Oblique Strain

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

In 1998 Mihlfeld's team won the junior college World Series. That success helped the coach land one of the most coveted local prospects: Albert Pujols. In his senior year at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Pujols was so feared by rival teams that he had been walked 55 times in 88 at-bats. Major-league scouts weren't sure what he was capable of and recommended he spend a year with somebody who could help him improve. Pujols called Mihlfeld. "I didn't recruit Albert," Mihlfeld recalls. "He came to me."

In his first game with Maple Woods, twenty scouts showed up to watch Pujols whack a grand slam and turn an unassisted triple play. But the Dominican-born teen lacked the sculpted muscles that attract scouts. "He had a big body but was a little soft," Mihlfeld says. "He wanted to learn how to lift weights, because he'd never really done it before."

On draft day in 1999, Dave Karaff was one of the few who thought Pujols could make it as a pro. With Karaff's tentative endorsement, the Cardinals plucked Pujols in the thirteenth round, behind 401 other players.

Royals designated hitter Mike Sweeney met Mihlfeld when the trainer was working as KC's strength and conditioning coordinator.
Royals designated hitter Mike Sweeney met Mihlfeld when the trainer was working as KC's strength and conditioning coordinator.
Jason Grimsley told federal agents about a "personal 
fitness trainer" who referred him to a source for 
amphetamines. When the affidavit went public, a blogger 
claimed the trainer was Chris Mihlfeld.
www.thesmokingun.com
Jason Grimsley told federal agents about a "personal fitness trainer" who referred him to a source for amphetamines. When the affidavit went public, a blogger claimed the trainer was Chris Mihlfeld.

Pujols turned down the Cardinals' $10,000 signing bonus and opted to play in the semipro Jayhawk summer league. He spent three days a week training with Mihlfeld. Pujols had strength in his hips but not in his biceps, Mihlfeld recalls. He had Pujols take his time building up muscle to avoid injury. "For me to rush him would have been stupid," Mihlfeld recalls. "Why screw with something that is already pretty good?"

The Cardinals upped their ante in August 1999 and Pujols signed for $60,000. He stormed the team's developmental league the following year, hitting .323. The Cardinals brought him to the big leagues in 2001, where he earned the Rookie of the Year award and a spot on the all-star team.

In 2003 the Royals hired Mihlfeld as the team's strength and conditioning coordinator. He stayed for only a season before deciding to open his own company to help athletes with strength training. Sweeney was one of several Royals to begin working out at the new gym and signed up for off-season strength training for the first time in his career.

Mihlfeld e-mailed Sweeney a new, tailor-made routine every week. It used plyometrics, a blend of speed and weight training. The workouts included jump rope, sprints and weight training.

Sweeney, like Mihlfeld, is a devout Christian, and cites Proverbs 27:17 to describe his relationship with the trainer: "As iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another." He says Mihlfeld motivates his athletes by promising to do the same workouts they do. "Even though we weren't together physically," Sweeney says recently by phone, "we were holding each other accountable."

In January Pujols helped Mihlfeld buy the equipment to open Millhouse Athletic Enhancement Programs in a Liberty industrial park.

Among his early clients was former Royals pitcher Jason Grimsley, who had been a member of the Royals pitching staff when Mihlfeld worked for the team. In July 2005 the journeyman hurler openly praised Mihlfeld on MLB.com for helping him recover in just ten months from elbow surgery.

In April of this year Grimsley admitted to federal investigators that he'd used amphetamines, steroids and human growth hormone. Grimsley's confession became public on June 6, when federal agents filed excerpts of it in court papers. In the confession, Grimsley identifies a personal fitness trainer, whose name is blacked out in the document, as someone who once referred him to a source for speed.

On June 8, the popular sports blog Deadspin.com claimed to know the name of that trainer.

"His name is Chris Mihlfeld," the site reported.


A day after the blog post, MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann flashed a mug shot-like picture of Mihlfeld on the screen. Olbermann spun the initial Web report into a theory that Mihlfeld was baseball's new bad boy.

"Chris Mihlfeld is suddenly one of the biggest names in baseball," Olbermann declared. "He's the personal fitness trainer of baseball pitcher Jason Grimsley, and Grimsley is the man who admitted to federal agents that he used amphetamines, steroids and human growth hormone as part of his training."

Then Olbermann split screens and called Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis. Olbermann asked if it was possible Mihlfeld didn't know Grimsley was on steroids.

Callis speculated: "If we are talking about performance-enhancing drugs here or Pop Tarts, you know, if you have a trainer and you're relying on him very heavily, you are going to run everything by him."

Mihlfeld never expected the blog blip to go prime time. "It was them reporting, 'Our sources confirm it's Mihlfeld.' It was bullshit," he says.

Literally overnight, Mihlfeld's connection to the scandal spread through other Web sites for mainstream media, including Sports Illustrated. Then it landed in the sports sections nationally, including prominent mentions in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star. The stories did little to question Deadspin.com's reporting, even though it was far from thorough.

Will Leitch, the New York City-based, full-time editor of Deadspin.com, stands by his story. Leitch has a journalism degree from the University of Illinois and says he's written for the Sporting News, the Post-Dispatch and the New York Times. Last year his site was lauded in a Sports Illustrated piece about credible online sources. But Deadspin is part of Gawker Media, a blog company that has a reputation for using questionable reporting methods and sources.

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