BOSTON -- There are no pro baseball games to be found in the U.S. this time of year, and that makes any operation that can resemble a Major League clubhouse a rarity. Strangely enough, where those clubhouse atmospheres do exist -- the kangaroo court and the camaraderie, the downtime and the intensity all rolled into one like it's June, or at least March -- a field is optional.
Cressey Performance is in the Boston suburb of Hudson, tucked into a complex that speaks more to Steve Carell's Michael Scott than any stereotype of an iron-pumping athlete. Cell phone service is shoddy, and a canine learning center and a direct-mail fulfillment business occupy nearby suites.
During every offseason since the facility opened, in 2007, Major League and Minor League players have gone there to get better not on their own but in a group. Kevin Youkilis and Curt Schilling have been clients. Royals reliever Tim Collins is practically a trainer there himself after five years.
"It's like being on another team, really," said Marlins rookie Steve Cishek, another Cressey trainee. "Everyone's pulling for each other in here, has the same goal, that's the main thing. We all share a common interest. We always want to work as hard as we can and make it to the next level for next year. And a lot of our guys like to keep it light, just like in our clubhouse."
There's a similar venue 3,000 or so miles away, in Southern California, a 7,400-square-foot training facility on an 85-acre complex with more amenities than its state has highways. Athletes' Performance Los Angeles, which opened in 2003, is just one branch of perhaps the most well-known organization in sport training.
Performance specialist Chang Lee, a former Red Sox trainer, helped Sean Burroughs at Athletes' Performance as he made his way back to the Majors last season, and the Blue Jays' Ricky Romero has been a long-time devotee. Phil Hughes is also in Los Angeles.
"It's all baseball players. We all know what we go through," Romero said. "We understand what it takes to get ready for a Major League or Minor League season."
In reality, the goals are the same for all ballplayers everywhere during the winter: get in shape and get ready for next season. Just a small number of players though -- Lee guessed 15 percent across the Minors and Majors -- take to training facilities for group workouts. And those who do swear that doing so gives them something they can't find working out on their own, or in a one-on-one setting with a trainer.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a comparable atmosphere outside a Major League clubhouse. You can't find Collins' Question of the Day on a whiteboard ("Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly?") and the players' answers, you can't joke around with your peers. But the one thing that clients of both Athletes' Performance and Cressey cite as most irreplaceable is the motivation.
"The environment is very important," owner Eric Cressey said. "There's kind of an old saying in our industry: It's better to execute a mediocre program with 100 percent intensity and effort than it is to have a perfect program and do it with half effort. I think the guys do push each other. You never have a bad day when you have training partners, because there are people there to pick you up and there's live music and there's energy and all that. I think that's really the motivation to it."
"The intensity is much higher," Lee said. "You could work out yourself in the weight room, or you could do it with any performance coach one to one, but to be in a facility, that alone means the motivation is high. All the people who come to train are everybody else's motive to get ready for the next year."
Cressey and Lee's programs aren't the only group offerings in the business (and Athletes' Performance has other locations), but there isn't exactly a gaggle of opportunities. Brett Fischer, a former Cubs trainer and inventor of the AB Dolly, runs a similar outfit in Arizona, and Lee Fiocchi has a program in Houston, but it's not as though every Major League city has a professional-caliber, baseball-specific group offering.
And "baseball-specific" is the key phrase. Cressey and Lee's programs are custom-tailored for the sport, and they encompass much more than just lifting weights, incorporating nutrition programs, conditioning and movement training.
This time of year is the transitional period. With Cressey, participants commonly lift four days a week, do two days of movement training, and sprint and med ball work. Mobility and soft tissue exercises are performed daily.
"They have two choices," Lee said of Athletes' Performance's offerings. "No. 1 is a two-a-day program, so we have a movement session in the morning, about a 90-minute session. We teach them how to run correctly, how to move their body, how to make a cut, so that they become more efficient performing on the field. And then in the afternoon they will come back ... for the strength session. That's when they lift weights, and then we'll spend 20 to 30 minutes on ... a conditioning program."
The other option is to condense the workout into one session.
The results are there. Romero set career highs in wins (15) and innings (225) last season. The 5-foot-7 Collins racked up 60 strikeouts in 67 innings.
That fastball's not coming from nowhere.
"You see other guys working their [tail] off, getting ready for the season, you really have no choice but to go in there and do the same thing," said Collins. "I just come in here, eat my breakfast, train, go lunch, hang out. ... Just kind of a home away from home. I greet everybody at the door."
In this way, offseason workout groups might actually have a leg up on Major League clubhouses: The big leagues' only greeters are security guards.