In the 1950’s and 60’s, you were just as likely to see New York City sports gods Frank Gifford, Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle eating (and drinking) at the famed Toots Shor’s, as you would local ad men or accountants. Toots Shor’s is long gone, and so is the high probability of seeing professional athletes enjoying your city’s local fare.
I caught up with the Toronto Blue Jays center fielder (and perennial ESPN highlight-reel maker) Kevin Pillar on the team’s recent swing through New York to ask about the favorite haunts of a pro baseball player visiting the city. It turns out that the one concern that unites everyone from the hapless tourist to the grizzled native New Yorker, where to eat, is somewhat moot for the professional athlete. Today, a player’s superb breakfast, lunch and dinner is usually no farther away than their glove and cleats.
Apparently, Napoleon was on to something when he said, “An army marches on its stomach,” and made sure that well-stocked mess tents traveled with his far-flung legions. At the game I attended, for instance, the Blue Jays organized a delicious and nutritious breakfast at the team’s hotel. When they get to the stadium, the visiting team locker-room was replete with an amazing display of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and wholesome breads, all prepared by the Yankees’ dedicated visiting team chef, Miguel. After the game, another meal was prepared in the players-only section of the locker-room, and being a travel day, dinner was to be served on their chartered flight to Oakland.
Pillar, who is often found horizontal and diving for balls that rob opposing hitters of extra base hits, ate his lunch, something light and nutritious, about an hour before the 1:05 game time. When discussing nutrient-based meals Kevin told me, “I totally buy into the science of healthy eating. Especially at this level where the difference between success and failure is so small, and you need every advantage you can get.” He actually credits teammate Jose Bautista, the veteran All-Star slugger, with proving to Pillar as well as the younger players how important nutrient-based diets are at this level. “To see a guy in his physical shape and success at 34 is amazing,” said Kevin. “And he’s focused on healthy eating.”
When pressed on eating outside the professional sports bubble, Pillar, who made his Major League Baseball debut less than two years ago, admitted he loved coming to New York City. But his favorite food city thus far is Seattle. “Truly the freshest seafood anywhere, and just excellent sushi,” he said. C’mon buddy, you’re in New York, what’s your favorite here? “Ah,” exclaimed the 26-year-old, with the excitement of, well, any other 26-year-old who discovered something great in the city. “There’s this awesome restaurant, Quality Italian, where they serve chicken parm on a pizza platter!” OK, know it well, now we are getting somewhere! Now we can peel off the polished professionalism of these supreme athletes to get to some Page 6 quotes and stories, but... the announcement is made, all media must leave the locker-room. With that, the unfailingly polite Pillar stretches out on one of the plush leather couches in the visitors’ locker-room, as he mentally prepares to take on the first place New York Yankees. After lunch, of course.
Oh, and Jose Bautista? He rocked a home run off the second deck in the House That Ruth Built. And the Yankees visitors’ locker-room chef? Bautista liked him so much that he hired him to be his personal chef in the off-season.