Oblique Strain

When a blogger fingered him in the Jason Grimsley scandal, strength coach Chris Mihlfeld found himself in a world of pain.

One out, top of the second. Inside the immaculate fortress that is the new Busch Stadium, Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez pulls a pitch toward first. The ball lifts foul and appears within reach of Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.

Of course, there isn't much out of reach of Pujols, at age 26 a bona fide baseball superstar. By game day on June 3, he is on pace to beat Barry Bonds' single-season home run record. He's a slugger with Bonds-like power but no me-first attitude, no speculation of performance-enhancing drugs. That clean image, according to the sports pages, has awarded Albert Pujols the title "Savior of Baseball."

Pujols springs from his crouch on the infield dirt, loping full speed toward the foul. He passes first base, looks back over his right shoulder and raises his glove skyward. A window of sunlight falls on his goateed face. His necklace gleams.

Jennifer Silverberg
As a coach at Maple Woods Community College, Chris 
Mihlfeld discovered a talented teen named Albert Pujols.
Chris Thomas
As a coach at Maple Woods Community College, Chris Mihlfeld discovered a talented teen named Albert Pujols.

Pujols pulls up short. He reaches back and grabs his right side, folding over like an old man hit from behind. The ball sails out of reach. The Savior suffers a "grade-three strain," a complete tear of his upper internal oblique muscle.

That night, Pujols phones Chris Mihlfeld, the Kansas City-based trainer he calls one of his best friends. Pujols asks Mihlfeld for his advice on how to recover from the injury. Mihlfeld makes the drive to St. Louis that very night.

Mihlfeld arrives at Pujols' home after dark. He knocks on the door in his standard work uniform: a tight-fitting shirt, warm-up pants and sneakers. The stout 37-year-old has a shaved head and is built like a linebacker. But his voice is surprisingly mellow. Mihlfeld examines Pujols' bruised area and makes him stretch to gauge the loss of mobility.

"He was frustrated, angry more than anything," Mihlfeld recalls. "We talked. I was there for support." He tells Pujols to "be progressive" and work through his pain. "He's doing whatever little thing he can do physically to get himself back as soon as possible, not just lying around," Mihlfeld says. "I just told him not to baby it. I reinforced that fact."

The Cardinals give Pujols a month to recover. But Mihlfeld assures him he can do it in half that time. The next day, he sends Pujols to the Cardinals clubhouse to ride a stationary bike to keep his blood pumping. A day later he tells Pujols to exercise with five-pound dumbbells to work his shoulders, and tense his abdominals. By day three he switches him to light leg lifts.

Mihlfeld returns three days later to Millhouse Athletic Enhancement Programs, his six-month-old gym and batting-cage operation nestled in a warehouse in the Kansas City suburb of Liberty. The facility has become a training magnet for everyone from Kansas City Royals designated hitter Mike Sweeney to unknown high school athletes. Guys with workout regimens that have one goal: building a body perfectly sculpted for baseball.

Three days after returning from St. Louis, the strength coach is dragged into what has emerged as baseball's biggest controversy since the White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. The problem begins when a blogger claims Mihlfeld set up a player with a speed dealer. The blog admits the information is questionable, but the mainstream media soon makes the connection that tying Mihlfeld to steroids also pulls down those who train with him. Suddenly journalists from the Kansas City Star to MSNBC add Mihlfeld, Sweeney and Pujols to the list of baseball's suspects.

Guilty or not, Mihlfeld's name is forever linked to the steroids witch-hunt, where a juicy cyber-rumor gets duplicated without scrutiny, where irresponsible digital gossip has the power to destroy a reputation, simply for its juiciness.

As a sophomore at Winnetonka High School in Kansas City, Chris Mihlfeld played on a team that went to the state championship in 1985. Near the end of the final game, the coach sent Mihlfeld to the mound to close out the game. He threw the final out to clinch the victory.

Mihlfeld went on to become an all-conference third baseman at Central Missouri State University. But he lacked the talent to play pro ball, recalls Dave Karaff, who was then a scout for the Cardinals. What Mihlfeld had was a belief in hard work passed on from his grandfather and great-grandfather, both Southern Baptist preachers. Karaff remembers Mihlfeld as a "dirt-bag player" — willing to sacrifice his body on every play.

Instead he got a degree in physical education and took a job as an assistant coach at CMSU while working on a master's in exercise physiology. In 1994 Maple Woods Community College hired Mihlfeld to help clean up what he calls a "renegade" team short on talent and discipline. Mihlfeld created for his team a seven-days-a-week fitness routine that could make up for anyone's shortcomings.

He had developed an intuition about athletes' bodies. He could visualize a hitter's points of weakness through the arc of his swing, identifying a bad back or weak legs, or lack of fast-twitch muscle fiber. He also understood the standard baseball body that pro scouts like to see: lean, broad-shouldered, with big biceps and thick legs.

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