It was, Floyd Rayford said, a cleansing of the body and soul and a chance to save a career that had been one of the Baltimore Orioles' most promising a year ago. At the Pritikin Center, he learned the joys of 6 a.m. walks and of breakfasts that included, not eggs and bacon, but dried bagels, fruits and whole-grain cereals.
He went to classes on nutrition, he did aerobic exercises and he talked to people with problems similar to his. He listened to lectures on founder Nathan Pritikin, who went on a strict no-fat, high-carbohydrate diet after being diagnosed as having leukemia.
"It was in remission for 28 years," Rayford said, shaking his head.
Rayford spent $4,300 for a two-week session that he describes as being the best and worst two weeks of his life. The good part is, he said, "No matter what happens to me now, I'm a better person. I feel stronger and more in control of myself. Even if I don't make this team, I know I haven't cheated myself."
The bad part, the excruciating part, is that he was told to change some aspects of his life that may be unchangeable. He was raised in Los Angeles by a mother who cooked mounds of fried chicken, pork chops, pot roasts and barbecued foods. No more of that, he was told.
Then, during 12 years in places like Idaho Falls, Salinas and Rochester, he nourished his taste for cheeseburgers, tacos and hot-fudge sundaes. He developed bad and excessive eating habits, so much so that a friend once said, "He's just like Babe Ruth--except for the 714 home runs."
No more of that kind of eating, Rayford was told.
But he hated the thought of giving up fried shrimp, fried chicken and french fries, and admits he hasn't yet managed to scratch them all from his diet.
The bottom line, however, is that he weighed 244 pounds last October and now is 214. His eventual goal is 208, but even at 214, a double-knit uniform fits nicely on his stocky frame.
"What hurt me is that someone wrote I was at a fat farm," he said. "There were people weighing 300 pounds and people weighing 110 pounds. I didn't consider it just a fat farm. I was there to lose weight, but also to learn about food."
The Orioles say he's supposed to weigh 215 pounds, and last week when he slipped above that, he spent three straight exhibition games running laps in the outfield, then trudging inside to be weighed.
Once last week, while the Orioles were waiting for a flight to leave, the team had breakfast at the Miami airport. When it was Rayford's turn to order, a coach spoke up and said, "He'll have fruit." For one of the most popular Orioles, a player who likes to laugh at himself as much as others, this kind of thing hurt. "Sometimes they treat me like a child," he said.
If all of this is demeaning, so was his 1986 season and so are the front-office discussions that no longer mention him playing a significant role with the Orioles.
To summarize: Former Manager Earl Weaver gave Rayford a chance to play regularly on July 19, 1985, and he responded by leading the Orioles in hitting (.306) and producing more runs (55), hits (110), doubles (21), triples (1), home runs (18) and runs batted in (48) than in his previous 184 big-league games combined.
The winter after that season, his salary was almost doubled (to $350,000), and he was penciled into the starting lineup at third base. He admits now that he never once worked out that winter and showed up at spring training overweight.
He might have been able to work into shape except that on March 28 he suffered a chipped bone in his left thumb. For all practical purposes, his season was ruined.
He began the season on the 15-day disabled list, but was rushed back after only three rehabilitation games at Rochester. He joined the Orioles April 21 in Cleveland and, on a 40-degree night, tied an American League record by making four errors. That night, he told reporters his thumb still wasn't well, but asked them not to print the remark because "it would look like an excuse."
He eventually got two more tours at Rochester and finished with some incredible numbers. His .176 batting average was the lowest in the American League among players with at least 300 at-bats. His 130-point drop was the greatest in the American League and the greatest ever for an Oriole.
Saying he wanted to concentrate on preparing for the season, Rayford has declined to speak with reporters until Tuesday.
"I wasn't ready when I came back," he said. "I know that now. But I wanted to play. In my heart, I thought everything would fall into place."
Of the abuse he has taken from various coaches and club officials, he said, "I put a lot of effort into what I do and, when I'm working like hell, I don't need to be teased. . . . I hope they know no one works harder than me, and that we'd be a better team if everyone worked as hard as me."
More troubling for the Orioles is the question of whether a slimmer Rayford will be a better Rayford. They fear the player they had in 1985 may be gone forever. For one thing, before he got a chance to play in 1985, he saw a lot of fastballs because pitchers didn't believe he could hit them.
When they found out he could, they switched to curveballs, which he has a hard time hitting. Sometimes he misses, sometimes he seems paralyzed and sometimes he seems confused.
The Orioles were unsure enough of him that they got catcher Terry Kennedy to play one of his positions and third baseman Ray Knight to play the other. If he makes the Orioles--and it's almost certain he will--it will be as a backup catcher and emergency infielder.
Rayford said he understands that and doesn't like it. He also says he'll survive.
"I'm not going to like it," he said, "but I'll do what I can to help the team. You're not going to be the same player when you don't get four at-bats a game. And if you don't want four at-bats a game, you shouldn't be on the team, anyway."