Building better big leaguers

Pro players coming to Knoxville to shape up in offseason

Tennessee baseball strength coach Brian Gearity, top, helps Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar during a workout Tuesday.

Photo by Michael Patrick

Tennessee baseball strength coach Brian Gearity, top, helps Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar during a workout Tuesday.

Minnesota relief pitcher Joe Nathan stretches before beginning his workout
Tuesday at the Neyland-Thompson Indoor Complex.

Photo by Michael Patrick

Minnesota relief pitcher Joe Nathan stretches before beginning his workout Tuesday at the Neyland-Thompson Indoor Complex.

Since it was a major league baseball all-star getting pummeled, it was only natural to stare.

A group of the University of Tennessee players stopped in their tracks to watch.

They were headed to their individual workouts when they passed strength coach Brian Gearity whaling this guy in the stomach with an oversized, weighted medicine ball.

The "guy" was Minnesota Twins' closer Joe Nathan.

"I'm out there beating the crap out of Joe with the med ball to work his abs and he's just dominating it, working hard," Gearity said. "Our guys see that, see him working that hard, and it gives our training instant credibility.

"It's instant motivation for our players."

Motivation comes easily around the UT campus these days.

A who's who of former Vols join Nathan and Gearity four days a week for offseason conditioning at the Neyland-Thompson Indoor Complex.

On one end of the facility, the UT cheerleaders are going through their routines.

They can't help but stare either, because on the other end Gearity is barking out sprint-drill orders to Nathan, Luke Hochevar, Eli Iorg, Chase Headley, Sean Watson, Scot Drucker and Mike Lincoln.

Nathan takes a break and has to constantly wipe the sweat from his face - and this is just the warmup.

"They definitely get after it over here," Nathan said.

"This is the time of year no one really sees how hard we're working, but it's pretty much what we have to do to go out and feel good for 162 games."

Nathan, an established major leaguer, just signed a $6 million deal with the Twins for next season. During his workout he's thinking about staying strong for a playoff run next October.

Hochevar, Iorg, Headley, Watson, Drucker and Lincoln are thinking about March and April.

They're fighting to make their big-league breaks - or a comeback in Lincoln's case - a reality.

"Just seeing the intensity they put forth is nice to see," Nathan said. "Even though Luke was a first-round pick and got a lot of money, he's not just taking that and sitting on it.

"He knows he has a long road ahead of him and his career is just getting going."

Finding Inspiration

They all watch Nathan.

They see his drive and they see what it takes to get to their own promised lands of Kansas City (Hochevar), San Diego (Headley), Houston (Iorg) and Cincinnati (Watson).

Hochevar and Headley got a taste this past season.

Hochevar got a September call-up for his major league debut with the Royals. He went three innings against the New York Yankees on Sept. 8 and didn't allow a run.

Headley played eight games with the Padres and got a hit in a one-game wildcard matchup against Colorado.

"Every year, this workout group grows," Hochevar said. "Last year, it was me and Chase and sometimes Joe out here working with G (Gearity). Now guys are just flocking here.

"They're seeing how Chase looked when he went into spring training last year. He's a different player. He's strong. He's fast. That's a big credit to G."

Not that Hochevar needs a lot of pushing, but Gearity knows the right buttons to push with the former UT All-American (2005).

"I hear it from G every day," Hochevar said. "He'll write it on a piece of paper in my workout folder: The No. 6 starter goes to AAA.

"Or he'll write: Do you want to be in the rotation or back in the minor leagues next season?"

So Hochevar sweats side-by-side with Nathan.

They've all made Knoxville their offseason home for a variety of reasons.

Nathan's wife had a brother who went to UT and a few visits to see the brother-in-law convinced Nathan this was the place to settle down for a while.

"We had been living in Arizona for about eight years and really wanted a change," Nathan said. "Arizona is almost turning into an LA-type area, really crowded, and with two kids I didn't want to raise them there.

"When I came over here for a visit I just fell in love with the area and wanted to make it home."

That's how he first hooked up with Gearity two years ago.

Nothing Like It

All the UT guys were already familiar with Gearity and his regimen.

"There's no other conditioning like it," Iorg said. "I've got a couple of buddies in the big leagues and we talk all the time. They tell me about their offseason workouts and none of it even compares with what we're doing in here.

"This is a part of your career, part of your job and part of the investment. Having a guy like G is great because he's one of the best in the country.'

Iorg, a Karns High School graduate and son of former major leaguer Garth Iorg, saw his minor-league stint cut short by an elbow injury last year.

Now he's commuting from Lexington, Ky. - home of his fiancee - to work out at UT every week.

"The injury was extremely frustrating," Iorg said. "I thought I was in a position to be like Chase and get called up at the end of the year and make the big leagues.

"You're having a fantastic year and all of a sudden something stupid happens when you're diving back to first. To me, it's a blessing in disguise because a lot of good things happened to me since and it gives you a new mind focus."

It made Iorg hungrier than ever to make it to Houston.

One of the groomsmen for his Dec. 1 wedding will be Koby Clemens, son of future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens.

But even on his honeymoon cruise, he won't be able to get away from Gearity and his workout plan.

"G and I got on the Web site for the ship to look at the weight room," Iorg said. "He's going to write something up for me to do while I'm there."

It's a non-stop proposition for these guys.

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, you'll find them working out at UT from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Then they'll get the catered meal Gearity helps provide to take care of the nutritional aspect of the training.

"Luke called me last year from Wichita and said he had dropped about six pounds down to about 199," Gearity recalled. "He sent me his nutrition stuff and he was eating potato chips for about three of his meals.

"We ended up getting him a caterer there, too."

The Grand Plan

It's all about making it to the major leagues, making it back to the majors or continuing to excel in the majors.

"There's not a guy in here that won't play in the big leagues," Iorg said. "I know I was so close to getting there, it's more a lesson in how the game can be taken away from you.

"I appreciate it more and I'm trying to push myself even more. All this helps. As strange as it sounds, these guys kind of become your family almost."

They work out together. They hang out together. They pick each other's brain and look for advice.

Everyone's looking for an edge.

"As far as UT goes, this place is second to none," Headley said. "This weight room is unbelievable.

"You have all the resources and everything you could ever want right here."

Headley made his major league debut in June after hitting .357 at AA San Antonio and an injury to regular San Diego third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff.

One of the first people Headley called was Gearity.

"Chase called me that night about 5:30 and said he was getting ready to get on a plane to go to Chicago and play in Wrigley Field," Gearity said. "Then he thanked me for all I had done.

"For me to be on their mind in that situation is awesome."

Instant payoff

Headley had made it to the show and Gearity had helped get him there.

"There's no question when you get up there for the first time and get to know the guys, you realize they're the same as we are, they've just been there a little longer," Headley said of his big-league experience. "To see the work they put in to be successful at that level is the key.

"The difference between the big leagues and everything else is the level of consistency."

Gearity helps provide consistency. There's a routine with a goal and the results come with the possibility of huge rewards.

"This game is about trying to stay as young as you can for as long as you can," Nathan said. "The moment you get too cocky is the moment you're going to get knocked off that mound and get beat around a little bit.

"If these other guys don't know that by now, they're going to learn real quick."

Get Copyright Permissions © 2007, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!

© 2007 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 1

Ironcity writes:

Great story. Glad we have this guy on our side.

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.