Vinny Castilla during his days as a Colorado Rockies slugger used to tell a sad tale. While assigned to the now defunct Sumter Braves in the low-level Class A South Atlantic League as a teenager from Mexico, Castilla struggled with both English and transportation and ordered the same thing at McDonald's. Day after day.
Things have really changed in minor league baseball since the 1980s, and not all the improvements are visible to fans. Deep inside the state-of-art ballparks and off the well-manicured fields are expansive clubhouses.
Among the lockers at Charleston's Riley Park is a table full of fresh food, a carefully planned spread laid out before every game.
A Thanksgiving-sized meal, complete with large turkey?
Yes, some of the best tasting fringe benefits in baseball.
Major league teams such as the New York Yankees, parent club of the South Atlantic League's Charleston RiverDogs, have learned nutrition is a sound part of their investment in players. The theory, finally realized in the last decade: Young athletes, most of whom make very little money, will fill up on cheap cheeseburgers and pizza unless offered other convenient options.
"There wasn't much of anything to eat in the clubhouse when I was playing in the minors," said RiverDogs manager Greg Colbrunn, a 13-year major league veteran who helped the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks win the World Series. "We were lucky to even dress in a clubhouse on the road. A lot of times it was on the bus."
Vinnie Colangelo is the RiverDogs' food facilitator, which makes him a very popular man. A 27-year-old native of Bellville, N.J., Colangelo's duties as home clubhouse manager include providing the pre-game spread.
It takes a balancing act of pleasing the Yankees (Colangelo's employer emphasizes content) and player requests (taste, taste and taste).
"The Yankees want healthy stuff," Colangelo said. "Once in a while, you can mix in non-healthy stuff. I like to mix in ice cream and sherbet. You know, the better the spread, the better the tips go."
Some major league organizations provide pre-game food spreads on the road. The RiverDogs do not, though players receive a meal allowance of $30 per day. Recent RiverDogs home spreads have included barbecue chicken, ham and lasagna as the main menu items.
The turkey and fajitas went over well, too.
"I remember when the players were lucky to get pre- and post-game spreads, and if they did it was often leftover ballpark food or fast food," RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols said. "Not so anymore. A lot of thought and effort and money go into the care of what players eat nowadays."
Pass the watermelon
To ease the cultural adjustment of Hispanic players, Colangelo keeps rice, beans and chicken in the menu rotation. He shops every three or four days during RiverDog homestands, usually at Wal-Mart or Costco. Fruit, chips, vegetables and plastic ware are regular purchases.
Cooking, if necessary, usually is done by RiverDogs concession-stand employees.
Budget: Approximately $90 per daily spread.
"The money the Yankees put into this gets bigger every year," Colangelo said. "Even a few years ago, it was only $20 or $30 per spread. They want these guys eating healthy. Even in the big leagues, teams try to do a better job every season trying to help control what guys eat."
Poor Vinny Castilla.
Poor Greg Colbrunn.
With food availability like this when they were younger, they might still be playing.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or (843) 937-5593.