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.