"CrossFit helps replace the competitiveness and excitement I lost when I stopped playing ball."
After Brian Irving threw his last minor league pitch, he wasn’t sure he’d ever compete again.
Now, two years retired and ready for action, he’s signed up for his first CrossFit Games Open.
“One of the fun things about baseball is you play a game every single night,” Irving said. “(CrossFit) helps replace the competitiveness and excitement I lost when I stopped playing ball.”
When he began CrossFit in August, he expected the workouts to be tough. What he didn’t expect was to find a sense of camaraderie and his name on the affiliate’s Open roster.
“I think of the community at my gym as a team,” he said. “I look forward to competing in the Open with them.”
The 27-year-old began playing baseball at age 6. After graduating from Yale University in 2008, he was drafted by the San Francisco Giants to pitch for their minor league affiliate team, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.
He would go on to play for the Arizona League Giants in 2009 and the Augusta Green Jackets in 2010, pitching in the starting rotation alongside current New York Mets pitcher, Zack Wheeler. Over his three-year career, Irving made 72 appearances, pitched 159.1 innings, and recorded 155 strikeouts.
“I enjoyed the competitiveness of it,” he said. “As a pitcher, you’re in a one-on-one confrontation with the hitter. There’s a cat-and-mouse game going on, in that each one is trying to get the better of the other.”
Before every pitch, he would wipe the dirt from the rubber, inhale and shake out his shoulders.
“Kind of like you would do when you stare at the bar, take a deep breath and then go for a big lift,” Irving said.
The world faded like a snapshot in the sun when he focused on the strikeout zone. Gripping the ball between his thumb and index finger, middle finger resting on the seam, his body arched powerfully before he snapped his wrist down to fire the ball.
Today, he gets the same feeling while doing CrossFit.
“There’s a definite sense when the timer goes off in your workout that everything else just fades away,” he said. “All you’re thinking about is pushing as hard as you can until the workout is finished.”
During his career, Irving’s training was sport-specific. He focused on core-strengthening exercises like plank holds and lateral touches with a medicine ball, and high-volume, low-load squats for leg strength. He also performed shoulder stabilization exercises like shoulder raises and rows with light dumbbells.
But when he retired from the sport in 2011 to attend Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tenn., his fitness level tanked.
“I took two years off from the gym,” he said.
After he returned from a summer out of town last August, Irving noticed On The End CrossFit had opened one block from his apartment.
“I was looking for something that would push me; something I could get excited about,” he said. “I took that as a sign that this was something I needed to do.”
Irving’s first few weeks of CrossFit were difficult. He never trained the Olympic lifts or done any gymnastic work, and he was stumped by double-unders.
“I can remember for about the first six weeks I thought I was broken at the end of every workout,” he said. “There was no Fran in baseball!”
Mobility work and CrossFit’s mantra of “mechanics, consistency, intensity,” were also novelties to the former ball player.
“We stretched often during baseball and were conscious of injury prevention, but as long as I played, strength coaches always let me get away with collapsing my knees on squats,” he said. “How I didn’t snap my back is beyond me. All that changed the first time I tried to squat at On The End. The coach stopped me immediately and refused to let me load up until my form improved.”
But the challenge was welcome.
“Now, I have something I look forward to every day,” he said. “Who gets pumped to run on a treadmill?”
Six months into CrossFit, Irving trains five times per week, and said he’s in better shape than ever. He did his first Fran in 4:09 in his third month, and his back squat is coming back, currently at 330 lb. He can string 30 double-unders together and recently got a muscle-up.
Now, less than two weeks out from his first CrossFit Games Open, the former pro-athlete is ready to play cat and mouse again.
“I don’t expect to be competitive (in the Open), but I’d like to see where I stand,” he said. “I think it will be motivating, and it’s another thing to get excited about and another way to push my CrossFit experience.”