Fields of Dreams

Page 3 of 11

"'Well, you play in Little League,' I told him. So that's what he's doing -- he's playing in Little League this year."

You turn down Athletes Lane in Tempe and drive into the parking lot of the 30,000-square-foot Athletes' Performance training facility. Oops. Don't park there. That's Red Sox superstar Nomar Garciaparra's spot. You find an open space just past the spot marked "Alomar."

Inside, the expansive workout rooms are surprisingly spare. Amid chic industrial architecture, only a few workout machines sit amid a sprawl of open space. But what machines they are. Several hydraulic Keiser Functional Trainers, which look more like Mars probes than weight machines, await the world's top athletes. They feel like nothing else on this Earth. The lift is smooth, the intent is explosiveness.

Beyond the Keisers, the facility gets decidedly low-tech. For baseball players, much of the time is spent in the outdoor gym, bouncing medicine balls off a cinder-block wall and jumping up and down off benches.

The philosophy here is simple yet compelling. Here you get intense sports-specific training, a workout aimed at building the strength and explosiveness of the small core muscles that drive the human body through three-dimensional space. Garciaparra at shortstop and Robbie Alomar at second base don't need to bench 300 pounds. They need a quicker first step, a ninja's balance, more explosive hip rotation, a rotator cuff that can withstand 162 days and nights of unnatural overhand whip.

Garciaparra's body is the jewel of Athletes' Performance and its founder, Mark Verstegen. As a college ballplayer at Georgia Tech, Garciaparra was brilliantly athletic but miserably undersized and underpowered. At 155 pounds, he was an agile fielder and competent slap hitter, but possessed none of the power of major league superstars.

Verstegen began working with Garciaparra while a strength and conditioning trainer at Tech. The stars of the two men have risen together. While Garciaparra gained 35 pounds of lean, explosive mass and became one of the game's great hitters and fielders, Verstegen built a big-name clientele and, finally, in 2000, his dream facility, widely considered the best of its kind in the world.

Now, besides drawing top male and female athletes from most every sport, Athletes' Performance has lured whole major league baseball squads to the Valley for training.

This has had a profound trickle-down effect in the Valley.

Top prospects for the Kansas City Royals began training with Verstegen a few years ago. Last year, the Royals moved their spring training to nearby Surprise, which now allows prospects easier access to their workouts with Verstegen.

All of a sudden, even with a bottom-tier budget, the Royals were considered contenders in their division. And that has other clubs wondering how to match the Royals' success.

Matt Kata, Robby Hammock, Shea Hillenbrand and Alomar of the Diamondbacks train at Athletes' Performance. Note Hammock: a skinny, 170-pounder with the physicality to be a major league catcher, a position typically occupied by pit bulls.

Curt Schilling, who played at Shadow Mountain High School, and Garciaparra are workout partners.

Indeed, with the names of members on their lockers, Athletes' Performance's locker room takes on the rarefied air of the back rooms of Augusta National.

Which, when sitting in this room lacing up his workout shoes, just motivated Andy Lane even more to be the best athlete he could be.

Like Garciaparra, Lane was undersized by pro standards. Unlike Garciaparra, though, no major league scouts were looking at Lane as a prospect.

Out of high school, only Division II Grand Canyon University took a chance on the 130-pound Ahwatukee shortstop.

Once he headed off to college, Lane's grandmother offered to buy the kid a decent car.

Instead of the ride, Lane asked if he could use the money to buy a few months of training at Athletes' Performance.

For the last two off-seasons, Lane has spent $500 a month to be able to work out with Verstegen and his staff. That's the reduced rate for local high school and college athletes. Pros like Alomar pay $50,000 a year.

Lane is now 180 pounds of lean, agile muscle. He is now batting above .300 with power and with the ability as a fielder to reach balls he never before could reach.

Of course, Andy passes on what he's learned to his 11-year-old brother, who passes on what he's learned to his club ball teammates, who pass on what they've learned to the Little Leaguers they know, who pass it on to their coaches, who pass it on to other coaches. So on and so on.

Indeed, you can now find coaches and ballplayers of all ages in the Valley espousing the virtues of "functional strength training" and building the "pillar muscles."

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Robert Nelson