The Kid Comes Back
“Only connect.” — E.M. Forster (or was it Ted Williams?)
Every spring since I left high school, the first warm day has brought with it an itch to get out my glove and bat, and recover the skills I had as a boy—especially, the ability to clout the ball, deep into the outfield.
Sometime in young adulthood, I lost my swing. As a scrawny 10-year-old, back in 1964, I used to send my father’s pitches flying to within a few feet of the centerfield fence every Saturday morning. Since college, though, in batting cages or softball games, my at-bats have produced only feeble grounders. Through lack of practice, my muscles have forgotten what they once knew.
This year, I resolved to learn how to hit again. It’s now or never: another season and my reconstructed knees may give out altogether. I don’t expect to play in another game; my goal is to step into a batting cage and smack line drive after line drive in the 65 m.p.h. cage—or at least in the 45 m.p.h. cage.
My first stop was the library, because that’s the kind of guy I am. I took out The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams, and Charley Lau’s Laws on Hitting. From these books, and from far too many websites, I compiled step-by-step instructions.
The experts, I soon discovered, contradict each other. Use a level swing, if you’re a beginner… (And I guess I am, though I first swung a bat 50 years ago.) Swing up, slightly, to meet the ball head-on, since the pitcher is standing on a mound… Swing down, to generate backspin, which gives lift… The more you use your hips, the more power you’ll generate… Forget your hips, just throw your hands at the ball… Keep your elbows close to your body, for a more compact swing… Extend your lead arm fully from the elbow, like a karate chop.
There are two competing methods of hitting, I learned: rotational and linear. Rotational hitters draw their power from the turning of the hips, while linear hitters bring the hands straight to the ball and shift their weight from back to front.
Though confused by the disagreement, and perplexed by its ferocity, I used as many of the tips as I could. This being January, I took my first practice swings in the basement, between the boiler and the little easel that my children have outgrown. Peering with both eyes at the electrical outlet across the room (you see the ball better with two eyes than one, says Albert Pujols), I followed the steps on my crib sheet:
• Line up your knocking knuckles.
• Weight on the balls of your feet, as if landing from a jump.
• Slight weight shift toward the back, then a small stride forward—feel the momentum move from back to front.
• The bat follows the turning of the hips; turn the torso quickly, so the bat turns quickly too. (Actually, I did all this in slow motion, so as not to dent a boiler pipe.)
• Meet the ball out in front, where bat speed is at its maximum.
• Follow through.
The weight shift, as it turned out, was the exact same movement I’d learned as a kid. The hip-turn, on the other hand, was new and hard to put together with everything else.
Studying my notes, I spotted that tip about keeping your elbows close to your body. The concept was familiar from tennis—you lose power if you stretch your arm out when hitting—and I could feel the difference it made. Turn this into a habit, I scribbled. (What does it take to create a new muscular habit? About 3,000 repetitions, according to the online batting coaches. But you’d better make sure you’re doing it right before you make it permanent.)
My son shot some video of my swings, and we watched my mistakes together. The key problem: near the end of the swing, the bat left its natural path and finished down below my chest, because my right arm wouldn’t stretch any further. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle all managed to finish with both hands on the bat, but most major league hitters now follow Charley Lau’s method and release the top hand after contact, letting the bat complete its trajectory unrestricted.
Again and again, I tried and failed to unclench my top hand at the end of the swing. Talk about muscle habit! Charley Lau, Jr. (son of the legendary batting coach) suggested a training drill to loosen this death-grip: instead of clutching the bat, the top hand rests open against the handle. As the swing ends, the bat naturally leaves the hand behind. Voila, you’re Alex Rodriguez! (I confess, I’ve watched the video of my revised swing at least a dozen times. Now, at last, I understand vanity. Hey—that’s me—and I look pretty good!)
A week of less frigid weather let me practice my new swing outside, uninhibited by plumbing. On one of these nights, my wife saw me coming in with my coat and bat, and gave me The Look. In case I missed the message, she said it out loud: “Mid-life crisis?”
Let me respond. Even if men look ridiculous when they act half their age, there’s more to it than foolish denial. You could call it refusing to give up on life: seeking new interests, setting new goals, opting not to sit passively in a recliner until we stop breathing.
Okay, I’m done.
Remembering the pain of a metal bat vibrating in my hands, I bought myself a pair of batting gloves. Their soft leather palms gave me a much surer grip than I’ve ever had before, which made me feel a bit less silly about buying them.
Tossing my Louisville Slugger into the car, I drove ten minutes to Lefty’s, an indoor batting range in Clifton, N.J. Here I encountered the toughest challenge of this entire project: standing in line among the 9-year-olds for my turn in the 35 m.p.h. Little League cage.
Ted Williams famously called hitting a baseball “the single most difficult thing to do in sport,” but these boys hadn’t learned that yet. The machine flung dimpled yellow balls at them, and they made contact nearly every time.
I wish I could say I hit as well as they did. After all that research and all those practice swings, I reverted instantly to my clumsy old swing and topped every ball, producing the same lame grounders that had brought me here in the first place.
I tried to keep my eyes glued to the ball in my second round, and to keep my elbows in closer. This time, I hit some respectable line drives, and one blissfully perfect shot that flew off the bat as if fired from a gun, with no vibration whatsoever. Best of all was the sound, that same wooden knock you hear at the ballpark. A few nights later, while helping my daughter study physics, I learned how the sweet spot works. No energy is lost to vibration when the ball strikes the bat there; instead, all of the bat’s energy transfers directly to the ball.
For my third round, I moved to the 45 m.p.h. cage. Facing faster pitches, I hit miserable grounders again. The bones in my hands began to ache, despite the gloves. I didn’t understand how anyone could accomplish the whole hip-turning ballet in so little time. Doubt darkened my hopes. What if it’s all about your batting eye, not your swing? What if eye-hand coordination can’t be improved after age 50?
To overcome my inner naysayer, I reminded myself of a certain summer twilight, about twenty years ago. At the World Financial Center in Manhattan, a pretty young woman swatted fastball after fastball in an outdoor demonstration cage. She released her top hand gracefully at the end of each swing, and made it look effortless. Awed, envious, infatuated, I saw that you don’t have to be built like the Incredible Hulk to hit the ball well.
That vivid memory had nothing to do with the issue of mechanics vs. batting eye, but I took heart from it nonetheless.
My next time at the cages, I told myself to relax, and hit many line drives. Still, I wanted to do better, and believed I could, if someone showed me how.
There’s a coach in Parsippany who offers a series of seven lessons in the Mike Epstein Hitting System, for $60 per session—but I didn’t have that kind of money to spend on this idle fantasy. Instead, I arranged a single lesson with an instructor at Lefty’s.
J.J. Newman told me he’d been drafted by the Mets after college, but had injured his MCL repeatedly and had to retire from pro ball. Though only an inch taller than I am, he had forearms the size of my calves. To evaluate my swing, he perched on an upended bucket and lobbed balls to me from behind a net. Even with a lobbed ball, I hit mainly grounders, to my shame. At the end of the last swing, I lost my balance and nearly fell over.
Easygoing and encouraging, J.J. proceeded to contradict most of what I’d read. “Swing down at the ball, as fast as you can. If you swing up, you’ll just hit a lot of grounders. And don’t worry about turning your hips—you’ve been reading too many Ted Williams books. You want to keep your front foot closed, and end up balanced.”
He demonstrated. I lobbed balls from behind the net, and he blasted them with my bat. Each shot made a crack twice as loud as my best. He looked solid as a rock at the plate.
Though skeptical, I adjusted my swing as he advised. I never got it exactly right, but every ball went rocketing to left-center.
Because I’d never swung a bat so many times in a row before, I strained a muscle in my side. But the lesson left me hopeful. On my way out, I noticed a guy in his 60s whacking ball after ball in the 85 m.p.h. cage. Although J.J. criticized the guy’s form—“He’s turning his chest too much, he’s falling over, and mainly hitting grounders”—that wasn’t what I saw. I saw a guy at least five years older than I am, smashing fastballs. I took it as a sign. The dream is possible!
After practicing my modified swing for a few days, I went back to the cages. On the third pitch, I pulled that side muscle again—but there were nine more balls to come, so I kept swinging. In hindsight, that was idiotic, of course, but what man who has ever played baseball can stand in a batting cage and let nine balls go by?
A purple-brown smear appeared below my ribs a few days later. I had strained and partially torn the oblique muscle there—an injury that will take two to six weeks to heal.
For now, I’m on the disabled list. But the dream lives on. While out of commission, I’ve been learning how to warm up and strengthen the oblique muscles. The improvement between my first and second visits to the batting cages makes me hopeful that you can improve your eye. My plan is to go back to Lefty’s as soon as I recover, at least once a week.
Meanwhile, I’ve been studying slow-motion video of Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, to see exactly what they do with their feet, hips, and arms. I’ve noticed something interesting: each seems to plant his front foot, bracing himself as if swinging an axe. And former major-leaguer Mike Epstein teaches hitters to “get on the plane,” i.e., to swing the bat head at the same angle the ball is traveling on, for the best odds of making solid contact. Finally, I found an article online that says no one in the major leagues hits with a purely rotational or a purely linear swing. It’s okay that I’ve been blending the two; that’s how real players hit.
I confess, I couldn’t wait six weeks. I’ve taken the bat to the basement again, and—slowly, gently—tried to swing the axe. It’s not as easy as it looks. Still, I remain optimistic. All I have to do is remember, each time I swing: both eyes on the ball… elbows close… bat turns with hips… front foot closed and solid… release top hand after contact…
P.S. I found it! My swing!
Four weeks after tearing that muscle, I returned to Lefty’s. Because I didn’t want to tear the same muscle again, I ordered myself not to put everything into these swings, but instead, to relax, time the ball, try for the sweet spot (which I found by tapping the bat with a hammer, and marked with a Sharpie pen), and swing the axe.
It worked. With my front leg straight a la Pujols and Rodriguez, I smashed ball after ball. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then, after adjusting to the increased speed, I repeated the feat in the 45 m.p.h. cage. The joy! The amazement!
To be strictly honest, I topped the last few balls. I think I was getting tired by then. Nevertheless, I’m still glowing.
To answer that question about batting eye vs. mechanics: you need both. But perfection isn’t necessary, at least not for my purposes.
Now begins the slow climb, to the 65 m.p.h. cage and beyond, because each goal reached calls up a new one. This dream has no finish line—and I like it that way.
[An edited version of this piece appeared in the New York Times on April 14, 2012.]