Within walking distance of the Sleep Inn and Suites in Hagerstown, Md., is a Waffle House, Wendy's, Cracker Barrel, Burger King, McDonald's, and a 7-Eleven tucked behind a gas station. This is where the single-A Lakewood BlueClaws stay three times a season, when they pile into a bus for a South Atlantic League road trip.

Shane Watson, a former first-round pick back at Lakewood after shoulder surgery, prefers the Cracker Barrel. A few weeks ago, when Lakewood visited Hagerstown, Watson planned to dine there for lunch - until a caterer carried salmon and some steamed vegetables into the hotel lobby.

This season, the Phillies will spend close to $1 million to feed their minor-league players and staffers healthy meals.

"It's definitely a plus this year," Watson said. "For sure. A lot of guys really like it."

For the Phillies, the benefit extends beyond appeasing their minor-league players. The franchise has hired strength and conditioning coaches for every minor-league team, and nutrition is an important part of the development equation. The idea of choosing better food as a way to improve an athlete's performance is not a new one.

The Phillies are teaching their minor-leaguers how to play baseball, so why not teach them how to eat well, too?

"We want them to not have to worry about anything other than baseball," assistant general manager Ned Rice said. "When they're playing for the Phillies, they'll have that stuff taken care of for them."

Or, as veteran triple-A catcher J.P. Arencibia put it: "Food is an integral part of everything you do. They're going to pay millions of dollars for players and then have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?"

General manager Matt Klentak asked his staff to reassess how the entire organization does things. Few teams do it, but supplying the minor-leaguers with healthier food made too much sense. Poor nutrition can beget weight gain or inadequate physical conditioning. It can lead to more injuries.

The Phillies expanded the role of Katie Cavuto, a dietitian who has worked with the big-league players.

"We want to instill those values in younger players," said Rice, who helped implement the minor-league program. "It's an adjustment for some of those guys. We want them having healthy habits by the time they get to the majors."

Consider Lakewood. The team's average age is 22, and the players make less than $1,500 a month for five months. Most of the players are fresh from college and high school or new to the country. While on the road, each player has $25 a day to spend on food. A lack of transportation limits a player's food options; the team bus carries players from ballpark to ballpark and nothing more.

Lakewood manager Shawn Williams played seven seasons in the minors and never escaped single-A ball. He remembered eating "whatever you could get your hands on" when he played, which usually meant fast food. Still, Williams said he lost between 5 and 10 pounds every season because he was burning more than his intake.

His players have feasted on the new cuisine.

"They need as much fuel as possible," said Williams, as he chewed on some brown rice inside his office. "They're taking full advantage of it, which I don't blame them. It's awesome for them."

Last season, the players were on their own for food beyond the one meal - usually something cheap and easy like deli meats, lasagna, or pizza - served at the ballpark. Through catering and internally cooked meals, the Phillies will provide a couple of healthy meals and assorted snacks during the day.

A three-meal stretch last week for double-A Reading tasted like this: salmon, broccoli, and some noodles for lunch; flank steak and asparagus after the game; barbecue chicken, grilled zucchini, and roasted potatoes for the next day's pregame lunch.

"It's all under the nutritional plan," Reading manager Dusty Wathan said. "If they don't want a lot of red meat before the games, there are lean proteins and all that stuff. Instead of being cooked in butter, it's steamed."

The push for nutrition in the minors was popularized last spring by Gabe Kapler, the former outfielder who is now the director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. All of Los Angeles' minor-league teams were fed organic food last season. The Phillies will not go that far, but they share the values espoused by Kapler, who searched for advantages at the margins.

Arencibia praised the Phillies for their effort, although he said adjustments will be crucial as the program advances. Tommy Joseph, a first baseman at triple-A Lehigh Valley, agreed. "We're having tacos, and you're taking away the cheese?" he said. The cheese was soon restored.

In Rochester, N.Y., where the only restaurant near the IronPigs' hotel was a barbecue joint, Joseph relied on the catered team meal.

"It saved my life," Joseph said. "Just being able to go into the lobby and have the option to eat, it just saves everything."

Sure, some of the minor-leaguers will cheat with a Big Mac or chicken-fried chicken from Cracker Barrel. But the Phillies hope their investment will ingrain a food philosophy in the youngest players.

"There are some guys who really, really like it, and there are other guys who aren't used to eating that way. So they don't like it," Wathan said. "But, going forward, it will definitely help players out in the long run."


@MattGelb www.philly.com/philliesblog

Staff writer Matt Breen contributed to this article.