All Hail Kale: Fueled by Smart Diet, Iron Man Pence Leads Giants Down Stretch

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 11, 2014

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SAN FRANCISCO — Few things are guaranteed in baseball, but you can take this one to the bank. Or, maybe better yet, to the co-op:

Babe Ruth, that legendary slugger and connoisseur of fine hot dogs, had you spotted him a Google Glass headset and six heads of lettuce back in 1927, never would have recognized today’s game. And we're not talking designated hitters and lefty specialists, either.

We're talking, and, yes, this does sound more Food Network than MLB Network...

Man vs. Kale.

There Hunter Pence was in June, cutting a vine ribbon to open the Giants' brand spanking new...vegetable garden?

Corny (or corn-fed) as that might sound, San Francisco this summer became the first major league team to plant a vegetable garden (it's on the other side of the center field fence at AT&T Park). No man was more fitting to usher in this new baseball development than Pence, the Giants' wild-eyed, crazy-legged, ultra-energetic and uber-talented outfielder.

Pence is at the forefront among modern players who train year-round and watch what they eat the way Mickey Mantle once watched the tavern clock for last call. He says he keeps two things regularly in his refrigerator: kale and olive oil.

What, no Cheetos and Mountain Dew?

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

"I try to eat vegetables," Pence says. "I try to eat lean proteins. I try to choose healthier foods. If you can get whole grains ... for the most part, I try to make sure I'm eating vegetables daily.

"Try to get vegetables in at least two meals. No fried foods. Nothing too greasy. That's my goal. I like fish, too."

The days of quaffing beer and slamming pizza postgame are a sweet, boys-will-be-boys relic. Many clubs now even employ nutritionists.

"Our chef cooks extremely healthy here," Pence says of Joe Day, 29. "He's unbelievable. Amazing options. Everything's grass-fed, free-range. There's always a vegetable option. So every night, you have that, two meats to choose from, a vegetable option, a side dish, and there's usually always a salad, too."

Pence counts neither calories nor fat grams. Nor does he obsess over exactly how much protein he ingests each day.

"That's too much work for me," he says. "Too much organization for me."

He figures that if he stays on the healthy track, he won't end up in the ditch.

"I would say he's one of our model athletes in terms of nutrition," says Danielle LaFata, a Phoenix-based sports performance dietitian who is in her fourth season as the Giants' team nutritionist and in her third year of working with the U.S. men's national soccer team. "He's pretty dialed in. He asks me a lot of questions to make sure he's on track, and he tweaks his refinement to support his performance and his recovery."

The results of his regimen surround Pence like bulk-item bins in a Whole Foods as he leads the Giants into a final two-week sprint with the hated Dodgers for the NL West title.

Aug 9, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence (8) fans hold up troll signs during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Pence has played in 366 consecutive games and started 316 consecutive games, both the longest active streaks in the majors. In fact, the 366-games-played streak is the Giants' longest since Bill Terry, from 1930-33.

He has played in all but five innings this summer, and through midweek he led the National League with 172 hits and ranked second in runs scored (101) and total bases (278). He also ranked second in the NL with a .363 batting average with runners in scoring position.

His energy is legendary, which has caused more than a few scouts to tab him as their favorite player (and more than a few fans to start a crazy sign campaign this summer in support of their cult hero). And for those viewing at home, he's a pretty darned good diet plan in and of himself: If his kinetic energy doesn't inspire you to put down the Ben & Jerry's and pick up a carrot, you might need an intervention.

"I don't have any fixed rule," he says. "I'm just conscious of what I'm eating, how my body's feeling. I don't cook that much. I go out to eat most of the time and try to go to places that have good, healthy options. I mix it up."

"He is a big kale eater," says LaFata, who for a time regularly sent him smoothie and salad recipes featuring kale, and who still speaks with the Diamondbacks' clubhouse attendants to make sure they're stocked up on the leafy, green vegetable for Pence when the Giants play in Arizona.

His go-to protein?

"I mix it up," he says. "Obviously, I think fish is the healthiest choice. But I'll eat pork, beef, chicken. For some reason I don't eat much chicken. I like fish, beef and pork the most. I will eat chicken, though. Also, lamb."

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 31:  Hunter Pence #8 of the San Francisco Giants hits a triple in the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at AT&T Park on August 31, 2014 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

He is not a modern-day Wade Boggs, who famously ate chicken before every game of his 18-year career. That may have fueled a Hall of Fame career, but it just leads Pence to think about missed opportunities.

"Not that it gets boring," he says of a strict regimen like Boggs'. "It's just that you're missing out.

"I remember one offseason a long time ago, I had this person cooking my meals and it was the same stuff every day. I ended up getting a blood test in spring training, and I was close to being poisoned. I was eating too much fish."

Mercury?

"Arsenic," Pence says. "It was this guy who would cook meals, I'd pay him a certain amount each week and he'd cook meals and have bags of it and put them in the refrigerator."

Crazy thing is, Pence says it wasn't like he was sickened. He never felt ill. The out-of-whack blood levels just showed up during a blood test when he had his physical.

That was during the winter of 2011-12, when he was playing for the Phillies but training at his home in Houston.

It also wasn't his first time down a specific nutritional path. Shortly after that, he tried The Paleo Diet, which encompasses eating only wild plants and animals that were around during the caveman days. Hunter, indeed.

"I was extremely strict, and then it was like I was too healthy," Pence says. "They said I needed to have more fat so that I could withstand the baseball season. I needed to eat unhealthy to be healthier."

Now there's a plan that should resonate with a few Weekend Warriors, eh?

Aug 8, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence (8) runs to third against the Kansas City Royals during the third inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"So there is no answer to the perfect nutrition," Pence says. "The answer is balance, try to find balance."

His favorite "cheat" food is pizza, and while there are very few of us who could play right field for the San Francisco Giants, there are a few million of us who will be exceptionally quick with an "Amen to that!"

Pence has reached a place now where his nutritional journey is a lifestyle without being an obsessive-compulsive addiction. And that goes year-round.

"I think your appetite changes, depending," Pence says. "When you're playing, you're a lot hungrier because you're expending so much more energy, so you've got to eat more. In the offseason, it's different based on how your workouts are going, what time of the offseason it is and what your workouts are.

"If you're working out extremely hard and having long days, you're going to be hungrier. And if it's early in the offseason and you're typically not doing much, you're typically not as hungry. And also, [a lot depends on] what's available.

"So you try and make the best choices you can with what's available."

And in your spare time, maybe you have a minute to help your club christen a new vegetable garden that features lettuce, artichokes, chard and, yes, all together now: kale!

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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