Around the end of January, I emailed Wesleyan’s pandemic herald (and also Associate Vice President and Dean of Students) Rick Culliton with a pressing question: “Would Freeman Athletic Center open for the spring semester?” I was eager for a fresh start and hoped he would come through for me. The semester structure of the collegiate year allows for a reset, a clean break, a chance to reevaluate and reorient your goals and efforts in order to accommodate a new set of challenges. At the start of a new semester, hope springs eternal. People tell themselves things like: “I’m going to be in Olin all day every day.” “I’m going to wake up earlier.”
Also around the end of January, my colleague and Sports Editor John Vernaglia ’22 informed me that his plan to work out again just got pushed back a week, a troubling development that would surely make next week’s news. At the start of a semester, however, anything is possible. Baseball writ large offers the same distinct division in its schedule, offering its own bingo card of hopeful aphorisms over the course of one month in Florida and Arizona.
There is a belief among the baseball fandom that players closely resemble non-players as far as physical condition. Although baseball players’ heights and weights resemble average Americans more closely than athletes in other major sports, the truth is that baggy baseball pants usually conceal features of exceptional athletes. That being said, extreme cases of apparently poor conditioning, like Bartolo Colon and Jose Altuve, may augment our views of the game with the slight arrogance of “I could probably do that.” There’s also the associative humanism of believing the players on the field are not that different than us.
One way these two developments collide, our proclivity for optimism and our similarity with ball players, is the oft-derided “best shape of his life” storyline. To those unfamiliar, this narrative occurs during MLB’s Spring Training due to multiple circumstances: a player was criticized for being out of shape the season prior, a player is competing for a spot on a roster, and more recently, a player adopts more modern dietary and exercise practices or even more baseball-specific pitch/swing design overhauls. Smaller players claim they’ve lifted weights and bulked up. Bigger players claim they’ve started doing yoga and slimmed down. Sometimes, smaller players bulk up, realize they’re now inflexible, and then slim down again, a cycle that lends itself to consecutive claims of that a player might be in the best shape of his life. With that said, let’s take a brief dive into the origin of the term, reevaluating both its modernity and its use in anticipatory sports media pieces.
Both the phrase and the storyline appear to be most common in boxing writing. This makes sense, given that boxing is a sport where one’s “shape” is the central organizing principle of the competition. Fighters having roughly comparable weights is considered a prerequisite for any match. Additionally, the schedule of a boxing career, with a couple of matches a year (although fighters likely put themselves in harm’s way more often than with the pacing of the industry today), allows for a recurring “spring training” environment. This often takes the form of a condensed “training period” designed to meet a distinct date in which one hopes to improve their shape.
In boxing, one’s shape also forms a significant part of the sport’s theatre. Scenes of a weigh-in, the promotional pictures of both individuals flexing, and the approach to the ring only to reveal the culmination of your weeks of training all present a corpus of “body image spectacle.” Being able to claim that you are in the best shape of your life represents simultaneously an act of self-promotion and intimidation that serves the sport well, evidently even before modern media exacerbated cycles of hype and anticipation to drum up attention for an event. It goes without saying that boxing was a much more popular sport 100–150 years ago than today, and its rate of occurrence in news archives may be a side effect of that as well. The first example of illustrative self-adulation in boxing (previous examples of praise I found were levied by the press) is from a February 27, 1900 issue of the Buffalo Inquirer in which Tom McCarthy spoke of his upcoming rematch with Jack Bonner.
“I fought this fellow Bonner before, a good hard fight of nineteen rounds, and I had the shade the best of it when the police stopped it,” McCarthy said. “If in good shape I cannot see why I can’t beat him this time. I never felt better in my life, and when I face Bonner this time, you can bet that I will be in the best shape of my life.”
In McCarthy’s mind, he is a man against the world. Not only does he need to beat Jack Bonner, he needs to do it before the police intervene, an impending conflict of “man versus time.” I believe the sport of boxing would be well-served in returning to that tradition.
In baseball, however, the first example of “best shape” praise I found was from an April 20, 1896 issue of the Topeka State Journal, previewing the opening series of the Western League, a predecessor to today’s Minor League Baseball, formed mainly of teams from the Midwestern U.S.
“It is a little difficult to estimate the strength of the [Minneapolis] Millers this year compared with last, but there is little doubt that Wilmot has a team which is strong in every department of the game,” the Journal wrote. “To assist him he will have Egyptian John Healy, who is reported to be in the best shape of his life.”
Healy, nicknamed “Egyptian” because he was born in Cairo, Illinois, died of tuberculosis less than three years after the article was written.
The media’s fixation on players being in the best shape of their lives (and subsequent ridicule of the claim as it approaches cliché status) is not a recent development. Rather, it’s a collision of compounding trends of diet culture, gym culture, and thirst traps. In the last couple of years, however, the best-shape dialogue has lost a bit of its mystique due to the progression of data-driven player development. Stories of Roy Halladay learning a cutter from Mariano Rivera are supplemented by guys going to facilities like Driveline, measuring their spin rates and spin axes with systems like Hawkeye and Rapsodo, and concluding they should throw their curveball about 8% more in games. Although compelling stories of reinvigorated careers and innovative practices arise, the process is a bit sterile. There are still, however, stories of off-season self improvement that could have been written in the 1896 Topeka State Journal. Mariners Pitcher Justin Dunn, while fighting for a spot in this year’s rotation, gave this immaculate quote to Seattle Times writer Ryan Divish regarding a new pitch he is debuting.
“It’s a blessing from God, man,” Divish said. “Honestly, I was holding a baseball in my car while I was driving one day and talking to Him. He told me, ‘I blessed you with three people in your life—Pedro Martínez, Frank Viola and Trevor Hoffman—now take all three of those grips and blend them into one.’”
From combating police intervention to accepting divine intervention, hope for improvement remains a constant aspect of the sport, and who would we be to ridicule that hope? Not everyone who works out dies of tuberculosis.
Andrew Simard can be reached at email@example.com.