SEATTLE — As the future Hall of Famer strode into the clubhouse with a plate full of food in one hand and a busy utensil in the other, Ken Griffey Jr. announced to one and all, “special delivery.”
Whether the rich-looking pudding he was eating would have passed muster with the team’s sports dietitian we’ll never know because Kim Larson wasn’t in the ballpark that day.
Best guess from the mischievously beatific grin on Griffey’s face and the way he chirped “special delivery,” it wouldn’t have passed the Larson calorie count.
Not that Griffey isn’t trying to modify his food intake. “I think Ken is very interested in making some positive changes in his diet,” Larson said. “He’s already started to reduce the pop that he’s been drinking.”
Of course, when you’re a baseball icon, you can eat anything you darn well please. And when someone as revered as Griffey asks you to bake something for him, as he did a reporter who covers the team, well, “you don’t say no to a future Hall of Famer.”
And did he like the lemon cheesecake that was prepared? “Oh my gosh, he ate four pieces.” the reporter said.
As Mariner trainer Rick Griffin wryly observed when told about the pudding episode, “You’re never going to have 100 percent in everything. You do the best you can.”
What the Mariners have tried to do under Larson’s guidance this season is to get the players to eat healthier food, and that begins in the clubhouse, where they take a couple of meals each day during the season, before and after games. “I think they realized that they had some nutrition issues in the past,” said Larson, a sports dietitian from Snohomish with her own business (Total Health), “and they really wanted to maximize performance in all their players and try to avoid some of the issues they’ve had in the past.”
Brought on board during spring training, Larson put together a program that initially didn’t sit well with some of the players, though a couple of them were among those pushing for some changes in the foods prepared in the clubhouse. “What we wanted to do this year,” said Griffin, who along with former Mariner executive Lee Pelekoudas pushed for the team to hire a dietitian, “was have someone work with the cooks to try and improve the overall quality of the food.”
A ballplayer’s idea of quality food might be a juicy steak or some deep-fried chicken nuggets or a two-patty hamburger sandwich, with perhaps some chocolate chip cookies and ice cream for dessert.
Larson didn’t have to eliminate cookies from the menu. Griffin had nixed all sweets from the clubhouse before she ever came to the Mariners.
As for fried foods, that was one of the first things to go under Larson’s watch. Which didn’t go over well with one of the starting pitchers, who shall remain anonymous just because Larson doesn’t want to cause a ruckus. This particular player likes his cheeseburgers.
Gone. Replaced by turkey burgers. Which have caught on remarkably well. “They love them,” Larson said.
Players being players, Larson suspects that some still sneak their favorite fast foods into the clubhouse every now and then. “Probably not as much as they have in the past,” she surmised, “when they would order out all the time and have it brought into the clubhouse.”
Larson didn’t come in with a dictatorial “do things my way” hammer, but was told by the club to do what needed to be done. “They kind of gave me carte blanche from the beginning.”
Griffin said the players have pretty much embraced the changes, though initially there were rumblings such as “we want hamburgers.” You don’t hear that anymore, he said.
Players weren’t the only ones grousing about the changes.
Club president Chuck Armstrong likes regular, old-fashioned bacon, and early this season when he ate some of the turkey bacon that had replaced it, he complained to clubhouse chef Jeremy Bryant that “this stuff tastes terrible.”
Bryant assured Armstrong that he would sneak some regular bacon into the kitchen just for him in the future. “I was like, ‘Chuck Armstrong, he’s way at the top, he can have whatever he wants,’” Bryant said.
Well, the first time that alluring aroma wafted through the clubhouse, players rushed into the kitchen demanding that Bryant cook some for them. He explained that he did it only for the club president.
Which, of course, got back to Armstrong. “The players teased me that I threw him under the bus,” Bryant said with a sheepish smile. “It was just a big fiasco. The Bacon Incident of Oh-Nine.”
Armstrong vowed to Larson that he wouldn’t be asking for any more bacon on Sunday mornings. “She rapped my knuckles,” he said in a jocular manner.
A slightly built lady with a good sense of humor — you have to have that in an all-male bastion — Larson wanted to educate the players about what they should be eating to help improve their performances, as well as enhance their lifestyles after baseball.
Working with Bryant, they changed the cooking methods, eliminating saturated fats and replacing them with Canola oil, soy beans and olive oil.
“We got rid of the deep fryer and the hotdog roller,” she said. “We went to very lean meats, lowering fats across the board as much as possible.
“When you get all these fat calories coming in, you don’t get enough carbohydrates to replenish the glycogen stores that they need for energy.
“We have a lot of nutrient rich foods,” she added, “fruit baskets everywhere, melons and berries. Guys can make fruit smoothies anytime of day. We have low-fat yogurt and a low-fat ice cream machine.”
Players eat a lot of chicken and fish, especially salmon, and they still get steak, but the very lean variety and in smaller portions, about three ounces. And, yes, they can have more than one.
Even the snack table underwent a major overhaul: nuts, trail mix, dried fruit, granola bars, cereal bars. And, baked potato chips. “Just really great carbs for them,” Larson stressed, “nothing with any fat except healthy fat.”
She knew she was making progress when she got an e-mail from first baseman Russell Branyan, who was raised on healthy foods grown in his father’s garden in the southern part of the country. He told her “the guys are really noticing a difference in how they feel and we’re even talking about it on the airplane.”
That’s because Larson suggested changes in the food that was being offered on the Alaska Airlines charter flights the team takes. “I looked at all the menus for the entire season and made suggestions and revisions and product recommendations,” she said.
Nor would her work have been complete without making changes in the food that was laid out in visiting clubhouses. The policy she prescribed was similar to the one in the home clubhouse, though “maybe not quite as strict.”
“Kim’s done a nice job,” Branyan said. “I definitely think it’s been a good investment for the ballclub.”
Players and execs.