Owners feed Cubs new way of life
CHICAGO -- Coming up in the minors, Randy Wells stuck to a disciplined diet.
"I used to eat cheese fries before every start," he said proudly.
Those were Wells' gastronomic "salad days." Now, the promising second-year pitcher is stuck anguishing in the Cubs' Salad Days.
Unbridled free-agent spending, a curse-busting priest and one left-handed miscreant couldn't bring the Cubs that World Series they so desperately crave. Maybe a balanced diet will do the trick.
In a spending spree that would make a Tribune Co. executive choke on his ascot, the Ricketts family renovated the team's ancient clubhouse, putting in a new kitchen, complete with stainless steel, and a players' lounge. The Cubs' new owner also hired a nutritional consultant to remake the team's menu and a team psychologist to soothe the team's psyche.
Gone are the days of pregame McDonald's runs and "hit it where they ain't." Then again, what did the good ol' days produce?
The nutritional consultant, dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, who has written a book on "flexitarianism," a form of pseudo-vegetarianism, instituted some new rules. Some make perfect sense, like replacing bacon with its turkey alternative. But other rules are bound to irritate, like the elimination of soda and candy. And that goes for the road, too. The Cubs had already eliminated beer from the clubhouse in 2007, after the alcohol-related driving death of St. Louis reliever Josh Hancock.
And if any sugar-deprived Cubs are looking for a scapegoat...
"It was actually my brother Todd's idea," Tom Ricketts said. "Todd owns a bike shop and he's interested in fitness and he suggested [Blatner]. When we redid the kitchen, we retrained [the staff]. We got a speed coach and a masseuse."
Not that Todd, or anyone else, is placing more importance on BMIs over RBIs.
"It's baby steps," he said. "If guys don't like it, they'll still eat what they want. But we hope to move them away from eating cheeseburgers and stuff."
The changes started in the spring, and while other players are more prone to give political answers, Wells, for one, is not happy.
"It's terrible," he said. "I hate it. I'm not a health food guy. I think we should be allowed to eat and get ready however we want. I understand what they're trying to do. They want us to be healthier and be more energized."
The Cubs are hardly the first team to imbue their clubhouse with libertarian paternalism when it comes to the spread. Most famous was when Joe Girardi took over the Yankees in 2008. Girardi cleaned out the junk food, earning scorn from his players. He relented some, bringing back ice cream when Mike Mussina won his 10th game that season. And sure enough, the Yankees missed the playoffs that year for the first time in forever, but they won the World Series the next.
"It can't hurt," Cubs second baseman Mike Fontenot said.
During broadcaster Bob Brenly's playing career, he said his idea of a pregame meal was a cup of coffee and a glazed donut. But he remembers an attempt to clean up the Giants' spread.
"When I was with the Giants, our general manager Al Rosen had a mild heart attack," Brenly said as he picked through the Cubs' Opening Day offerings in the press box cafeteria. "And his doctors altered his diet, so he tried to do the same for us, getting rid of the mayonnaise and beer and things. There was a minor mutiny. But we learned to adjust and deal with it. We should all eat healthier."
Cubs clubhouse manager Tom "Otis" Hellman is the team's head chef, and while other teams have gone gourmet, the Cubs have been a scrambled eggs-and-bacon type of outfit. Then again, the Tribune Co. hadn't redone the kitchen since 1984.
"The rest of the clubhouse is really nice. The kitchen, I feel like Otis should be wearing chef's gear in there," Piniella joked.
I asked Hellman what the players thought of the new fare after one day.
"They ate it, so that's good," he said.
Aramis Ramirez, one of the longest-tenured Cubs, said he doesn't think the new menu will help him thrive.
"I don't eat here, just a bite sometimes," he said. "That's not going to do me any good."
While the new lounge should encourage more of the fraternization that old-school types believe engenders team chemistry, if the players don't love the food, will they just leave for fattening fare elsewhere? Don't worry. The Cubs have another step in the plan to improve the culture. And it has to do with yogurt culture.
The Cubs have added a Berry Chill machine as their sole dessert option. Maybe that could be a new slogan for the post-Sammy Sosa Cubs: We're all natural now.
The organization's rep as the franchise of the upwardly mobile is surely burgeoning. What's next, a charcuterie and a cupcake bakery?
I can see it now. The Cubs win an extra-inning game in sweltering August to take first place in the Central and celebrate by knocking back a few yogurts.
"Someone pass the kiwi toppings and the rainbow sprinkles! Don't hog the carob chips!"
While the Chicago-based Berry Chill is providing the only official indulgence in the clubhouse, the tins and pouches of chewing tobacco in players' lockers remain. Wells said he has his fast food moles on alert.
Berry Chill CEO Michael Farah said he was approached by the team and the nutritionist, as they wanted to offer the team a healthy dessert. (Blatner did not respond to e-mails.)
Cubs pitcher Tom Gorzelanny was the one who recommended Berry Chill, which has a very popular River North location. (The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy Tuesday, but Farah, the company's founder, said the company is stable.)
"I go there pretty much every day," Gorzelanny said, echoing the comments of upscale women all over the city.
Why Berry Chill? According to Farah's blog, the active cultures in the yogurt "can increase your metabolism, help boost your immune response and freshen your breath."
"It's all natural," Farah said in a phone conversation. "It's lactose-free and there are no allergens. It's not your typical frozen yogurt."
Farah, a North Shore native in his early 30s, sold a tabletop machine to the Cubs, who put it in the new lounge. There are toppings and mixers to give added taste.
And for you White Sox fans scoffing at the Cubs' yuppie ways, know that U.S. Cellular Field serves Berry Chill in the club section and has a dessert named after Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham. Devin Hester of the Bears -- who has no patience for lactose or blockers -- is a spokesman, and Farah hinted at a partnership with Joakim Noah of the Bulls.
Yes, these are a new breed of athletes. Maybe they won't care about the changes. Maybe they'll embrace the healthy choices. Personally, I'd pay money to see Piniella's face when he tries an all-natural yogurt. (Full disclosure: not a fan.)
The important thing is: Can more space and healthy food make the Cubs a better team? Can turkey burger sliders help you hit a slider?
"I think over time, yeah," Piniella said. "The players and the staff enjoyed it over spring training. It's good to eat nutritional. It should pay some handsome dividends, maybe not initially, but over time, why not?"
The Cubs won their first game with the new clubhouse, but that probably had more to do with Brewers starter Doug Davis than anything foodie.
I know what you might be asking yourself: What in the name of Mark Grace has happened to this team? Wells, for one, isn't changing.
"I'm kicking it old-school this year," he said. "Beer and hot dogs. Hey, it worked for Babe Ruth."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.