How the Pirates right fielder went back to his workout roots to avoid losing another season to injury
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic
The ground shook when Gregory Polanco thundered past, pulling a metal sled piled with weights. As he ran across the grass, with twigs and leaves crackling under his sneakers, Polanco huffed through a high-elevation training mask designed to restrict oxygen intake and, in the case of this particular mask, to look like Darth Vader’s helmet.
Once he reached the trees, Polanco slowed and stopped. He removed the mask and gulped fresh air. He tugged at his sweat-soaked T-shirt. Again, his trainer instructed, so Polanco turned around and took off once more. It was 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in December, the heart of baseball’s offseason, and the reconstruction of the Pirates’ right fielder was underway.
When Polanco texted the previous day to say he trained at “El Jardin Botanico,” he quickly clarified. He sent a map of the sprawling 400-acre botanical garden in central Santo Domingo and circled one corner. Not in the garden, in fact, but just outside. The skinny hillside where Polanco and about a dozen other baseball players train six days per week is bordered by the garden’s wall, a busy six-lane boulevard, a ravine and a hollow.
To Polanco, it feels familiar.
This is where Polanco paid penance this winter for the worst season of his major league career. He delivered below-average production, but his hitting was hardly the Pirates’ primary concern. Polanco played only 108 games. He injured his left shoulder in March, his right groin in April, his right ankle in May and went on the disabled list three times because of left hamstring strains.
Polanco, 26, believed the remedy was to return to what had worked before. To avoid these rather preventable injuries, he decided, he needed to leave the weight room and go outdoors. He had to start from the ground up. When the season ended in October, Polanco phoned Kelvin Terrero, his old trainer, and said, “I’m ready.” Terrero replied, “I’m out here waiting for you.”
“I left Kelvin for one year,” Polanco said later, “and you saw what happened.”
Interacting with passersby is one of the reasons Polanco prefers to be here, out in the open. “People show you love every day,” he said. Drivers honk. Polanco waves. Every so often, someone will stop him and ask for an autograph, but more often it’s just a hello. Some ask to watch him train.
“I tell them, ‘I’m here every day,’ ” Polanco said.
When breakfast ended, the players stood and held hands for a prayer, and then workout began. Terrero strapped elevation masks on Polanco and Mel Rojas Jr., a former Pirates minor leaguer, and he watched the players jog away on the sidewalk until they were out of view.
The pack consists mostly of minor leaguers and prospects, plus a few players — such as Jimmy Paredes and Moises Sierra — with light major league experience. There’s Polanco’s cousin Samuel Linares, an 18-year-old outfielder who hopes to play college ball in the United States. Starling Marte often joins too. He said he loses too much weight when he works out with Terrero.
“It’s too hard,” Marte said, laughing, before his Dominican Winter League game later that day. “When I go, I spend only one day [with Terrero] because when I finish, I have to sleep.”
Polanco first came to Terrero in 2014, after his rookie season. The 6-foot-5 outfielder wanted to refine his raw strength while maintaining his footspeed. Terrero put him to work, and they both liked the results: 2015 and 2016 were Polanco’s best seasons so far with the Pirates.
But last winter, after two offseasons with Terrero, Polanco decided it was time for a change. He trained instead at Estadio Quisqueya, home of Dominican Winter League teams Leones del Escogido and Tigres del Licey, and planned to add power. He lifted in the stadium’s weight room and ran on the field. When he arrived at spring training last February, he looked big. He was big. But his muscles were tight, Polanco explained, and the injuries illustrated that issue.
“It didn’t work out,” Polanco said, “so I came back here [to Terrero].”
Back from the warm-up run, Polanco led the group through a series of stretches and footwork drills, followed by cardio-boosting passes over orange hoops arranged in the grass.
Terrero’s focus is more on agility than pure strength. He employs kettle bells and yoga mats, sledgehammers and tractor tires. One workout each week takes place on a sandy beach, and another includes sprints up and down a steep slope near the garden wall. The sessions rarely are indoors, except in the case of rain. It still feels like weight lifting, Polanco said, but better.
It was Polanco’s decision to return to Terrero, though he arrived armed with instructions from the Pirates’ athletic trainers. He needed to strengthen his core and lower back, they said, and keep his hamstrings loose. When Polanco visited the team’s training academy in nearby El Toro, Dominican Republic, in the first week of December, he learned his body fat percentage already had dropped five points, from 19.5 percent to 14 percent, after one month with Terrero.
“They told me, ‘Hey, don’t lose any more body fat,’ ” Polanco said.
Polanco’s plan then was to shed body fat but maintain a steady weight. He said he feels leaner, looser and, most importantly, healthier than he did during the 2017 season. The larger concern is whether he stays healthy from February to October. The Pirates, now without Andrew McCutchen, require Polanco’s presence in the middle of the order more than ever.
“It’s only December,” he said, “and I feel like I can go to spring training right now.”
There’s no down time on Terrero’s watch. Near the end of the 90-minute training session, it was Polanco’s turn for the battle rope — a thick braid looped around a tree. He took one end of the rope in each hand and whipped them up and down in steady waves. The exercises, each lasting 20 seconds and spaced 10 seconds apart, progressed to alternating arms up and down, then side to side, then one arm at a time. Other players paused and watched Polanco.
During reps, Polanco either glared at the clock on the ground or threw his head back and closed his eyes. After a particularly painful set, Polanco wrung out his T-shirt and hung it on a branch. Later, Polanco would contend, “I feel great. You can put me in the field right now and I can play.” He laughed and added, “I just have to do a couple swings beforehand.”
The baseball portion of Polanco’s offseason began in January. In recent years, Robinson Cano has hosted games for fellow major leaguers at a field he had built in San Pedro de Macoris, an hour outside of Santo Domingo. Dozens come, Polanco said, from Cano to Jean Segura, Marcell Ozuna, Welington Castillo, Eduardo Nunez and Carlos Santana. They play seven-inning games.
Earlier in the offseason, however, Polanco lay low. Because workouts were so early, he said, he didn’t want to stay out late at night. After this December workout, Polanco drove home, showered, had lunch with his mother and napped. The afternoon itinerary included video games with his cousin — they mostly play “Call of Duty” and “MLB: The Show” — and pool time.
The next morning, Polanco was back to work with Terrero. It was Wednesday, the day they run hill sprints. Polanco is aware optimism alone won’t keep him healthy in 2018, but after having a year in his prime spoiled by injuries, he says Terrero gives him his best shot. It’s a start, anyway.
“It’s very uncomfortable to be injured, incapable of doing what you want to do and help your team,” Polanco said. “Playing baseball is fun. That’s what I love to do. I don’t want anything to keep me away from baseball. That’s why I’m here.”