I have advocated baseball as a way to stay sane during these times of lockdown and paranoia—not that you can run out and watch a game, let alone play one; but our enforced confinement is a good opportunity to consider little tweaks that we can play with in the back yard or the batting cage.
I’m also finding a very personal kind of support in my baseball research. I didn’t have an encouraging report last week about the status of my prostate cancer, although the evidence seems to me to point at least as clearly in the direction of a certain hormone-suppressing drug as in that of cancer-compromised bones. Earlier this year, I came to know the pain of bones under attack, while muscle strain and I have been close acquaintances throughout my life. What’s torturing me right now is torn, bleeding muscle—the pain of muscles not allowed to heal. Baseball distracts me from that misery better than anything else. I only regret that I’ve had to suspend the creation of new instructional videos on YouTube. I just can’t make any moves at the moment, no matter how trivial, without suffering the consequences later that evening.
Fun Fact: did you know that medical error (as in prescribing the wrong dose of Firmagon, in my case) is the Number Three cause of fatalities in the US of A?
Well, amigos, I can’t promise to doctor your hitting any better than my disease has lately been doctored. But I do listen to my own body, I do question even “expert advice” when it doesn’t tally with what my muscles and nerves are telling me… and I bring the same respectful skepticism to the “science of hitting”, as taught by professional coaches.
Most coaches will tell you not to hitch, for instance. Ted Williams explained very logically in a 1966 video that hitching puts unnecessary motion into your swing and costs you valuable time. A couple of kind souls who’ve seen my own videos about hitching and been moved to make comments have observed that the Thumper was among those immortals of the game visibly employing a hand-pump in his load: nothing so dramatic as Mel Ott’s hitch, or even Jimmie Foxx’s… but a kind of hitch, nonetheless. Williams would set up with his hands about as high as his armpit, sure enough… but then he’d drop them as he coiled and allow them to ride back up as he strode into the pitch. One has to suppose that he didn’t know he was doing this, or he wouldn’t have warned against it! There wasn’t a lot of film-watching in the mid-Sixties as a means of self-analysis.
The hitch is one example of what I call a kinetic loop in my book, Metal Ropes. What I mean by that is this. You don’t make a dynamic movement by starting cold. You don’t throw a punch from a position where your hands are dead-still in mid-air. You don’t kick a soccer ball without pulling your leg back, and you don’t throw a football without pulling your arm back. What you’re doing in all such cases is setting energy in motion through a kind of loop that can be very suddenly exited when the instant for the forward attack is ripe.
Now, Teddy Ballgame may have figured that going straight from dead-still to locus-of-contact was the shortest distance between two points; as I’ve admitted, there’s a kind of logic to the thesis. But the only hitter I can recall swinging in that manner as I grew up was Roger Maris. With hands poised high above the rear shoulder, Roger simply lowered the boom on incoming pitches, finishing with just his bottom hand still on the handle. In many ways, he anticipated strokes of the Nineties and early Two-Thousands: say, those of Juan Gonzalez and Albert Pujols. Roger was one of my boyhood heroes (and remains for me a kind of moral hero for all the abuse he endured from fans, press, and ownership). Yet he didn’t have much in the way of a kinetic loop: he was a dive-bomber who could pull pitches over the fence or dribble them to the right side when he arrived too early. He couldn’t keep his power on tap for just the correct millisecond: he was a constant guesser. His batting average topped .280—barely—in just two seasons, and the career figure was .260.
Now, Roger’s teammate Mickey Mantle, whose swing generally possessed a lot more swoosh and was capable of generating lofty strikeout totals, nevertheless logged much higher averages, as well. Mick had more loops. During his load, he dipped his hands (in Williams fashion) near to his recoiling knee. Then he unreeled a healthy stride as the hands rode up and inclined the barrel toward the plate just before whiplashing it through the zone. Too much excess motion, the nagging coach would protest… but would you really prefer to have Maris on your team over Mantle? Somehow, Mick was able to pour all that rocking and rolling into the pitch with impressive regularity.
I submit that kinetic looping, when done properly, not only doesn’t sabotage timely contact with “hot-dogging”, but that it actually makes contact more powerful by drawing upon energy already set in motion. And since the bat head is already dipping, circling, or weaving, its accelerated launch at the ball can be withheld for a split second, giving the hitter the immense luxury of locating his target a little more precisely.
To be sure, a loop can get out of hand and pose significant problems to timing. That’s why, as a kid trying to graduate from sandlot ball to high-school hard ball, I felt obliged to ditch my dazzling Mickey Mantle stroke for a no-nonsense Roger Maris stroke. By that point, we youngsters were getting a lot of our practice off of pitching machines. (I find In Peter Morris’s Game of Inches that the first mass-marketed pitching machine was patented in 1956 by a fireman named Wilson.) Such machines will make a Maris-like “see-react” kind of hitter out of anyone. When you have no practice synchronizing your load to human motions on the mound, your coil or kick or hitch—the whole bag of tricks—will just make you eternally late on everything. I noticed recently that the coaching establishment has apparently convinced Orlando Arcia to discontinue his José Cruz-like leg lift of a few years back. Joe Garagiola once remarked of José Canseco’s pump that, when you hit forty home runs, they start calling your hitch a “timing mechanism”.
I don’t particularly like that characterization of the kinetic loop, all joking aside. You’re not lifting your knee and/or rolling your hands to enhance your chances of meeting the pitch head-on: you’re setting things in motion so as to get the power flowing—and then timing is addressed by your being able to exit the loop immediately. If that exit proves too challenging, then you may need to develop a bigger loop rather than jettisoning any hint of a loop. That is, you may need to create a circling pattern where you feel sufficiently comfortable to spill into a linear attack at any stage of the circuit rather than one which forces you to attack at Turn X whether or not the ball’s there yet. The most explosive hitters of the recent past, though not so recent that evidence of the loop has vanished—guys like Orlando Cepeda, Dick Allen, and Ruben Sierra—were “loosey-goosey”. Their amazing quickness to the ball wasn’t magically achieved in spite of a lot of hand and leg motion, but because of it. And if such players tend to hail from the inner cities or the backwoods or a Caribbean island… well, couldn’t that be because they learned the game without being tormented by pitching machines?
Try developing kinetic loops that work for you during this prolonged winter. Relax, have some fun… and then get serious about the lessons your fun is teaching you.