Detox mode this past off-season started for Jose Bautista the moment he returned home following the Toronto Blue Jays’ elimination in the American League Championship Series.
To fight the inflammation that had accumulated in his body over the course of a long year, he shifted his diet, cutting out all red meat, pork and red wine. Not a bite, or a drop, all winter. His mother, Sandra, regularly asked him why he was shunning the foods he so loved. But this was method, not madness. Every single thing he put in his body was meticulously planned in order to generate a calculated effect.
“Body management is what I call it,” Bautista says by his locker one afternoon, making his way through an omelette and some vegetables, a banana, a teaspoon of nut butter and a cup of turmeric tea. “We’re athletes and in essence we’re a revenue-generating entity. Our asset is our body, and how to better manage your body will yield better results, so I just took that approach. Whatever that entails, I seek, I look, I try, experiment. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Such regimented meal-planning, adjusted for differing needs at different moments, is but one part of Bautista’s meticulous year-round regimen. Since a bone bruise and inflammation in his left hip cut short his 2013 season and prompted Bautista to fully investigate its root causes, the all-star right-fielder has done plenty of trial and error, and learned lots about works for him, and what doesn’t.
He attributes playing in 308 of the Blue Jays’ 324 regular-season games the past two seasons and all but one of 55 so far this year to the holistic approach he takes to his “body management,” which includes a strict nutritional diet, yoga, stretching exercises and specialized breathing techniques on top of the usual exercise routines baseball players typically follow.
It’s also why the 35-year-old expects to play and remain productive well into his 40s, a belief that colours the expectations for his impending free agency at season’s end. Teams are sure to counter with the loads of data demonstrating how bat speed, strength and speed start declining rapidly in players his age, but Bautista thinks he’ll be able to wring more from his body than his counterparts.
“I don’t think so—I know so,” he says. “You have two animals—let’s just pick two dogs, exactly the same age, one that’s been eating garbage for his whole life, and one that’s been eating good. The one that eats garbage doesn’t work out; the other dog works out regularly because his master takes him out for regular runs. If they both have to race when they’re 10 years old, which one would you put your money on? That’s how I look at my career. It takes discipline and dedication and hard work and commitment, and not everyone is willing to go there. Not a lot of people even understand that they can get better results doing it this way, so most people just don’t know.”
A common refrain heard from older baseball players is that Father Time is undefeated. Does Bautista think he’s going to defy time?
“I’m not saying I’m going to defy time. I’m saying that I feel good,” he replies. “I know what works for me and I’m going to continue to do it. I feel great, I don’t have to apologize for that. If other people haven’t done their due diligence to figure out what works for them to feel great, it’s not my problem. I’m doing it because it’s going to allow me to be the best I can be.”
Controlling exactly what he consumes is much easier during the off-season when Bautista has a personal chef at home preparing meals, and he can handpick local restaurants that source healthy and organic foods when he does go out. He reviews menus and suppliers and knows exactly what he plans to order before leaving the house. Occasionally, he allows himself a cheat meal.
“Normal-people food is what I like to call it,” says Bautista. “I’m an athlete—I can’t have impurities in my system, it defeats the purpose. It’s going to clog me up and create stagnation in my tissues. My cells have to be alive, they have to move, they have to be available to me. I can’t do it if I’m eating junk.”
Bautista eats oatmeal at least once a day to try and regularly help cleanse his body of inflammation. He feels ingesting turmeric, often in teas, is important. Vegetable proteins such as lentils, red kidney beans and kale are key substitutes for red meat. Eggs, berries, avocados, greens and rice are also regulars in his diet. He brings along healthy snacks while on the road.
“I’ve got four years of research on myself, basically,” he says. “I know how my body feels after I eat certain foods, I know how my body feels if I don’t get good sleep, I know how my body feels if I had five beers instead of four. I know, because I pay attention.”
Maintaining the same discipline in-season is more difficult amid the constant travel and time demands of the 162-game grind. Often players are left to eat whatever is in the clubhouse, which can be a mixed bag nutritionally speaking.
“I’ve been complaining for years and it’s getting better,” says Bautista. “I still don’t understand why it’s so slow to change. It’s mind-boggling to me that the teams wouldn’t go above and beyond to provide the best food for us at all times.”
Even when the Blue Jays are home?
“It’s a work in progress,” he says. “I’m trying to be positive. There are changes, but it’s definitely not what it needs to be.”
The science says inflammation is the enemy for any athlete, but especially for baseball players given how little recovery time there is in-season. After games or workouts, muscle fibres become sore and swollen as part of the body’s natural response to damage. Teams take a variety of different measures to counter inflammation, among them making adjustments to a player’s diet.
“In the same way that you wouldn’t put regular gas and low grade oil into a sports car, our athletes need the best fuel to keep them performing, and recovering, at all times,” says Clive Brewer, assistant director of the Blue Jays’ new high performance department. “We provide players with lots of produce such as spinach, beets and broccoli, drinks such as tart cherry juice, green tea and carrot juice with ginger, and add spices such as turmeric, cinnamon and garlic to the food to help reduce inflammation. Fish protein is especially helpful in aiding recovery and reducing inflammation.”
Even before new president and CEO Mark Shapiro hired Angus Mugford to build out a high performance staff, the Blue Jays employed sports dietician Leslie Bonci, who has worked with the organization’s minor-leaguers for the past 10 years and the big-league team over the past four seasons.
Over that span, without commenting on specific players, she says, “the trend has been [toward] heightened interest in performance nutrition and also career extension, keeping one’s body in top shape to stay well and play longer.”
“What is unique to baseball is the number of games, having night games followed by day games, double headers and the length of games,” she continues. “So we really focus on prepare-and-repair through food and beverage choices, timing and volume. For example, it doesn’t make sense to eat a huge meal before going to bed at 2 a.m.”
This focus on diet helps explain why when left-fielder Michael Saunders played through a hamstring injury earlier this season was regularly having tart cherry juice—a drink “known to have anti-inflammatory properties,” says head trainer George Poulis—as part of his treatment plan.
“Say you eat a lot of sugar,” says Poulis. “A lot of sugar products can cause inflammation in your body. In a nutshell, our nutritionists will recommend an anti-inflammatory type diet, which helps with recovery. So the treatments we do to them, the medications that the doctors give, it helps their body use it more efficiently.”
Marcus Stroman pretty much gave up on bread and gluten last summer, while rehabilitating a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee. Now he eats his burgers with no buns, rarely has pizza and focuses on proteins. He carb-loads only once every five days, consuming a massive bowl of pasta the night before he pitches.
“A big thing is managing your weight,” says the Blue Jays right-hander. “I have a weight I like to pitch at (180 lb., give or take). I’m very conscious of it. The day before I step on a scale, I’m usually lighter, so it gives me rein to eat a little bit, and then I usually come in the day I pitch where I need to be. I feel like I have a pretty good routine.”
Stroman noticed Bautista’s devotion to nutrition the moment he first came up to the big-leagues in the 2014 season. The young right-hander made a point of asking his veteran teammate lots of questions about what the benefits were to eating various foods, how it impacted his training, what it did to aid in his recovery. Over time, he’s become a devotee.
“Bautista is as good as he is and is as big of a role model as he is because of how particular he is.… He takes me under his wing, whether it’s talking about pitching or talking about nutrition, stretches, different breathing exercises that will help me in my delivery,” says Stroman. “People don’t understand how educated he is. He literally knows so much about the body and he takes time to learn all these things, he puts in the effort and the work and I respect that.”
The other thing he respects is the discipline that’s required. “Food is temptation, right?” says Stroman. “It’s not easy to go to a restaurant and order a quinoa salad, you know what I mean? But he takes pride in that. It’s truly special to watch.”
Stroman isn’t the only Blue Jays player paying attention to nutrition more closely these days. Aaron Sanchez, for instance, has a daily menu detailed down to the minute stored in his phone, an integral part of his physical transformation over the winter. Others in the clubhouse are showing interest.
“Stroman is very similar to me, which I think for those reasons he’s going to have a very long and healthy career,” says Bautista. “Sanchez is [also] getting into it, (Kevin) Pillar and (Ryan) Goins are getting into it a little bit. (Troy) Tulowitzki does some of it. We just pick each other’s brains and try to make each other better.”
In November, Bautista travelled to Spain for a visit to the Camp Nou home of FC Barcelona, a trip that was both business and pleasure. Aside from taking in an El Classico match against Real Madrid and a UEFA Champions League contest versus AS Roma, he met star players like Leo Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez along with team officials, discussing various training techniques and routines.
There’s a school of thought that believes European teams are well ahead of their North American counterparts when it comes to sports science. Bautista came away from the experience with new pieces of information to work with. “One hundred percent,” he says, but when asked to share an example, he replies, “I’d rather not.”
“I go to experts,” Bautista says. “Nutritionists, doctors, strength coaches, mobility experts, I seek the best advice, I look at what they do, I study what they study, and I look at their principles. If I believe them, then I practise it, and see what kind of results I get. If I get good results then I continue. If not, I move on to something else.”
The process started in 2013, when Bautista tried to figure out how he had injured his hip. At the time he remembered hitting the plate awkwardly when he scored a run, but the more he investigated what had gone wrong, he came to realize the root was muscle tightness in the area because of surrounding weakness. Years of doing nothing but pushing around weights to build strength and then taking the field to play “created some imbalances and some weaknesses and I had to overcome those.”
Avoiding new imbalances is a constant and ever-changing process as the body endures wear and tear and compensates for fatigue or injury as needed. To that end, Bautista has a detailed routine to get his body ready for games, and even once ready, he’s constantly stretching on the field, to remain loose and limber.
“Basically, if I was a Neanderthal back in the day, and I want to hunt because I’m hungry, and it’s an animal I have to actually chase and kill, I can’t just roll out of bed and go do it and expect to eat that day,” says Bautista. “There’s a process, preparation. You start by breathing, getting your mind into that mode where you’re going to compete, you start activating some muscles, feel for tension, roll that out, either with a massage or foam rollers. Then you go onto further breathing activation with movements, work on your joint control. It’s kind of like a race-car before the race, you’ve got to make sure the gauges are at the proper readings. If not, then you don’t know what you’re working with.
“After that, I do a little bit of strengthening (kettle bells, foam rollers, body weights, vest) just to feel the complete body unison or strength. I just feel my body and I know what I need. I know what’s tight, I know what’s not tight and I know what it’s coming from, I know how to fix it. That’s why I’m always stretching. Then I can do things with less effort, which will create less wear and tear, which will allow me to be fresh for longer. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel old.”
A more recent area of focus for Bautista is on his breathing and he’s been studying Ayurvedic practices and techniques. “I’ve had the luxury to be connected to and surrounded by some Indian people who have helped me open my eyes a little bit and not be limited to what we have access to from the Western world and Western medicines,” he says.
Through his limited experiences so far, Bautista believes he’s learned to prepare his body for different upcoming activities and is adamant that it’s “100-percent effective.”
“You can use stuff to energize you, you can use stuff to calm yourself down, you can use stuff to get in a meditative state, you can use stuff to focus better—it just depends on what you want to do and how far you want to take it and what you allow yourself to consciously do when thinking about your breathing,” he explains. “It doesn’t take three hours a day, but consciously breathing for five to 10 minutes at a time, two or three times a day goes a long way, because then, when you’re subconsciously breathing, your patterns are going to be better and your muscles are going to be working better.”
Bautista insists the combination of his entire regimen has changed him not only physically, but mentally, too. Asked to compare how he feels now versus age 30, he says he can’t say for certain because he didn’t pay attention to his body in the same way back then, although he doesn’t remember feeling better back then.
Mentally, it’s a different story.
“Your confidence goes through the roof,” says Bautista. “I know I’m doing everything I need to do. I know I’m talented, and I have experience and I have enjoyed success in the past. I don’t care who’s on the mound at any given point. I’m not saying they’re not going to get me out, but I’m very confident when I’m at the plate. And I’d rather be in that position than be the other guy [thinking], ‘What am I going to do, how am I going to get him out, what pitch do I need?’ That doesn’t go through my head.”