They used to call it “carousing.” A lot of ballplayers did it. The red-dirt farms and zinc mines were still just a stone’s throw behind them, and their game paycheck didn’t guarantee all that much beyond Saturday night. So they’d celebrate late into the morning, measuring the time in pint glasses and torn off pull tabs. But somewhere around 1989, with the dawn of cable TV and an increasingly powerful union, baseball became a really big business.
Now boasting an average salary of $4 million, baseball has some of the most serious money in sports. With that comes responsibility. But despite many players cutting back on the late nights and drinking, the reconfigured profit margin (with its increasing travel demands) still carried an additional cost, one that most teams have ignored for 30 years: a good night’s rest.
Inspired by the research of neurologist Chris Winter, who looked at the ways sleep habits and chronotype affect player ability, people like Pirates assistant trainer Ben Potenziano are trying to change that.
“We were in Colorado in 2008,” says Potenziano, then with the San Francisco Giants. “I went up in the bottom of the fifth do some stretches with players, and Colorado had put up something on the TV about sleep and travel, this study Chris was involved in. I’m sitting here thinking, how did we not know about this? We’re dealing with $3 million dollar athletes.” Potenziano called a friend of his at the MLB office in New York, who got him in contact with Winter. “I got him speaking that year at the [annual MLB] Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. That was the first time anyone knew what sleep meant for baseball.”
Winter, the medical director of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic, had long been interested in the effects of sleep on elite athletes. His ten-year baseball study concluded that teams with a circadian advantage (those more in sync with the current time zone) won more than 50 percent of the time, a winning percentage that increased with every additional time zone the opposing team crossed, until it eventually exceeded typical home-field advantage by eight percentage points.
Winter also somewhat predictably confirmed that teams traveling East to West won fewer games. His research, which he presented to an array of trainers and managers, was a hit. But even in the Bill Beane era of Moneyball, his findings didn’t quite catch on. Potenziano, however, listened.
After the presentation, he and Winter hashed out a plan at the bar, and Winter became The Giants’ regular consultant. Manager Bruce Bochy and GM Brian Sabean bought in. It may have been coincidence, but the Giants won the World Series within a year, and a few years later, two more.
“If you’re a repeat offender, we have last year’s survey and can see what the changes are,” says Potenziano, of the new sleep program. “With the new guys, we try to figure out what’s going on in their life — who just got married, just had a baby, any possible kind of stress.”
Another important trait trainers look for is chronotype. Determining whether someone is a night owl or an early riser is usually a matter of figuring out long-established behavior patterns, many of which Potenziano and Winter would like to break.
One of the big ones is technology addiction. The basic protocol, applicable to non-players too, is simple: “When you get back to your room, take 10, 15 mins to look at your iPod or iPhone and then shut them off. You’re looking at this light and your mind is saying it’s morning, I’m gonna keep you up. We want you to shut everything down black, and even put on music or sound, something to make you relax.” (As for women: “You’re not their father,” he says. But the originally prescripts still hold.)
Of course, there are those guys who stay up till 4 playing Xbox, finally get up at 2, and come to the ballpark eating their first meal. “Some guys can adjust to that,” says Potenziano. “But I promise you, it kicks their ass by August.” In fact, he and Winter have found that out of the players in the original study, more than three-quarters of whom confessed to sleep problems were out of the game within a few years.
Potenziano remembers one such outfielder, “a true night owl,” who batted .263 during night games, and played like “a piece of shit during the day.” But of course, when the player is carrying a $62 million contract, it’s not easy to go to the manager and tell him to sit this guy. Instead, Potenziano and Winter try to tailor a sleep experience to suit players’ individual needs, as simply and efficiently as possible.
One of the many strategies is separating problem sleepers on the road. Managers put problem sleepers on the west side of the hotel (and if necessary, duct-tape the base of their doors to keep the hall light out); the morning types, who get up at 9:30 and perform well after 7.5 or 8 hours sleep, are put on the east side.
A less simple project, is tackling the schedule.
Each year, Winter presents the Giants and other teams with the best sleep solutions for the year. Then trainers must perform a series of mental somersaults, backflips and reversals to achieve the best possible acclimation within their own logistical and monetary confines. For example, the fact that the Pirates must fly from home to the west coast on an off day — instead of the night before — to avoid the cost of additional meals and another night in a hotel.
“We’re never gonna be able to get management to understand,” says Potenziano. “It is a business and I’m not degrading them or saying they’re wrong. But they have their business side and we’re looking at one side of it too.”
This cost-cutting side is one that, before the dawn of big money, guys like Mickey Mantle avoided. Back then, it was mostly day games, played against geographically close division opponents. Trains with berths — as opposed to airline seats — allowed players to bed down. Even the grueling Sunday doubleheader was followed by a day’s rest (those days add up over the course of a season).
More or less nonexistent in its original form, today’s doubleheader has been reincarnated for, largely, make-up purposes as the day-night, with a two or three hour break (as opposed to 30 minutes) between games, and stretches late into the evening. Of course, there’s the interminable lengths of the games themselves.
But some clubs have started spending more on sleep-specific technology to reverse the effects. Both the Giants and the Pirates have temperature- and light-regulated sleep recovery rooms, where players can catch a timed 30-minute nap after batting practice. With the help of a company called Biosound, the Pirates have installed brighter, white bulbs in both the clubhouse and bullpen to stimulate alertness. They may also be the first team to bring in isopod sleep chambers, at the cost of $75,000 apiece.
Potenziano and Winter have been tracking the usage of these new amenities (monitored with swipe cards), and how it may or may not correlate with injury, but won’t know the results for a few years. “Sometimes you’re throwing shit on the wall,” says Potenziano. “But sometimes it sticks. The ideas have to be tweaked.”
But Potenziano believes the investments will pay off. After all, most health and performance factors can be traced back to sleep. He notes how much teams already spend on nutrition—with their own chefs, personal diet plans — then tells a quick story.
“There was a third baseman we had in San Francisco who was fighting with weight,” he says. “The biggest problem we had was his sleep. Three o’clock in the morning and this dude’s eating. I love him, but he wouldn’t go to sleep, and sleep takes care of many things. Eating and diet is one of them.”
Of course, ballplayers are creatures of habit, and some of the old-school vets, he admits, might be less receptive to interference of any kind. “I’ve had the Jeff Kents, the Benito Santiagos, the Rich Aurelias. I had A.J. Burnett here. He paid attention to Chris, but he knew what he needed — just his 2 a.m. to 10:30. But you know, he was 38.”
For the young guys, Potenziano believes his work can be a tremendous benefit, and extend careers. In any case, his approach is the way of the future--and the present. He estimates a dozen teams have begun programs similar to his and Dr. Winter’s, including Tampa Bay and, recently, Detroit. In the past year or so, five teams have fired trainers, he says, victims of the sabermetric era and its young, forward-thinking GMs. They want numbers. They want every advantage, and they’re receptive to new ideas.
“You have to be moving in the right direction,” says Potenziano. “You have to be on the pulse.”