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baseball history, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

The White Stag

In the Arthurian Romances, when a knight encounters a white stag in the enchanted forest, he is magnetically drawn into pursuit because… well, who wouldn’t be?  But he never catches the supernatural creature, or even catches up with him.  As elusive as an echo, the stag usually leaves his pursuer at the doorstep of a mysterious castle or on the brink of some other new adventure, having faded permanently into the background.

My personal white stag is the 1962 Topps Mickey Mantle card.  Don’t laugh.  I know there are lots of them in circulation—but they also cost anywhere from fifty bucks (for a chewed, creased, off-centered sample) to almost a thousand (for mint-condition perfection).  I don’t have money to spend on utter frivolity, and I don’t really want a Mickey that used to turn some kid’s bike into a motorcycle.  (Yes, wanton brats of my generation used to clothespin their cards against the spokes of their spinning wheels so as to create a sputtering noise: motorcycle racket.  Cool, huh?)  The question, then, reduces to the very practical one of when or if my situation will ever allow me to blow about two Franklins on a somewhat mediocre card that a collector like me would still be proud to own.

There’s history to this romantic quest.  I have a very distant, but very clear, memory of visiting my cousin Joey in Pound Ridge, New York.  Joey and I didn’t hit it off in those days.  (He has since utterly transformed himself into one of the most unassuming and considerate human beings you’d ever meet—a scintillating testimony to the power of people to change in rare cases.)  In a manner typical of how he’d been brought up, Joey became a Doberman off the leash when he discovered that I possessed a 1962 Ralph Terry.  Now, I have no particular attachment to Ralph.  The photo of a tall, lean young man (or “grown-up”: I don’t suppose any card’s photo struck us kids as showing a “young man”) having just delivered a pitch was dramatic, but… but besides that, who was Ralph Terry?  A guy who went 16 and 3 for the Yanks in 1961, yes (and who would lead the AL with 23 victories in 1962… but none of us saw that coming). I knew even then that such accomplishments as a 5:1 win ratio were celebrated.  Still, this was just a pitcher.  I couldn’t imagine getting that worked up about a fellow who didn’t even play every day.

Joey was so keen to get his mitts on my Ralph, however, that he offered me three Mickey Mantles in return.  I never saw the merchandise.  It’s quite possible that, in the domineering fingers of a kid like my feisty cousin, none of those three Micks had survived without a crease.  Some kids just couldn’t grasp a card without bending it.  My sister, whose only interest in collecting was that we boys did it, had come by a Stan Musial and an Orlando Cepeda through the luck of the draw… and both, within days, looked as though they’d done motorcycle duty, been wadded up in a hip pocket, and afterward fallen into those trash compressors which she called drawers.  Would Joey have been any kinder to his unhappy minions taken prisoner from packs of bubblegum?

The point, though, is that I never saw them; and, in my mind forever after, they were three mint Mickeys.  I had declined a gift of solid gold—the three gifts of the Magi—because Joey overplayed his hand and made me believe that Ralph Terry must be baseball’s greatest secret.  It didn’t help that Joey’s family were sophisticated Northerners, the self-appointed aristocrats of our tribe, and that I was a stupid backwoods Texan.  I was like the hillbilly who was offered a thousand bucks in cash for his piebald, sway-backed mare.  “I know he thinks I’m a dumb hayseed.  Well, I’ll just show him that I ain’t too dumb to see old Hildie’s hidden merits… even though she ain’t got none.”

For over half a century, I have been tormented by the recollection of that missed opportunity.  Last spring, especially, as I excavated my 1962 Topps collection (which covers the immortal 1961 season) and began to fill it out with frugal caution, I never failed to notice the “Mickey gap” among all my assembled Yankees.  Maris: check.  Whitey and Yogi: check.  Moose and Kubek, Tresh and Cletis and Richardson: check, check, check.  But no Mickster.  At the time, I was slowly descending into a very deep spiritual pit which would bottom out in the revelation that I had metastatic prostate cancer.  The diagnosis should have come within days; but, thanks to a combination of professional incompetence, callous indifference, and idiotic COVID protocols, it kept falling through the cracks for months.  In a bid to distract myself as my pains and my suspicions grew, I dropped a couple of bucks on eBay every other day (and eventually every day): a Marv Breeding, an Eddie Kasko, a Chuck Hinton.  I revisited my childhood in a very low-intensity way.  After a month or so, I had actually filled out the plastic pages of my 1961 Season three-ring binder very creditably.

Except for Mickey.  And when I finally learned the truth of my condition, any thought of card-collecting whatever was swept aside.  In order to get myself cleaned up, I had to travel to Tijuana, Mexico, and submit to a series of therapies none of which would be covered in the least by Medicare or Blue Cross.  The FDA doesn’t approve treatments that save lives, you see; it only approves treatments that mass-market costly drugs and surgeries to the vast benefit of the Medical-Pharmaceutical Complex.  (Footnote: did you know that you cannot legally sue the manufacturers of the new COVID vaccine if it harms you?)  A fellow in my position, then, didn’t need to be frittering away nickels and dimes on the one-time contents of bubblegum packages.  Luxury and amusement, never intimate guests, packed up and left my humble abode.

Well, I returned from Tijuana better, much better… but I also returned with a stack of debts and, alas, with several months’ worth of a potent drug in highly excessive doses.  I didn’t discover the dosing error for about half a year, by which time my bones and muscles were so stressed that (in my personal opinion) cancer was able to creep through the back window as my system fought to recover normal function.  The very drug which had initially strangled those cancer cells (and, just so you know, it’s the only FDA-approved substance I was given in Mexico) had cleared the way for a resurgence of the disease.  As near as I can tell, the person who slipped up by packing overdoses into my take-home goody-bag was a clerical type of no medical training.  She’d misread the labels and pulled the wrong boxes.

So now I enter the final week of what is easily—I do not exaggerate—the most pain-ridden, dispiriting six weeks of my life.  The holidays played a part in delaying my access to a top-flight clinic, and I have to add that my own utter shock at the disease’s suddenness and speed of return lured me and my current physician into wasting a couple of weeks in wait-and-see observation.  It’s been a hard year for all of us, boys and girls; but for me, it has been the Mother of all Years from Hell.

If the innovative treatment I am to receive next month works out, I should once again be able to sit at a window as the morning sun clears the treeline and absorb life in peace, not constantly shifting on the cushions as pain chases me hither and yon.  Say, February First.

If I am pain-free on February 1, I’m going to log onto eBay and buy the best-looking Topps 1962 Mickey Mantle that I can reasonably afford (multiplied by a modest Unreasonability Factor).  No more Mickey Gap in the binder.  No more obsession over the missed opportunity in Pound Ridge.  (For that matter, Joey seems to have lost virtually every article he ever owned made of paper or cloth in the California wildfires: so Ralph actually fared much better with me.)  One more bridge to my childhood completed; one more mooring to this adult world of “what matters” cast off without a second look.  Dear God, only give me back my strength, and I promise never to be a fully sensible adult again!  I promise never again to spot the frost in sunrise’s first light and simply turn away to race the clock!

I know Mickey Mantle, the man, was no saint.  I know he wasn’t even a very admirable human being sometimes.  I know he wasn’t the hero we kids made of him.  I’m talking about a face on a card—a “grown-up” (but barely grown-up) face framed by the unique mock-wooden paneling of the Topps ’62 set, its rightful place among Yogi’s face and Roger’s and those of the other Yanks who helped Ralph to a 16-win season now filled.  I guess I’m talking about a romance of sorts, one where you don’t catch the White Stag but where you seal off the enchanted forest where he roams.  I can do that for myself, if God gives me back a little earthly life in another month.  I will do that for myself, if God forgives me for having squandered so many chances to remain a child.

I thank this game for surrounding me with such chances.  May God bless its days to come!  If I don’t write something over the next month for you who faithfully read these posts, then please be patient.  I expect to have a lot of “down time”, but I don’t know what kind of condition I’ll be in as I wait for the treatment to work.  If I don’t reach you again soon… remember to find a way to stay a child at heart.  I’ve seen all that the adult world has to offer.  I’d rather be the eternal shadow of that stag-never-caught than a sedentary consumer of butchered corpses.

baseball history, bat design, hand use in hitting, low line drives, metal bat use, off-season preparation, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

Get a Grip

I liked the Cubs before the major networks decided to adopt them as America’s team.  Hell, I would have liked the resuscitated Washington Senators if the cheerleading media had just left them alone instead of trying to make us all Nationals fans.  I don’t like feeling manipulated, and I also don’t like—purely from a baseball perspective—the profile of the big, burly hitter who crowds the plate and pulls everything he can reach.  Those crushers have their uses, but they’re the diametric opposite of everything we preach at smallballsuccess.com.

A Cub, a plate-crowder supreme, a pull hitter’s pull hitter… Anthony Rizzo should represent a big swathe of what I detest about today’s game.  But he’s also an invincibly amiable human being; and now that I myself am a cancer survivor (well, sort of: first I have to survive the drug overdoses to which I was submitted this fall), he’s one of my favorite men in uniform for another reason.  I forgive him his gripping the bat like a club, thumbs wrapped tightly round and pressing the wood deep into the palm.  Every hitting manual from the old days, from Johnny Mize’s to Ted Williams’ to Cal Ripken, Jr.’s (and that’s not so old, children), strongly recommended holding the handle as you would an axe’s, with wrists somewhat closed in a “v” and thumbs and forefingers actually floating free until the intricacies of attack create complex shifts in pressure point.  But you just don’t see the “lumberjack” grip any more.

And why would you?  The bats themselves fight against it.  The metal sticks that kids grow up swinging have handles about as thick as a large rope.  They cry out to be grasped and yanked.  The top hand heaves the barrel down from over the shoulder, then releases as the bottom hand clings for dear life to the whirlybirding weapon.  It’s a steep swing, relying heavily on severe backspin for long-ball success, and it doesn’t work well for boys who aren’t tall.  Yet bats have gotten shorter and their barrels thicker as handles have grown skinnier, so the tall boy with his great wingspan is the only one who might effectively wield this bludgeon, anyway.  A boy without as much reach needs a longer stick, which will also allow his stroke to level off and spray line drives around… but we no longer have that bat in the game, so we no longer have the short, scrappy contact hitter and the offensive antidote to shifts and strikeouts.  It all holds together.

It wasn’t always so, I promise you.  Nobody had bigger hands than Roberto Clemente (except perhaps Jackie Robinson), and nobody’s handle was more massive (except perhaps Jackie Robinson’s).  Yet despite having so much lumber to steer with their fingers, both Clemente and Robinson honored their day’s practice of “aligning the knuckles” in taking their grip and not cramming the handle deep into their palms.  Even after the entry of metal-cloned wooden bats into the game, along with now-indispensable batting gloves, maestros like Rod Carew cradled their handle in very loose fingers attached to very limber wrists. 

It’s not that neither hand ever clamped down on the bat at any point of the swing.  On the contrary, the loose-and-limber initial grasp was important precisely because it gave the hitter flexibility in rotating the hands through different stages of the stroke.  In a classic Williams or Mantle cut, the bottom hand would close a little (but still not lock its thumb) as it thrust the handle back and out during the load; the top hand, resisting this rearward thrust to create a “full cock” effect, would bend its wrist inward more than ever.  Then the bottom hand’s thumb would indeed close on the bat as the load’s backward roll leveled off into a forward attack; and the top hand, just a split second later, would punch down through the pitch, its wrist straightening just at contact and its thumb closing tightly.  (There was a lot of debate in coaching literature of the time about whether the back arm is fully extended and the elbow locked upon contact.  Answer: no.  The wrist straightens into a punch, but the elbow is faintly bent until follow-through.)

A martial arts master, you know, throws his punches from bent wrists: he doesn’t begin them with straight wrists and locked fingers, as in the so-called roundhouse punch.  The Rizzo type of hitter (and I’ll pick on Anthony only because he’s about the best there is at the style) throws those rounded punches, not the straight karate shots that drive linearly through the point of contact.  Again, he doesn’t really have much of a choice.  He will have grown up, this contemporary slugger, using metal that wants to be yanked on rather than caressed; and if he graduates to professional ball, his wooden sticks will naturally preserve the dimensions of his metal ones as closely as the bat-maker can engineer.

In Metal Ropes, I recommend wrapping the handle in two layers of insulating tape, just to thicken it up.  An incidental benefit of that adjustment, though, is that you really don’t need gloves with so much padding beneath your fingers.  Your fingers can now be a little closer to the action.  I would add yet a third layer of wrap—not for thickness, because electrician’s tape is ultra-thin; but I would apply a coating of that slick black adhesive precisely so that the hands would not firmly grip the bat.  As I tried to indicate a couple of paragraphs back, the stick needs to rotate subtly and smoothly in the fingers as it’s taken through a complex circle striving to become a straight line.  Everything in our skeletal structure is built to produce pivotal motions.  If we’re to get our barrel directly to the ball, therefore, our marvelous joints have to make loops and curves on either side of the straight vector—and it all has to happen in a split second.  Landing dead-center on a pitch to produce a line drive is really a little work of art, suitable for framing (if only your shutter could capture the protracted instant).

Flexibility.  That’s why, in those Paleolithic days before the alloy bat, we kids would emulate big-leaguers by rubbing our handles with dirt.  I never saw anyone using pine tar when I was a kid.  I know it was around by then, but I still associate heavy tarring of the handle with the “metal swing”.  (I think some hitters probably wanted one hand to stay relatively secure in its grasp: power hitters might want to glue a firm top hand to the bat, while spray hitters might want to be sure their bottom hand’s fingers always had a good grip.)  Now, I distinctly remember that we kids always said we performed the dirt-rubbing ritual in order to grip the bat better (if Mom asked us why we had to play in the dirt).  That’s what we believed.  But the truth is that sweat, like pure water, will make wood refuse to glide smoothly under the fingers.  We were really trying to neutralize the effects of nervous sweat on our war club that would have denied our hands a chance to work into different positions.

Isn’t this why today’s sluggers, having stepped out of the box to readjust their batting gloves, proceed to deposit a load of spittle into them just before resuming their grip?  (I can still see David Ortiz: oh, the life of a batting glove!)  You’ve already rubbed the handle with pine tar; you’ve already clothed your hands in a substance that catches on the tar tightly.  So now… now you need to lubricate that substance lest it be too “catchy” and not allow your fingers any rotational ability at all.  I have to wonder if we couldn’t strip away a few layers of counter-measure here and there.

If you really wanted to develop a Rod Carew-style stroke—a batting champ’s manual flexibility—my advice would be that you sit on a stool and have a teammate toss you pitches in the cage.  Take your lower half out of the equation until you learn to use your hands.  The coach shouldn’t be sitting on a bucket while you’re pirouetting from head to toe: you should be sitting on the bucket, and your hands should be getting to know their handle.

baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

More on the Kinetic Loop: Sheffield and Musial

Let’s begin in repeating the definition that I use in Metal Ropes:

Before any punctilious physicist jumps all over my abuse of the term [i.e., kinesis], let me stress that I’m not trying to pass Physics 101 (which I never attempted to do): my wish is simply to distinguish between fluid and stored motion; and, as a lover of Homer, Socrates, and Epictetus, I’m going to latch onto [the Greek word] “kinetic” to designate fluidity.  What I have in mind is the immensely important matter of how energy flow is cycled throughout the load prior to being unleashed upon the pitch.  I thought of using the word “balance”, but that implies poise or “standstill”: the very opposite of what we want.  We need to have a load where energy is held milling in the corral without being allowed to halt; because if it truly halted, we would have to go from 0 to 60 (or 90) in a split-second.  What we want, rather, is for our initiated flow (or our “kinetic energy”, if you’ll allow me) to travel through a subtle loop or loops as it awaits the instant to pour out of the chute.

Now, for all practical purposes, the loops of which I write are created a) by the hands and b) by the forward leg.  You could isolate your looping to just one of these two spots, but we seldom see that happening in a successful hitter: the legs, rather, are at least somewhat involved in feeding into manual preparation, or else the hands will be somewhat synchronized to very visible leg activity.

You know that a gyroscope simulates stasis (or perfect balance) by spinning.  The kinetic loop’s objective is analogous to that remarkable whirling top’s.  It aims at holding vigorous energy in suspense until the instant of attack arrives.  You might think of it as a delayed fall.  If your front foot rises during a forward weight shift, you’re going to fall forward; yet you can somewhat delay the precise moment of the fall by letting the leg carry farther to the rear, and also by letting the hands trail out or back.  The longer the delaying loops are, the less rushed will be your full commitment of energy into the pitch: in other words, the more finely you’ll be able to initiate your attack right on time.

I’m going to devote the rest of this post to two very different hitters who relied heavily for their success upon large kinetic loops.  The first of these two is Gary Sheffield.  Here’s how I would describe Shef’s stroke.  We all remember the lofty, really vigorous succession of hand pumps, of course, that sent the barrel swooshing back and forth over the hitter’s head.  Yet this most spectacular component of the Sheffield wind-up had relatively minor importance in creating a powerful loop.  I think its main purpose was just to concentrate the hitter’s awareness of his barrel into his wrists and fingers (as opposed to his shoulders) so that the significant final loop would anchor itself tightly in the torso (as opposed to lassoing the whole batter’s box sloppily from end to end).  Gary’s hands were initiating a kind of magic circle over the inner half of home plate, where his core muscles were most in control of the dynamics surrounding release.

The entry to the major loop came when the mighty hand pumps trickled almost to a halt.  This would occur when Sheffield saw that the pitcher was indeed about the deliver: everything previous was simply keeping the hands loose and alert until the ball was about to come home.  As the pitcher took his stride, Gary would answer, not immediately with renewed hand motion, but with a substantial lift of his own forward leg.  He was preparing to “throw down” into the pitch with an emphatic weight shift.  Yet hefty leg kicks of the sort can get you to the rendezvous too soon: the leg’s coil needed to be integrated into a broader loop that the hands—always the hitter’s instruments of fine tuning—could adjust.  This was when Gary’s hands made their final forward passage.  If he were a tad early, the hands could dip the barrel just a little farther forward as the leg drifted farther to the rear, keeping both mobile forces in a gyroscopic kind of balance.  If he found himself in danger of arriving late, Sheffield could instantly lower the barrel into the pitch without describing a complete rotation.

Most hitting analysts, I suppose, would argue that Sheffield sacrificed a higher average for greater power by throwing his body so “uncontrollably” into the pitch.  I would phrase it differently.  A power hitter deluxe Gary certainly was; but I would say that he enhanced both power and average by creating a generous kinetic loop where very lively leg activity was finely tuned by very clever hand activity.

Stan Musial’s stance was “admiringly derided” (if those words can be used together) by two generations of sports commentators.  Joe Garagiola used to say that, when he set up in the box and was waiting on the pitch, the Man looked like a street urchin peeking around the corner to see if the cops were following.  Closed to the plate and relatively far from it, Musial displayed no characteristic at this moment more distinctive than his lift of the bottom hand to a height almost equal to the top hand’s.  The result was that his barrel extended far to the rear and nearly parallel to the ground.  (Negro League star Wes Covington, who reached the Bigs a little late to make the sort of dent he could have, featured extremely similar swing dynamics.)  Stan’s weight was nestled decisively over his rear foot thanks to his having hugged the handle into his armpit in this fashion.  Though that wasn’t the primary end served by the odd hand positioning, it did make his rearward coil as he loaded much more easy and fluid.  His front knee bent more deeply than ever into the body as his forward foot glided back almost to touch the rear one (à la Babe Ruth).  This severe approximating of the feet was catalyzed by the hands flicking the barrel into an upright position.  The two were inseparable: bottom hand pressed down and back to raise the flag pole, and legs drew together simultaneously in that same vertical axis—though the spine remained distinctly bent throughout the operation, keeping all the power focused in the core muscles.

Today’s hitting instructors would say, “Don’t try this at home, kids!  Keep your legs in a spread, athletic position beneath you.”  Yes… and from that “athletic position” would emerge no potent kinetic loop—for the Musial coil, as described thus far, had just primed one of the most effective loops in the game’s history.

A front foot drawn very far to the rear has created a sliding spectrum of options about where to land when it goes forward.  It can plant almost at once on a fastball, especially a tight one, and “backleg” the pitch by forcing the weight shift to retreat up and back immediately; or it can travel virtually the whole length of the box in pursuit of a low/away pitch or a slow-freight breaking ball.  Again, Babe Ruth also displayed this huge range of length in his strides.  In Stan’s own day, we might point to Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.

But it’s impossible to measure your stride’s length against an incoming pitch and still have any pop in your stroke—impossible, that is, if the stride’s variable loop itself is your only channel of energy.  The key to Stan’s explosive swing was, once more, in his hands, and specifically in the bottom one.  Having begun to press down on the handle in the “flagpole-raising” load, that hand continued to apply pressure in the same looping direction.  The motion of the hands to the rear somewhat counterpoised the forward motion of the stride: not perfectly counterpoised, because the energy ignited in the forward surge had to remain active.  But the bottom hand could press a little farther back if the pitch were taking its sweet time to reach the plate, giving the front leg more leisure to go out to the point of rendezvous; or if the pitch were coming in at an unexpectedly high velocity, then the bottom hand could instantly interrupt its drift to the rear and cut down into the ball (the top hand, of course, actually doing the heavy lifting by punching quickly off the chest).

This is a quick take on a splendid kinetic loop.  In the baseball card to the side, you have a particularly good illustration of the loop’s extreme adjustability.  The weight has already been caught entirely on the forward leg here, but the ball isn’t yet in the hitting zone.  The hands, therefore, are stretching their loop as far to the rear as it will go; and, thanks, to their counterpoising influence, the complete forward weight transfer hasn’t emptied the stroke’s power into thin air.  Contact is going to be right on time, and a bull’s eye.

Despite also having a full forward weight shift, Gary Sheffield (like Lou Gehrig) always hit off a lock-kneed, rear-inclined front leg.  He rushed his energy forward so that he could lift its vector: he was a dead-pull hitter.  In contrast, Musial would drive straight through the ball no matter where it was pitched.  By allowing his shift to continue as far forward as necessary, he was able to shoot his 725 doubles and 177 triples all over the park.  The kinetic loop set both of these warriors free to fight their chosen battle; but if Gary hadn’t insisted on rearing back so much when planting his foot, we might have seen something very, very rare and special.

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, off-season preparation

The Kinetic Loop

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.

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Staying Back

In everything I’ve been writing about baseball for years, I’ve dealt very dismissively with the eternal coach’s admonition, “Stay back!”  When you don’t stay back as a hitter, supposedly, all of the power you’ve released into the pitch cycles through before contact is made.  You have only your hands left to swipe at the ball—and, more often than not, you have only one hand left, because the handle slips away from the top hand.  The feet are so flat beneath you that you rock awkwardly after the barrel makes its pass, perhaps almost falling on your face.  You let everything go too soon: you didn’t stay back.

Of course, the above is a picture of someone who’s been badly fooled by a change-up.  You can have “stay back” problems even on a fastball.  That may well be, indeed, how most young hitters make the acquaintance of the problem.  Fastballs keep beating them, and so they fall into the habit of waiting for nothing—of being early on everything.  Then the finish that’s produced is less often the one-handed flail than a two-handed rip at empty space: great launch angle, feet and hips and core and hands all working in sync… just no ball anywhere near the point of rendezvous.  Additional recommendations such as, “Wait on it,” or, “See it,” are apt to come floating down from the third-base coaching box.

I’m not dismissing the notion that these are real events in a hitter’s life with really unpleasant consequences for him.  No, the reason I’ve been perhaps a little too sweeping in my disparagement of the advice is because it is usually offered in such a sweeping manner, to begin with.  Staying back isn’t always good.  For a front-foot hitter, especially, the idea of keeping your weight transfer from shifting fully forward undermines everything you’re trying to do; and as proponents of a Deadball hitting style, we at SmallBallSuccess.com are big fans of front-foot hitting.  I’ll give you a quick summation of why this is so, and then return to the discussion’s mainstream.

Our species of batsman wants to hit low line drives.  To stroke the line drive, he needs to contact the ball squarely in the center but at a slightly downward angle—downward because he wants a bit of backspin on the ball to carry it beyond the infield.  His hands lead the barrel into the ball, with the barrel trailing so far behind that it often “pushes” the pitch to the opposite field.  Oppo-hitting is actually a secondary objective, because the hitter can wait longer when targeting the off-field and also stand a better chance of spraying the ball around when he slightly misjudges pitches.  So far, so good.

Now, we want the bottom half of the body to allow the hands as long a transit straight into the pitch as possible.  If the front hit is flipping out in classic Ted Williams fashion, then the weight shift is thrust back by the planted leg and the barrel transits up and out of the zone very quickly.  This is just what the Thumper wanted, of course: an uppercut (or launch-angle) swing.  Not only is it difficult to keep the barrel traveling down through the ball for very long with this method, however: the barrel is also diving down and then quickly riding aloft as it pursues the rotation of the hips.  It’s apt, that is, to undercut a pitch that arrives too soon or to topspin a pitch that it beats to the plate.  In this latter case, you could nag the hitter, “Now, Johnny, you need to stay back better”… but just be aware that you’re requiring Johnny to time his swing with absolute perfection if the barrel is to enter the ball’s heart in a fairly level plane.  Your advice isn’t of much more use than saying, “Now, Johnny, you’re not being perfect.”

When a Honus Wagner or Napoleon Lajoie would leave his back foot to reach a pitch, or when a Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker would catch his full shift on a bent forward knee, the descending hands were allowed to carry down along the same plane for perhaps four or five feet through the pitch’s plane.  Williams et al. would indeed use this propensity as the basis of their deriding the Old School method, claiming that there’s only a single point of possible contact if the barrel’s plane descends into the pitch’s reversely descending plane—whereas, with the patented lean-back-and-hack uppercut swing, the barrel would be traveling in the pitch’s plane over a long span.  Sorry, Teddy: this just ain’t so.  The rotational, hip-throwing stroke (as has been explained) is in fact drawing the barrel into and out of the pitch plane very quickly.  The barrel that steadily, lengthily descends at a mild angle, in contrast, may come too late and push the ball rather weakly off the hitter’s shoulder; or it may come too early and catch a breaking pitch on its dive.  Either way, it tends to score some contact.  Especially in the latter case, when contact comes early and the batsman is almost one-handing the ball, the barrel can continue powerfully into the collision.  The forward weight transfer allows it to ride momentum almost into the ground: it’s not fighting to get to the ball against an outward-flung hip.

So… does all this mean that, at SmallBallSuccess.com, we just don’t worry about staying back?  No—and the times when I have appeared to sound that note have been over-reactive.  A front-foot hitter wants his hands to follow his foot-plant very closely into the pitch: none of that “Get the front foot down early!” blather for him!  (Got you again, third-base coach.)  If he doesn’t trust his load to pour his weight shift into the pitch at just the right instant, then his misses will profile with the same ugly qualities that I sketched when I opened this article.  He has to develop what we call in Metal Ropes a “kinetic loop”: that is, a roll of the hands (sometimes invidiously called a “hitch”) or a loosey-goosey leg lift (not a spectacularly high kick, please!) that lets his mobilized energy cycle in waiting until the precise instant for attack.

Today’s hitters have few, if any, kinetic loops.  Hitting instructors convince them that any such lollypopping in the load can only throw off timing… whereas the truth is that, done properly, a well-practiced loop allows timing to be micro-adjusted to perfection.  Try going from zero to 90 with your hands tightly gripping the stick over your head… and then try accelerating the barrel with loose fingers and limber wrists as your hands and forward leg describe a faint loop that can be channeled into a line instantly.  There’s no question which is faster.

Maybe I can discuss the kinetic loop further at another time.  I apologize, by the way, for being so stinting with YouTube demonstrations lately.  I’ve only just discovered that consistent overdosing on one of my medicines—consistent as in “for the past half year”—has been sabotaging the healthy recovery of my muscles after any sort of vigorous workout.  What a year it’s been… God, please see me through the last month of it!