Commentary

McNamee deemed an imposter by strength coaches

Originally Published: December 18, 2007
By Amy Nelson | ESPN.com

A major league strength coach sat in front of his television and watched in dismay as news broke Dec. 13 that it was Roger Clemens' personal trainer who had gone from former strength coach to informant, supplying the federal agents and ultimately Sen. George Mitchell with compelling testimony about his role in supplying performance-enhancing drugs to big leaguers.

Not for one second did the strength coach and others like him feel shamed that the testimony came from one of their brethren. That's because it didn't. Brian McNamee was an outsider, a personal trainer hired by clubs as a staff member because of his ties to the front office and, later, Clemens. In the aftermath of the Mitchell report's release, strength coaches want their voices heard: By and large, they are not the problem, and McNamee was not one of them.

But just what is the role of strength coaches? Long thought of as "dumbbell" coaches, they are in charge of improving and maintaining players' strength, conditioning and health. But they also feel as though they've gotten a bad rap.

"Over the last 15 years, the definition of strength coach has been vaguely defined and been given to people who really don't fall into the criteria of it," said Brad Andress, the head strength and conditioning coach for the Colorado Rockies.

Andress serves as president of the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society, which was created in the early to mid-1990s by former Indians and Rangers strength coach Fernando Montes. He said that athletic trainers -- accredited, full-time staff members responsible for diagnosing injuries and implementing treatment programs for players -- and personal trainers are often confused with major league strength coaches, who spend the majority of their time designing individual workout programs for players. On game days, these coaches are usually in the weight room and on the field stretching and working the players out so their bodies are prepared to play. The strength coaches work within a team setting, not one-on-one like personal trainers.

"I found [the strength coaches] to be a highly professional group," said Frank Coonelly, former head counsel for Major League Baseball, "with only the best interests at heart."

Many personal trainers -- ones who are hired privately by the athletes -- have nothing but good intentions. They are professional and trained properly. However, some are not, and strength coaches take issue with those sullying influences. "[Players] know who to go to for good answers, and they know who to go to for bad answers," Andress said. "I think that's what the Mitchell report showed."

It also showed McNamee as someone who allegedly supplied Clemens and teammate Andy Pettitte with either human growth hormone, steroids or both. It showed that Dodgers Triple-A strength coach Todd Seyler injected himself in the thigh with steroids in the same room in which five of his players also took their turn with a syringe, including Paul Lo Duca and Matt Herges.

McNamee and Seyler were two of many who have infiltrated the clubhouses, lives and homes of players over the years. They were not people, major league strength coaches say, whose primary goal was the athletes' health. McNamee especially, to them, was just another imposter.

"It was a huge, huge problem," said one major league strength coach about personal trainers. "It was a joke. Who's enforcing the rules? No one was checking who was doing what."


Strength coaches are a modern phenomenon in baseball. It had always been football, not baseball, players who focused on the weight room. But attitudes started to shift, and by the late 1980s, a movement had started to mushroom, with Jose Canseco leading the charge in Oakland.

"Back in 1990, I didn't ever think I'd see the day when baseball players would train too much," Andress said.

[+] EnlargeBrad Andress
Stephen Dunn /Getty ImagesBrad Andress has been Colorado's strength and conditioning coach for the last seven seasons.
A former football player at Penn State, Andress joined the Tigers in 1990, his first year in baseball. He had two degrees, including a masters from the University of Michigan.

Over his 17 seasons in baseball, he's seen clubhouses have an open-door policy to all types of personal trainers, from Greg Anderson (Barry Bonds) and Angel Presinal (Juan Gonzalez) to McNamee (Clemens). The presence of such men undermined the strength coaches' own authority and led to the line being blurred between strength coaches and trainers like McNamee.

"The culture [baseball] allowed got so bad," said the same strength coach. "No one gave a [damn] because it made star players better."

Baseball finally wised up to the infested clubhouses, and in 2004 officially banned all personal trainers (among others) from entering the players' domain. Clubhouse access was now limited to full-time employees. The strength coaches universally praised the decision -- and also acknowledged that there were some bad seeds within their sect. One of them, even though he was in the minors, was Seyler.

"There were concerns back then that the personal trainers could be a source of unscrupulous advice regarding supplementation," said Coonelly, who this fall left the commissioner's office and is now team president of the Pittsburgh Pirates. "We thought it was important that clubs employ strength and conditioning coaches who rely on only providing advice and counsel consistent with clean play."

That mantra is exactly what Andress used when explaining what he does for a living. He develops programs for players to build strength and weight in normal increments. Andress and his colleagues serve as part strength coach and part counselor, with players seeking their advice about new methods of training, supplements and, at times, drugs that make them stronger.

It's a test in morality, and if you care about clean athletes, Andress said, you inform them about the consequences of their decisions. You don't aid them in their pursuit of bad choices.

"Education is key," Andress said, "to give [the players] the tools to make the right decision."

It was with education in mind that the strength coaches gathered in late 2004 for a steroid symposium. With the BALCO scandal emerging and the union facing pressure to reopen the drug-testing agreement, the strength coaches wanted to make sure they could be relied upon as trusted experts when players asked about steroids, supplements or drug testing. A year later at their annual winter meetings in Dallas they brought in representatives from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as Don Hooton, a strong supporter of steroid education and the father of Taylor Hooton, a steroid user in high school who later committed suicide.

Coonelly, who was there briefly, just to speak, and Michael Weiner, general counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association, acted as key allies for the strength coaches. Both Coonelly and Weiner spoke and said they wanted to work toward the shared goal of having additional oversight in the hiring of strength coaches and the regulation of supplements.

A few, though not all, of the talking points that emerged from the '05 meeting were found in Mitchell's report last week. Among those the strength coaches felt important were:

• Provide better food in the clubhouses, both at home and on the road.

• Adopt a supplement certification program (which was later done).

• Have more off days, and fewer quick cross-country turnaround trips.

• Expand the rosters so there are fewer missed injury days.

• Require all strength coaches to be certified and registered.

• Hire NSCA vice president Jay Hoffman, a former athlete and steroid user, as a speaker and educator.

• Emphasize education on all topics related to steroids and their dangers.

The suggestion of certification of strength coaches came to fruition in 2005 when Weiner (on behalf of the players) and Coonelly (on behalf of management) quickly and harmoniously agreed to include a strength and conditioning coaches advisory board in the newly negotiated drug-testing policy. The athletic trainers have had a similar board, collectively bargained, since the mid-80s.

The strength coaches are trying to do right by the players, and there is a real effort to educate and help the players.

-- MLBPA general counsel Michael Weiner

"It was a positive step the parties took together," Weiner said. "The strength coaches are trying to do right by the players, and there is a real effort to educate and help the players."

Going forward, the strength coaches seek a better understanding of how stress affects their players' physiologically. The lack of off days, the amount of cross-country travel, the incessant schedule and pressures to perform all affect the ways in which athletes' bodies respond to stress and fatigue. It is the strength coaches' job to understand the science and technology -- to keep their players healthy and in shape. They also seek outside counsel on the new wave of drug designers and PEDs, so they know what their players may be facing.

"You want to make sure you give them the truth and not just feed their insecurity," Andress said. "That's an ethical decision that first and foremost starts with your own beliefs."

Ultimately, what the strength coaches seek is elimination of personal trainers or fellow coaches who either have darker motivations or who aren't really what they appear to be. McNamee was both, but he was never one of them.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.