Oblique Strain

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

Albert Pujols

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.

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.

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.

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.

Leitch says his source was operating on second-hand information leaked by another person who claimed to have seen an unredacted version of the Grimsley affidavit. Leitch acknowledges that the mainstream media wouldn't have considered the source legitimate. But he says his site did annotate the report by explaining that its credibility was an eight on a ten scale. "Is the New York Times willing to run with that story? Probably not," Leitch admits. "But we said upfront there's a possibility that we're not 100 percent on this. I have no choice but to stand by my source just like any other journalist would."

Olbermann did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Callis admits his comments to Keith Olbermann were based on "innuendo." "That's why I was trying to be very careful when I was on the show." Callis says.

Kansas City Star reporter Wright Thompson says he only considered the story newsworthy when Mihlfeld and Sweeney were willing to give him first-hand accounts about how they felt the Deadspin.com piece jeopardized their reputations. He adds that he didn't need to question who the source was because by that point he was writing about how the perception of guilt had ruined others' realities. "This is the kind of stuff that everybody used to whisper about and it would never see the light of day," says Thompson, who recently left the Star to work for ESPN.com. "There's such a fuzzy line between reporting a story and creating it as far as blogs. I think in this instance they created it," he says. "The fact that no one can be sure he's involved shows how infected the game has become."

Joe Strauss, a Post-Dispatch staff writer, defends a piece he wrote about Mihlfeld that referenced the Internet and MSNBC allegations. "Any time the National League MVP is connected to a guy who is allegedly cited in a legal inquiry, it lands on the radar screen," Strauss says. "At that point we felt it would have been somewhat irresponsible not to investigate it and see what was at the bottom of it. The story for me became how this whole media frenzy upset his life and damaged his business."

Mihlfeld says he has decided against filing a lawsuit. "But someone needs to be held accountable," he says. "For certain folks in the media, this needs to be a lesson that they can't be so reckless."

The day after the Deadspin story broke, Mihlfeld rolled open his gym's heavy, garage-style door to reveal his entire operation, a message that he had nothing to hide.

He removed the autographed photos of Jason Grimsley from the montage of star clients adorning the wall behind his desk and issued a series of straightforward denials. "I know Jason Grimsley very well, and I have only two statements to make," he told a reporter for Sports Illustrated's Web site. "One, Jason Grimsley is still my good friend. And two, I've never been involved in any illegal steroids, amphetamines or HGH activity. Period."

Then his premier athletes swung away. Sweeney told Wright Thompson he'd swear on the Bible that Mihlfeld was innocent. Pujols offered himself up for testing. "I'll do it. I've said before I have nothing to worry about. If they want to test me and Mike, then let's go. I'll do it tomorrow. No problem," Pujols told the Post-Dispatch's Strauss. "But Chris has been put in a very unfair position. I know it bothers him. I hear it every time I talk to him."

To combat steroid suspicion, some training houses require players to sign an ethics policy promising to stay drug-free. But Sweeney says Mihlfeld based his drug policy on an old-school tenet: trust. "When I first met Chris, there was a lot of junk going around with this Bonds thing, and Chris told me flat-out, 'Mike, if I hear you are using this stuff, I will not train you.' So from day one Chris has been drug-free and stresses a drug-free environment."

Mihlfeld says he shouldn't be required to investigate his players. "It's almost like, is it my responsibility to find out, is he cheating on his wife?" Mihlfeld says. "I get sick and tired of everybody pointing the finger at the strength coach when it's the players who are doing it. It's not us."

With all the criticism, Mihlfeld feels like a target. He says a pack of high schoolers recently drove by his home shouting Grimsley's name while his daughters were playing on the front lawn. His sister, who runs a Web site for a scrapbooking company, has received hundreds of hateful e-mails. And he won't go near the Cardinals' or Royals' clubhouse to meet with his clients.

"I don't know when I'll go back," he says. "I don't feel comfortable leaving my family right now, to be honest with you."

It's a balmy 95 degrees at Busch Stadium on the first day of July, but inside the Cardinals' swank new clubhouse, the atmosphere couldn't be chillier.

The team is coming off its worst losing slide in nearly twenty years, having dropped nine out of the last ten games, including a 7-5 loss the previous night to the last-place Royals. For the first time in recent memory, the self-proclaimed "best fans in baseball" have begun to boo their own team.

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.

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.

Mihlfeld maintains that he's interested only in teaching regular kids to become better players, not prospecting for another build-a-legend like Albert Pujols. He worries that his tarnished reputation will keep kids from associating themselves with him. He still hasn't returned to the Cardinals or Royals clubhouses. He stays away from Sweeney, too, even as the slugger tries to return from a back injury.

He throws harder to Mathis now, and the rhythm of their glove-slaps increases. Mathis throws a bullet that tips off Mihlfeld's glove and bounces off the canvas bed cover of Mihlfeld's raised pickup.

"My bad, Chris," Mathis yells as Mihlfeld runs after the loose ball.

Mihlfeld smiles broadly. "Don't overanalyze it," he says.

Ben Paynter is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times' sister paper in Kansas City, The Pitch. RFT staff writer Chad Garrison contributed to this story.

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