulous routine, one that was crafted by trial and error over the years.

That includes his diet.

“In the past, you don’t realize about food and what you put in your body, but definitely what you put in your body, it shows up in performance,” Cruz said shortly before he was traded to Tampa Bay last week. “It probably doesn’t show up on a daily basis, but in a long season, six months, it will show up. Definitely you have to eat healthy and make sure you eat the right amount of food that you need.”

For Cruz, the right amount of food is the amount that leaves his weight at 244 pounds, which, he has decided after years of playing between 238 and 245, is his ideal weight for peak performance. Cruz steps on a scale twice a day — once in the morning and once at night — to make sure he hasn’t fluctuated more than one or two pounds away from 244 in either direction.

If, for example, he feels he has eaten too many carbohydrates — like he says he did during the Twins’ road trip to Detroit earlier in the month — he will compensate, pledging to eat salads for as long as he needs to help him return to his preferred weight. For something sweet, Cruz will wash down his rice with “just a sip” of Cola Cola — but only on road trips.

Former Twins pitcher José Berríos will let himself indulge — but only two days after his starts. That’s the day you might find the pitcher eating some greasy foods that are otherwise absent from his diet.

“I eat whatever I want, like pizza (and) burgers,” Berríos said of his diet two days post-start. “The rest of the days, I eat healthy like chicken, turkey, steak, fish, all that kind of stuff. But the day I’m going to throw, I always try to eat white meat like chicken, turkey or fish.”

He pairs that with vegetables like broccoli, carrots or asparagus. Berrios started changing his dietary habits in 2014 at the recommendation of his trainer. There was an initial adjustment period because he said he didn’t grow up eating vegetables often.

Now, it’s just part of his routine, as it is Donaldson’s, who admits he’s still not “a huge vegetable guy,” even as his diet went from “eating zero vegetables to trying to eat as (many) vegetables as possible.”

To both make leafy greens more palatable and satisfy his sweet tooth, Donaldson now considers kale and pineapple smoothies a go-to. Ahead of night games, he will eat a big meal early in the day, his second biggest meal upon coming to the park and then taper down from there, eating snacks or drinking shakes in the lead up to a game so he’s not too full when the game begins.

The attention he pays to these things, he believes, has helped keep him feeling good at age 35.

“I feel like I’ve gotten nicked a couple times this year, but I felt overall my body’s responded pretty well from that, and I do attribute that not only to the time I put in the weight room and the gym but partly to my diet as well,” Donaldson said.

Evolving landscape

When Kyle McCleary first walked into the Twins’ clubhouse 10 years ago, there was a pizza warmer, a hot dog roller and a slushie machine. Player meals were often deli spreads and pizza.

When McCleary, currently the team’s head performance chef, arrived, he said former Twins star Justin Morneau was in the midst of cleaning up his diet and there was player interest in having a bona fide chef in the clubhouse.

He would buy the food, prepare the food and then do the clean-up, too.

“When I was hired, it was just me and I did it all,” he said.

Now, the Twins now have three chefs, McCleary included, in their performance kitchen for the home team and one chef for the visitors. For a typical 7:10 p.m. game, McCleary arrives at 10 a.m. and doesn’t head home until 12:30 a.m.

For a night game, the Twins serve an arrival meal around lunch time, a pregame meal and a postgame meal. There’s plenty of snacks around, too.

“We’re offering more and more variety year in and year out,” he said. “Right now in the clubhouse, we’re offering several quality proteins, green vegetables, starches, but then we also offer comfort and sometimes we do Japanese specialties.”

Prior to his trade to the Rays, Cruz’s personal chef, his cousin David, also was around cooking for the Twins and helping teach the rest of the staff how to perfect Latin American cuisine to cook for the many players who prefer that. Ribs were one of David’s specialties.

Along with a buffet, the Twins also offer made-to-order options like eggs for breakfast or sandwiches later in the day for players. The made-to-order component can be especially important for players with dietary restrictions like Donaldson or shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who became a vegan near the beginning of 2020 both in an attempt to reduce inflammation and in response to seeing health issues pop up within his family.

He initially started changing his diet in 2019 after dealing with ankle injuries while with the Angels. First, he lowered his red meat intake. Then there was a little less chicken in his diet. Eventually, it was all completely gone. At this point, he doesn’t miss eating meat, though he said the smell of fried chicken still sends some signals through his brain.

In lieu of that, he turns to foods like potatoes, beans, avocados, mushrooms, fruits — plantains are a favorite — on a frequent basis. And while he said it was initially challenging to find nutritious meals, especially when traveling to a new ballpark, the Twins do their best to accommodate.

“I’m realizing more and more the future of food in baseball is individualization,” McCleary said. “If somebody comes into the clubhouse and says, ‘I’m vegan,’ you need to know what that means and how to accommodate them.’”

Building the program

When it comes to nutrition performance, McCleary and the Twins’ chefs are the builders, he said. Kara Lynch is the architect.

Lynch, the Twins’ director of performance nutrition, is based in Fort Myers, Fla., where she oversees the organization’s nutrition growth and development from the academy in the Dominican Republic all the way up to the major-league level.

This is her second year in the organization and first in her current role as the Twins start building out their nutrition program. Lynch’s primary focus is on counseling and educating, often working to develop individualized nutrition plans for optimal performance for those looking for it.

At the beginning of spring training, Lynch will introduce herself, give an overview of the department and how it can help an individual player and then ask a couple questions. For those who are interested, a fuller assessment then takes place where she drills down to get a good sense of nutrition history and all the other information she might need to craft a personalized plan.

Follow-up meetings — whether in person, on the phone or on a video call — help ensure players are working towards their goals.

“Part of my nutrition philosophy is that no one’s nutrition is perfect, nor should it really be,” Lynch said. “However, we can typically all do a little better and we could all use an upgrade.”

Often, players may be meeting their nutritional ends on the front end but a deeper dive might allow her to start analyzing things like nutrient timing or nutrient interaction, that she said may end up making “one percent of a difference.”

The goal now is to get more buy-in to the nutrition program as they continue to expand it. Often, that’s by word of mouth. If she works with one player and he’s feeling better or seeing changes in his body composition or reaching other goals, he may then direct other players her way.

Right now, Lynch is the only dietitian on staff, but the aim, she said, is to eventually have at each affiliate a registered dietitian who also has a strength-and-conditioning background.

With Lynch in Florida and director of strength and conditioning Ian Kadish with the major-league team at all times, Kadish said the two communicate weekly to share information.

“(Kara’s) door is open to every single player, so if a player wants to talk to her, she’s more than welcoming and she’ll talk to them and help them do their nutrition plan,” Kadish said. “She’s not going to chase you down and she’s not going to hound you like, ‘You and I have to meet one on one.’ It’s kind of very, very player-centric and player-oriented where if you want to take advantage of the service, that’s great.”

Kadish also helps give feedback after a road trip on how the food spreads were received. On the road, the Twins cater in food. Capital Grille is usually a hit with everybody. In Kansas City, barbecue is a must. In Chicago, deep dish pizza — usually from Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s — will make an appearance.

To feed the team for a three-game series, it usually costs the Twins between $12,000 to $15,000. But that’s a cost the Twins gladly will pay to keep their players as healthy as possible.

“It’s a completely different food world that we live in in the clubhouse. I think really there’s just a lot more emphasis on health and taking care of your body, and nutrition is obviously a big part of that,” Baldelli said. “We have three on-premises chefs that are very good at what they do. … That’s going to allow you to do a lot of things and to take care of our guys in a pretty good way, and that way everyone’s not just happy but also has quality options to go with.”