ST. LOUIS -- Chef Simon Lusky strolled through a supermarket just outside of Philipsburg, Pa., with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Adams and his parents. The country store looked like a slice of Americana and they were looking for a lean piece of meat.
They found a small butcher shop in the store with fresh venison for sale. It was December of 2012, snow was on the ground, baseball was a few months away and Adams’ eating habits were about to change.
The Cardinals organization had just begun a groundbreaking endeavor. In 2012 the club hired Lusky to prepare healthy food. With a team effort from the medical staff, clubhouse staff, strength staff and coaches, food has become a source of fuel for the players instead of empty calories. Manager Mike Matheny played a big part in Lusky getting hired but the push also came from the front office.
"John Mozeliak, he's really into health and eating right and working out," Lusky said of the team's general manager. "He's all about it too, so organizationally everybody is on board with it."
To really make an impact though, Lusky had to help Adams become self-sufficient with his food choices in the offseason.
"He flew in for a couple of days and took us out to eat, and taught us what to look for on the menu out at a restaurant -- healthy options," said Adams, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound first baseman who weighed a few pounds more that winter. "Then we went to the grocery store and went through all the aisles."
Adams, who debuted in the majors in 2012, was living with his parents; both are busy, hard-working people. So Lusky, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Johnson and Wales, put an emphasis on showing them quick and healthy meals.
"A piece of salmon takes just as long to cook as it does to heat up a Stouffers lasagna," Lusky said.
Adams and his whole family watched and helped prepare the food as Lusky taught them how to cook healthy. "His mom, his dad, his uncle, his aunt, a cousin, they were all like, 'What’s kale?'" Lusky said. "They never had asparagus or brussels sprouts."
Adams lost 25 pounds after the 2012 season, then another 20 pounds after the 2013 season; his dad lost 30 pounds and now enjoys healthy eating so much he maintains his own vegetable garden.
Adams said he is seeing results on the field. His body is not breaking down. "I’m feeling strong and waking up with energy and ready to go on a daily basis," he said.
From doughnuts to gator jerkey
Before Lusky was hired as the team chef everything in the clubhouse was catered. The players were getting a wide variety of foods but it was not the right food.
"There was a big emphasis on pastas and cream sauces," Lusky said. “Fattier meats, not leaner cuts. Maybe a lack of vegetables with some certain meals."
He helped them make a cultural change in how they viewed food.
"Before, they said they'd go through four or five dozen doughnuts throughout the course of the game," Lusky said.
Now, the clubhouse walls are lined with dispensers of all different kinds of nuts. The most popular in-game snack is a protein bar homemade by a childhood friend of St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. The team focuses on nutrient-dense foods with a lot of good calories. This helps their muscles and their recovery time.
"A handful of nuts can be as high as 400 or 500 calories depending on the nuts," Lusky said. "I tell the guys to snack on nuts constantly, constantly. Any time you are feeling just a little hungry grab a handful of nuts."
Fruit is also always available.
"The whole fridge is full of nectarines, apples, and oranges and bananas, kiwis," Lusky said. "We have every type of jerky; we use a company that specializes in wild game jerky -- pheasant, gator, elk -- every sort of animal you can imagine in jerky form, a bunch of different flavors.”
Besides healthy snacks, the meal he prepares for the club every home game consists of lean proteins like chicken breast and turkey, but no fried meats.
"Red meat is fine, we eat a lot of red meat," Lusky said. "It's a clubhouse full of guys so if we took red meat away my head would be on a stick. The biggest thing I do as a chef is I vary the protein." Besides red met, he'll have pork, lamb, wild boar, shrimp and different types of fish.
Lusky has a very simple motto: green, clean and lean.
"I always tell the guys get some green vegetables on your plate, get some clean carbs -- a clean carb is quinoa, sweet potatoes, something that's not going to be a white rice or a white pasta -- those are things we don't have. If we're going to have a pasta, it's going to be gluten-free or whole wheat."
When the team is on the road, Lusky also ships food to about half the team -- about 120 pounds to every destination, at a cost of about $1,000.
Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, like many players, struggles to keep weight on during the season, or he'll run out of energy during the game.
"Now we have a little routine where I do a smoothie for him," Lusky said. "I don’t say anything. I just go at the end of the third [inning] and I make him a smoothie and I put it where the bats are underneath the dugout and just leave it there, and he goes at it."
"Diet is one of the things you don’t think about," infielder Daniel Descalso said. "You think about working out, you think about taking batting practice and ground balls, but diet is a huge part of what goes into maintaining your health and well-being through the entire season."
Change in baseball isn't always easy, however.
"A guy when I first met him who I thought would never want to get on the healthy board was Randy Choate," Lusky said of the veteran reliever. "He was like, 'I eat doughnuts and Coke for breakfast, and I love fried chicken and McDonald's.' He was an uphill climb from the first day. He was outspoken about it."
This past offseason, Choate and his wife had Lusky come to their house to teach them how to eat healthier.
"To say it hasn't made any difference would be a lie," Choate said. "I definitely came in this year with less body fat and it had a lot to do with the things he showed us at our house, to help us cook healthier."
Still, baseball players have their superstitions.
"On day games, it's called the doughnut diet," Choate said. "I have one doughnut, and that's just my theory for a sinker -- you've got to eat one to throw one."
The crux of Lusky's influence is worrying more about the person than the ballplayer.
"Anything [teams] can do to help keep these guys healthier and on the field, you are going to see the Matt Hollidays playing another year, longer careers, happier fans, happier players and healthier lives when the game is done," Lusky said.
In Lance Lynn’s car, driving to the airport, Lusky saw a light click in Lynn's eyes as they talked.
Lusky had just spent the week with Lynn and his wife. "He taught us what to look for on the back of the box, and all the way to how to prepare it," said Lynn, who has lost 70 pounds.
Lusky told Lynn he wanted to see him succeed and get a huge contract one day. "But I was like, 'Really, you are going to play baseball for 10 years, let's be honest, you'll be 35 by then. You'll have a lot of your life left. If you keep eating, and doing what you are doing right now, it's not healthy. You can shave years off of your life, and that's less time with your family.'"
This was the moment where Lynn understood: Not eating well is not only bad for baseball, but it's not good for life.
With long games, a difficult schedule and the demands of baseball on the body, Lusky wants to see baseball do more for the players.
"You can change baseball," Lusky said. "We're not only helping our team right now, but we are making the game a healthier game."