TCS Daily

Heavy Hitters

By Duane D. Freese - April 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Alex Rodriguez is a heavy hitter, Sammy Sosa even more so. And not just because they hit home runs.

The two sluggers each passed milestones in the first week of the new Major League season, the Texas Rangers' Rodriguez became the youngest player to reach the 300 home run plateau, beating Jimmie Foxx's mark by 79 days, and the Chicago Cubs' Sosa became the18th player (and third youngest) to join the 500 homer club.

But along with fattening their homer totals, the two ballplayers have become "fatter" themselves in recent years. Much "fatter." And they are not the only ballplayers in that condition.

Forty years ago, ballplayers averaged 6 feet, .28 inches, according to Who's Who in Baseball, while weighing a healthy 184.81 pounds. In 1973, they'd grown a little, with an average height of 6 feet, .34 inches, and an average weight of 185.56 pounds. In 1983, again there was a little growth, with height reaching 6 feet .56 inches and weight, 186.72 pounds.

That modest level of growth, though, slipped into high gear over the next two decades. In 1993, average height still didn't change much, reaching 6 feet .61 inches. But average weight climbed not in fractions but in a great leap, to 193.14 pounds.

And this year, the 370 everyday ballplayers on opening day rosters measured in at a still not overly outstanding 6 feet .69 inches, but weighed in at an ox-like 202.44 pounds. The Big Leagues have never been bigger.

How big is that? Well consider that Jimmie Foxx, the1930s slugger who set the mark for 12 consecutive 30 home run seasons, was called "the Beast" while measuring 6 feet and 200 pounds, and you get an idea how supersized today's ballplayers have become. On average they are bigger than such other slugging luminaries as Lou Gehrig, another 6 foot, 200 pounder, and Mickey Mantle, also that height and weight. Eddie Matthews, who was the previous record holder for reaching 300 homers, was 6 foot 1 and weighed 190 pounds in his prime. Willie Mays, who now sits in third place on the all-time home-run parade, was only 5 foot 11 inches and weighed 185 when he had his two 50 homer seasons. And Hank Aaron was absolutely skinny at 6 feet and weighing between 175 and 180 when he hit the bulk of his record setting 755 home runs.

Only Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, would look down from his 6-foot-2 height and 215 pounds (more in the belly ache season) at today's average player. But he would look up to many, and lose a weigh in to as many more of today's ballplayers.

Indeed, according to the Body Mass Index, "the primary measure of obesity" (calculated by weight in pounds divided by height in inches squared times 703), only 38 of this year's opening day ballplayers were at their optimal weight, BMIs of 19 to 24. Most - 294 - were overweight, with BMIs of 25 up to 30. More than 10 percent - 38 - were "obese," registering BMIs of 30 and more.

The 6-foot-3-inch Rodriguez with his 210 pounds (up from 190 when he started playing), for example, registers 26 on the BMI scale. His optimal weight, according to BMI, is 152 to 199.

The 6-foot tall Sosa, by comparison, weighed a whopping 230 pounds, compared with an optimal weight range of 140 to 183, placing his BMI at more than 31 - obese. In 1993, he was a merely slightly overweight 185, for a BMI of 25.

Sosa doesn't even measure at the top of the chart. Over on the South Side swinging for the ChiSox, 6-foot-5 Frank Thomas weighs in at 275 and 33 on the BMI scale. He was a mere 257 pounds in '93, for a 30 BMI then. And in the Big Apple, playing for the Mets, is the biggest, by BMI standards, ballplayer of them all, Mo Vaughan, piling 275 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame for a BMI of 36 He was a 225 pounder in '93, also a mere 30.

Supersized Guys

What's happening here? How come so many ballplayers have suddenly gone supersized?
Not enough spring training, too many spring chickens - or burgers or fries?

Those are the culprits that some health observers have blamed for a burgeoning of Americans' weight lines. The BMI trend line for ballplayers matches that for American society as a whole.

The Centers for Disease Control found 11.7 percent of men were obese in 1991 - about the percentage of obese ballplayers today. By 2001, the percent registering a BMI of 30 or more reached 21 percent.

Just as with average weights for ballplayers, CDC statistics for the percentage of men who were overweight increased modestly from the early '60s to the early '80s, going from 49.5 percent overweight in the period 1960-62 to 54.7 percent for 1971-74 and then down to 52.9 percent for 1976-80. But, again like the average weight of ballplayers, men's weight generally ballooned in the late 1980s and 1990s, with 61 percent of men being overweight in 1988-94 and 67 percent in 1999-2000.

From such findings, such popular books as Fast Food Nation and Fat Land have correlated obesity and weight gain in America with the spread of fast food restaurants, the super sizing by them of their meals and growing use of fructose (corn syrup) in soft drinks and palm oil in cooking. That and a generous helping of anti-business sentiment and denial of personal responsibility has led trial lawyers to pursue lawsuits against fast food chains for supersizing the nation's population.

Economists have undercut the premise underlying a core element of that claim. David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser and Jesse M. Shapiro in a Harvard study, Why Americans Have Become More Obese? note the calories taken in at fast-food restaurants for the most part just substitute for food that people consumed in main meals at home. Further, they dispel the myth that Americans are lazier now than before. They are a little, but not enough to account for the growth in obesity.

But these economists also go out on a limb of their own making. Cutler, Glaeser and Shapiro concluded in their study that technology is at fault. We've just become so good at producing cheap calories in such tasteful forms that the weak-willed among us are constantly binging.

And lending some support to this point of view is a recent study on binge eating by a team of experts from the Hirslanden Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland. As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in March it found that a mutation of a gene might lead more people today to pig out than in the past. A study involving 469 severely obese people found that all of the 5 percent who had the mutated gene were binge eaters while only 14 percent of those without the gene did so. Thus, for that five percent, the availability of cheap food, period, not the supersizing of meals, made it easier to binge. Technology was, in fact, their enemy.

False Signals

Still, something is missing here, at least in regards to baseball, and maybe in regard to all the statistics purportedly demonstrating that obesity is "epidemic." And that problem is that the BMI can give a false signal.

The BMI was developed by a 19th Century social statistician, the influential Belgian Adolphe Quetelet. Quetelet was interested in what constituted "the average man," and considered deviations from the norm to be errors.

In the case of baseball, few of the ballplayers who register as overweight or obese on the BMI are out of shape. Barry Bonds may be between 29 and 30 on the BMI scale, but he certainly is no thunderous fatty - he is in far better shape than Ruth, who registered as 28. And Sosa's 30 just ain't the same as Baltimore Oriole's 6-foot-4, 250 pound Big Boy Boog Powell in the 1970s.

What makes ballplayers today big - other than perhaps a too prevalent use of supplements such as creatine - is cross-training. They lift weights. A lot more than previous generations of ballplayers did.

Indeed, weight training was frowned upon by old timers. As Don Zimmer, a former player, coach and manager, told Wired News in an article called "McGwire: Athlete of the Future" a few years ago, "I saw Willie Mays, I saw Ted Williams, I saw Stan Musial. I saw them all, and I never heard of a weight. So I'm not a big believer in it. ... I heard guys take this and take that. I say, "Go get a goddamn greasy hamburger.'"

But former home run champion Mark McGwire and his bosom buddy (and steroid enhanced) partner Jose Conseco did believe. They pursued weight programs beginning in the 1980s with a vengeance, with McGwire in particular making use of every technological edge he could find to make his swing more compact, faster and more powerful.

And what happened? McGwire became a better ballplayer at 35 than he was at 25, a reserval of the old rule that baseball was a sport for the young. (Conseco's steroid use may have actually hampered his career later in life.) And other ballplayers took note of his feats and followed in his footsteps.

They had good economic reason to do so. As Pittsburgh Pirate slugger Ralph Kiner explained after the 1947 season why he always swung for the fences, striking out so much in the process, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords."

And as players' weights have climbed, and their strikeout totals, too, home runs have been popping out more and more. Between 1989 and 1999, they climbed from 1.463 homers per game to 2.2749 homers per game. The binge led baseball in the last few years to admonish umpires to expand the strike zone to what it was supposed to be - the knees to the armpits, with modest success. Home runs now run just over two per game.

But ballplayers aren't shrinking, too. Seattle Mariners' punch hitter Ichiro Suzuki, who came into the league as mature player after nine years in Japan, has put on 12 pounds to his 5-foot-9 frame over the last three seasons, raising his weight from 160 to 172, and from a BMI below 24 to a BMI above 25. New York Yankee second sacker Alfonso Soriano has done even better in his three years, putting another 20 pounds on his 6 foot-1 frame, raising his weight from 160 to 180 and his BMI from 21 to 24. At that pace he'll soon be overweight, like Suzuki.

The point of all this? Well, fans, young ones in particular, see what their favorite ballplayers are doing, and many of them are bulking up, too. Weight lifting is now recommended within limits for many younger athletes. In short, ballplayers are trendsetters.

In 1999, the last year for which statistics are available, 22.5 million people were members of health clubs, up about 15 percent from 1995. One quarter of the nation's 25 - 34 year olds exercize at home, many with weight or alternative equipment. Weight lifting is common in the military, as can be seen in the buff images of U.S. troops in Iraq. In all, more than 17 million Americans lift weights.

If they put on muscle pounds like ballplayers, then they are contributing to the "obesity" epidemic, too. But they are hardly a health threat or problem, insofar as they don't enhance their training with steroids or other drugs that can affect their health in other ways.

As the CDC itself told me in response to a question about my own BMI (25): "A BMI greater than 25 may or may not be due to increases in body fat. For example, professional athletes may be lean and muscular, with little body fat, yet they may weigh more than individuals with the same height because of their muscle mass regardless of BMI. The BMI is used to screen and monitor a population to detect risk of health or nutritional disorders. In an individual, other data must be used to determine if a high BMI is associated with increased risk of disease and death for that person. BMI alone is not diagnostic. You may want to consult your primary care physician for further evaluation."

Yet all the studies purporting to show an obesity epidemic and problems rely upon BMI measurements. Fat Land provides two pages of BMI statistics citing "the prevalence of obesity among adults by region and state" as proof that Americans are "... getting fatter by the year" due to their "... eating out more often ..." and their "... eating higher -calorie meals in the process."

Glossed over is the more serious concern that, while millions of Americans do work out regularly, about 60 percent don't, and a full quarter do nothing at all.

As Maureen Storey, acting director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech University in Alexandria, Va., told me, "BMI doesn't take into account a lot of things. I have a hard time believing that Michael Jordan is overweight. ... It isn't any indication of how fit you are."

She says, from her own research, that many of the stories about obesity and overconsumption of fast foods and sodas are overblown. What's more important isn't whether a person is "overweight" by BMI measures but, as researchers at the Cooper Clinic and for the Cooper Institute in Dallas have found, that people develop better cardiovascular fitness through exercise. People with higher BMIs and better cardiovascular health are better off health-wise than people with normal BMIs who don't.

And baseball's ever-heavier hitters and its obesity epidemic provide heft to that argument.

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