Oblique Strain

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

Suffice to say June was a forgettable month for Albert Pujols. Though his team managed an 8-7 record while he nursed his ailing oblique, the Redbirds went 1-7 after the Savior's return. Pujols' offensive totals for the month: a .256 batting average, with one home run and two runs batted in. And virtually all of that firepower came during a single game, a loss to Detroit.

Now, with nearly four hours until tonight's first pitch, Pujols is anxious to start his pregame preparation of watching videos of the opposing pitcher, stretching and taking batting practice. It's a routine that regularly makes him among the first to arrive at the ballpark. He wears a pair of soccer shorts and a gray Cardinals T-shirt with cut-off sleeves, revealing his thickly muscled arms. His locker sports only two decorations: a silver frame with photos of his family and a wooden cross inscribed with a paraphrase of Proverbs 3:6: "In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path."

Having reluctantly agreed to be interviewed for this story, Pujols makes it plain that he does not want to discuss the allegations linking his strength coach to Jason Grimsley.

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.

He says he's already said all there is to say on the subject, and — perhaps not surpisingly in light of the mini-firestorm that erupted when he spoke out in defense of Barry Bonds during the Cardinals' West Coast swing in May — he blames the media for hyping the false accusations against Mihlfeld.

Pujols describes Mihlfeld as one of his best friends. He says Mihlfeld helps him with more than just weight training. "He'll call me and say, 'You're jumping on the ball,' whatever. The way he works, it's all about establishing a relationship with the player," Pujols says. "And the main thing is, he used to play baseball. He knows what it takes to get a player ready. It's not about getting big and strong. It's about getting smart with your workouts to make sure you stay healthy all year."

Pujols confirms that he asked Mihlfeld to come to St. Louis the night he was hurt. "But I left it to him, and he felt he should come check it out," says the first baseman. "He just wanted to know how hurt I was, and he told me I'd be ready in ten days — just like I was."

With Pujols, such loyalty works both ways, including helping Mihlfeld get his gym started. "I paid for some of the equipment," he explains. "Other equipment we got from a guy who helped us out. It was more like an endorsement deal that I did [in exchange for the equipment]. And I'm appreciative, because it's for a good cause, to help kids."

He has also offered to cover Mihlfeld's legal fees if the trainer does file a lawsuit against those who have accused him of having a connection to steroids. "Definitely, because I know the guy and I know he's innocent," says Pujols. "I just wish the stupid people who wrote whatever they did about the guy, they should have found out the facts before they wrote their stupid article. But that's just how the media is and that's something you can't control."

Pujols is dismissive of Mihlfeld's concern that Grimsley has cast a cloud of suspicion over his star clients and even more dismissive of those who whisper that his recent comeback may have been aided by something improper.

"I came back because I work my butt off. That's it," he says. "I don't care what kind of shit people think out there, because I don't play for those people. They try to drag you down with anything. That's how the media is. They say stupid comments. I don't care what the media thinks about this."

On a recent Tuesday morning, Mihlfeld stands in the parking lot outside his gym, playing catch with a still-obscure Kansas City-area college ballplayer. The sky is as blue as the 1985 Royals World Series pennant that hangs in his storefront window. The player, Jared Mathis, met Mihlfeld a decade ago, back when the trainer was still making ends meet by running Little League hitting clinics in the parking lot of a car dealership.

An industrial-size fan thumps from inside the warehouse. Outside, the only sound is the smack of a baseball into stitched leather. Months ago Mathis blew out his shoulder. It was rebuilt, but he still harbors doubts about how it will hold up over the course of the season.

Mihlfeld lengthens the distance between them. Mathis is among more than 50 high school and college athletes who train full-time at the gym. Each pays $150 to join and $65 a month. That includes a custom-designed routine with more than a dozen exercises. Another 50 clients come in occasionally for individual training sessions at $65 for 45 minutes.

But business isn't what it used to be. His old clients remain loyal, but Mihlfeld says reservations for new private lessons have slowed. Recently an entire team stood him up for a scheduled three-hour clinic.

This year Mihlfeld hopes to field a new all-star team of high school freshmen sponsored by his gym. The players would wear uniforms with his gym's logo and receive extra training, making them a recognizable brand for college and professional scouts. If successful, Mihlfeld would expand the team to kids as young as eight years old.

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