By Eric Sprott

The Journal

As spring training began to wind down last week, Stephanie Fernandes embarked on the long road back to Arlington. Roughly a 15-hour ride from the Texas Rangers’ spring home in Surprise, Ariz., back to home base near Dallas, it wasn’t exactly an enviable trip, but it comes with the territory for the former Seneca High School softball standout.

Fernandes, pictured talking with former Texas Rangers’ first baseman Prince Fielder, became the first full-time dietician in the MLB. Photo courtesy of Texas Rangers

Fernandes — better remembered locally by her maiden name, Mihaly — needed to get back well in advance of the Rangers’ season-opening series against the Houston Astros, which continues today as part of Major League Baseball’s opening weekend. As the club’s team dietician, Fernandes had plenty of prep work to get ready for the first home series of the new season.

And when she’s not with the big-league club, she’s often out on the road, helping with the Rangers’ farm system, which includes AAA, AA, High A, Low A, Short Season and Rookie League teams in addition to a Dominican complex as well.

The first full-time dietician in Major League Baseball, Fernandes, 28, also stays plenty busy with players at all levels of the Rangers’ organization even when she isn’t physically with them, as she’s available for Skype and FaceTime sessions — in addition to regular phone calls and texts — for the nutritional needs of every player in the system.

A trailblazer in her field, Fernandes has a lot on her plate, but she wouldn’t have it any other way as she’s living out a dream in a field she’s long been passionate about.

“It’s very exciting, and it’s a lot of uncharted territory when it comes to having a full-time dietician on staff,” she said. “Here in year three, I’m very in love with what I do, and the environment I work in is phenomenal. It fosters so much growth and has so much potential, so I’m just looking forward to the years to come.”

The little things

Coming out of Seneca, Fernandes went to Furman on a softball scholarship, but she ultimately transferred to Clemson after giving up her career on the diamond following an injury.

Having earned a degree in biological sciences from Clemson, Fernandes went on to complete her Master’s of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Florida International in Miami before getting a call for an interview with the Rangers.

Matt Vinnola, the director of baseball operations for the Rangers, took on a major role in developing and assisting the implementation of nutrition programs for the organization, and he still remembers well the first time he had Fernandes in his office.

Out of three or four candidates, he said, Fernandes was one of two who flew in from the East Coast, where stormy weather ultimately wreaked havoc on their plans to return home in the evening after their morning arrivals.

Fernandes, though, came prepared with a suitcase in case she’d have to say the night, which caught Vinnola’s eye.

“I was like, ‘Come on,’” Vinnola said with a laugh. “Sure enough, one of the candidates couldn’t get back East, and they didn’t bring a suitcase.

“I was like, ‘This is the person that I want,’ of course outside of all her qualifications and her personality, I knew this girl was never going to miss a thing.”

“Not a surprise”

After joining the softball program ahead of the 2008 season as an assistant coach, Rick Pate ended up taking the head job after the Bobcats’ head coach at the time resigned his post just before the start of the season, continuing a revolving door of coaches at the time.

And while it could have been a lot for Pate to handle at the time with so little time to prepare, he said having Fernandes — then a senior — leading the squad made his transition as smooth as possible.

A lefthander who could throw 65 miles per hour with eight different movement pitches certainly helped, said Pate, who 10 years later is still calling the shots for the Bobcats.

“It was unreal how pinpoint accurate she was throwing it that hard,” he said. “It was a joy to watch, and she made my learning curve a lot less steep, because I got to enjoy one of the better pitchers of the time in South Carolina as a player.

“It was a great experience and probably helped to solidify me as a permanent coach rather than just a one and done.”

Fernandes was a force during her time as a Bobcat, helping the team to the 2006 Class 3A state championship, while she was a four-time all-state selection and a three-time Western 3A Player of the Year award winner.

Not surprisingly, her statistics jumped off the page during her senior season, as she went 15-4 in the circle with a 1.25 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 129 of work, while she also batted .523 with 13 doubles.

And while she shined on the diamond thanks to her dedication to the game, Pate added she worked just as hard in the classroom. With that said, he’s not surprised Fernandes is thriving with the Rangers.

Nobody was going to outwork her on the field or in the classroom, and she was so driven for someone her age,” he said of Fernandes , who came back and served as the Bobcats’ pitching coach in 2013. “It’s not a surprise to me she’s the first full-time dietician in the game, and when I first heard it, I was very happy, but not surprised.

“I knew whatever chosen field she had, she would excel, and she’d do it quickly because she’s so focused on what she wants. With her intellect and work ethic together, it’s no shock to me that she is where she is.”

Forward focus

Looking back over her first two seasons in the Rangers organization, Fernandes doesn’t like to wax poetic, as she’s constantly look ahead to the next thing — and that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those who know her.

“Of course you like to look back and assess, but I’m a bit more critical when it comes to that, so I always look for areas of improvement and how we can get better,” she said. “I feel like there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done or that I’d like to do. I see so much potential and growth not just within our program, but within baseball.

“As a whole, the vision of MLB is shifting in a direction I think is extremely positive, and it’s the beginning stages. I think it’s more of the excitement of what else can do we.”

And, naturally, that’s exciting for Fernandes, who not all that long ago was truly in unchartered territory when she was first hired by the Rangers.

But, both she and Vinnola said the assimilation process was seamless, as she and her expertise were welcomed from the start.

“Introducing someone new into the clubhouse can be a bit of a challenge, but I feel like in this case they welcomed me with open arms and let me do my thing,” Fernandes said. “They were ready for it, and I think it was understood throughout the organization as well that this was something they wanted.”

And for Vinnola, he couldn’t be happier with the job Fernandes has done thus far or more excited for what lies ahead.

“What’s she done is basically take a program that was underperforming and was kind of in disarray and really made it one of the model programs in the game, and maybe in professional sports,” he said. “She’s just a non-stop dynamo.”

And that’s exactly what’s helped the Seneca-grown product make baseball history.

esprott@upstatetoday.com | (864) 882-2385

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