Even now, as we’ve grown into adults and forgotten some of the simple joys of youth, there’s an overwhelming sense of nostalgia in picking up a baseball bat. They’re basically magical memory sticks. Pick up a bat, and you’re hit with the overwhelming desire to pretend that you’re once again standing in your childhood backyard, pretending to stand at the plate and swing away like your favorite player of adolescence.
Sentimentality is one hell of a drug, isn’t it?
My own baseball career ended after a tryout for a Division II school — I made the team, but I wasn’t a fan of the coach (a buddy played for him the previous season) and I was realistic about my pro chances (zero), so I considered that ending on a high note. I’ve kept a baseball bat at my desk for the two decades I’ve been a sportswriter; like Lt. Kaffee in “A Few Good Men,” I think better with my bat. “My bat” is the 29-inch, 21-ounce bright blue Louisville Slugger that was a giveaway at a Chillicothe Paints Frontier League game I covered in 1999. I had a media credential for the game, but when I saw the day’s giveaway, I went outside, bought a $3 general admission ticket and went through the turnstiles to claim my prize.
I’ve always known I’m not alone, but that truth was reinforced last week. I sent this tweet and was blown away by the response.
When you were a kid, what player’s batting stance was your favorite to imitate?
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) November 25, 2020
This tweet has generated 9.2 million impressions (so far), and the more than 25,000 responses — via reply or quote tweet — meant that my mentions were impossible to keep up with for nearly two solid days. At one point a couple of hours after the tweet, Gary Sheffield was the No. 8 trending topic on all of Twitter because of your overwhelming response to this question — and Craig Counsell, Jeff Bagwell and Ken Griffey Jr., were in the top 30 trending topics, too. At some point, it went through the “popular political reporters QT’d their answers” phase that lets you know it really has struck a chord.
My favorite part was how many players were included in some type of “Player X is the only right answer!” responses. There were more than a dozen players mentioned in those types of statements, including some who didn’t even make this final list because (spoiler!) there are many right answers to a question asking about individual favorites.
The original plan was to actually count every “vote” and tabulate the responses but it took less than a half-hour to realize that wasn’t happening. So I tried to keep up the best I could, taking notes, both mental and physical, along the way.
And here’s what I tried to do with this ranking: marry the ideas of WHY kids would imitate stances in the backyard — A) to get better, B) to have fun — drawing on my considerable experiences from a childhood of thread-bare tennis balls and logos-worn-off baseball bats. My backyard had a giant dirt patch for home plate and smaller ones for each of the bases and the pitching mound. There was a giant maple tree blocking the path for home runs in left field, and our “ground rule” was basically “play it where it lies,” which meant a ball headed to the tree could have snuck through for a homer or could have been knocked down and caught by an agile fielder. You just never knew, and that was part of the fun.
And because that tree was there, I spent hours perfecting the art of switch-hitting, so I could hit unimpeded homers into right field with a lefty swing that was sometimes Will Clark and sometimes Jose Oquendo and sometimes just me. Some homers were “pool balls” — those hit high enough to clear that tree and splash down in my buddy Eric’s above-ground pool, and we’d all volunteer to jump in to get those during sweltering Missouri summer afternoons — and some were “two-fencers,” though those were exceedingly rare for a neighborhood with more Willie McGees than Mark McGwires.
Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Point is, this ranking is, at its essence, arbitrary. I know that. You know that. If you think my ranking is wrong, you’re probably right. If you think I’m crazy for omitting the guy you copied the most, I apologize. I wanted to make this list 50 players long, then settled on 10 and couldn’t cut five guys so it’s 15.
And I’m deeply sorry for leaving off these players (not listed in any particular order, btw): Will Clark, Willie McGee, Don Mattingly, Tim Tuefel, Derek Jeter, Jerome Walton, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken, Nomar Garciaparra, Frank Thomas, Carl Yastrzemski, George Brett, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Jim Leyritz, Chipper Jones, Dale Murphy, Keith Hernandez, Bo Jackson, Wade Boggs and Jose Canseco. And so many others, too.
And a HUGE thank-you to someone who knows this subject matter better than anyone, Batting Stance Guy. He was generous enough to add his considerable skills to the project with a couple of videos that have kept me laughing even upon multiple rewatches.
Without further ado, the very official, thoroughly researched ranking of the 15 most imitated baseball batting stances in backyards across America since 1975.
15. Phil Plantier
The Stance Signature: In the iconic moment of The Plantier Squat, the lefty’s legs were damn near parallel to the ground as he waited to pounce on any wayward fastballs that might catch too much of the plate. His explosion into the baseball was like nothing I’d ever seen at the time, and when he connected with a pitch, it looked like it might never land. He was basically the Happy Gilmore of the baseball diamond. The reality of trying to mimic that stance in the backyard was that in all the excitement of trying to spring into the baseball, you’d forget about actually watching the pitch. Now, a warning: The Plantier squat is not recommended for out-of-prime-shape adults trying to recreate the backyard stances of their youth, at least without a vigorous stretching session. Muscles will be pulled, people.
14. Ichiro Suzuki
The Stance Signature: Everything Ichiro did was so very cool, from the time he first hit the big leagues until his last AB in the majors. He’d stroll up to the batter’s box, dig that left toe into the dirt, then step in and swing both arms high above his head in a smooth arc. His right arm stopped at a 90-degree angle, with the bat straight up skyward from his hand, and he kept it there for a few seconds that felt like forever. That part was replicable. The bat control he had, where he could slap pretty much any pitch to pretty much any part of the ballpark, though? That was his and his alone.
13. Darryl Strawberry
The Stance Signature: The way Peak Strawberry stood at the plate, nearly straight-up with a slight tilt in and back to his upper half, with his hands almost hidden behind his front shoulder, he seemed very much like a puma ready to pounce on an unsuspecting pitcher. And when he unleashed everything? Just, wow. Even when he hit a home run off your favorite team, you couldn’t really be mad because that swing — the leg kick, the lightning-quick bat speed through the zone and that postcard-perfect follow through — was a thing of beauty deserving of marvel, not hate. And, no matter what we might have thought in the deepest reaches of Ego Land, our swings didn’t look anything like Darryl’s.
12. Rod Carew
The Stance Signature: Carew’s stance might not have been most “fun” to imitate, but if you were an aspiring batsman prepping for Little League success, Carew was perfect. There were no superfluous movements, no unnecessary adjustments to make. He was all business, with his bat nearly on plane as he leaned back, waiting to punch whatever pitch might arrive to it’s proper place on the diamond. Personally, Carew was a bit before my time, but Jose Oquendo had a similar left-handed approach, leaning back with the bat on plane, and my Oquendo imitation made me one hell of a switch-hitter at McNair Park.
11. Craig Counsell
The Stance Signature: Counsell’s hands strained skyward like he was a toddler trying with all his might to reach for that cookie he knew was sitting just a couple of inches from the edge of the kitchen countertop. Counsell didn’t have the stretch-and-strain approach his whole career, and he certainly didn’t use it every at-bat, but who remembers any of Counsell’s “normal” at-bats? He held his hands at a standard height, then raised them high as the pitcher came set. Then, just as the pitcher was about to release the ball, his hands lowered as he transitioned into the swing, which was a bit herky-jerky. His whole approach seemed stressful, which is why it was the bane of amateur coaches wherever Counsell played.
10. Mickey Tettleton
The Stance Signature: The Tettleton mystique was all about the bat position. He stood straight up, basically, but held the knob of his bat a little above his waist, with the barrel of the bat pointing back at the umpire’s shoulder, maybe 20 degrees above horizontal. The laid-back bat was due entirely to the angle of his wrists. It’s not that he was the only one who did this — it was actually a very similar bat position to Rod Carew — but he was a power hitter, not a slap hitter like the others. He’d slowly raise the bat head as the pitcher went into the windup, and by the time the ball was headed toward the plate, the stance actually looked pretty standard. The beauty of imitating Tettleton in backyards across the country was this: He was a switch-hitter, and he had the same basic stance both ways, so it didn’t matter which way you naturally hit as a kid — you could copy Mickey (but not your father’s Mickey, Mantle).
9. Tony Batista
The Stance Signature: If we were ranking “weird” stances, this would probably be No. 1. Batista started an at-bat facing the pitcher with the entire front of his body, his right foot on the inside edge of the batter’s box and the left foot way out toward the outside edge. And he held the bat directly in front with both hands, like a samurai waiting to face his attacker. Then, as the pitcher came set, he’d swivel the upper part of his body toward the plate while leaving his feet set. And then, finally, when the pitch was delivered he’d step toward the plate for his swing. It was — and is — just so bizarre that you couldn’t help but try it in the backyard because, I dunno, maybe there was actually something magical about it. I mean, Batistia wasn’t a big guy — listed at 6 feet, likely generously — but he hit at least 25 homers six years in a row, so why not try to connect into some of that magic?
8. Joe Morgan
The Stance Signature: It’s all about the arm flap for Morgan. It doesn’t matter how you actually stand at the plate — as long as you flap your back arm a couple of times like a crazy person, people will know you’re imitating Joe Morgan. And if there’s any doubt you’re trying to imitate Morgan, it helps to hit 20-plus homers, steal 50-plus bases, have an OBP north of .400, win a couple of MVP awards and get elected to the Hall of Fame. That would really leave no doubt.
7. Kevin Youkilis
The Stance Signature: Youkilis is the only one who could give Batista a run for the “weird stances” title. He’d dig into the back of the box — nobody noticed the position of his feet, I promise — and raise the bat over his head, the barrel pointing out toward the outfield. His bottom hand — his left, because Youkilis was a right-handed hitter — stayed on the knob, but the right hand crept up toward the trademark, just guiding the bat instead of grabbing it. His hands at this point would be farther away than even the turn-of-the-century (20th, not 21st) batsmen who put a space in the word “base ball” and double spaces between their hands on the bat. No matter how weird you felt trying to imitate Youkilis in the backyard, it wasn’t as weird as he looked actually using that stance against MLB pitching. It worked, though; he retired with 150 career homers and a .382 career on-base percentage.
6. Eric Davis
The Stance Signature: Davis stood straight up in the box, back knee bent just a bit, with no tension at all in his appearance and arms a little higher than his waist. He didn’t so much waggle the bat as he appeared to let it drop a bit, then lifted it back up sporadically. Few, if any, players have ever looked so relaxed at the plate. “I’m so cool, I don’t even care, hey look I just hit a home run off you,” is what I imagined him saying, right after he ditched the nonchalance and attacked the baseball with a bat that seemed to reach any pitch, anywhere around the plate. The speed and the power were jaw-dropping. If only he had stayed healthy, he could have set records that never would be broken.
5. Jeff Bagwell
The Stance Signature: Let me put it this way: If I was to attempt to do the splits right now, I would not be able to get my butt as close to the ground as Jeff Bagwell did on nearly every single plate appearance during his Hall of Fame career. Even now, looking at pictures of Bagwell’s stance and watching video, I’m wincing with phantom pain in the theoretical groin muscle I hypothetically pulled while imagining my potential attempt at imitating his squat/splits stance. How in the world he generated any power at all is beyond me, but he absolutely did. Massive, copious amounts of power. But just because it worked for him doesn’t mean it worked for everybody else (or anybody else). This stance, I feel it’s safe to say, was not the favorite of Little League coaches and hitting instructors around Houston from, oh, 1991 to 2005.
4. Willie Stargell
The Stance Signature: I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that there is no batting stance in baseball history that’s more of a joy to imitate than Stargell’s. Just try not to smile while doing the windmills and pumps before coming set after one final smooth, quick windmill as the pitcher goes into the windup. It probably helps that Pops was such a loveable baseball icon, what with those “We Are Family” Pirates teams of the 1970s. You can’t help but sing that as you’re windmilling at the plate, even if it’s just playing Wiffle Ball. (You’re singing that song in your head now, aren’t you?)
3. Julio Franco
The Stance Signature: You could insist that Franco should be No. 1 and I wouldn’t argue. Maybe I should number these Big Three something like 1a, 1b and 1c. I dunno. Franco’s stance has to be the most iconic pre-swing stationary pose in baseball history, right? And it wasn’t just what he did with the bat — we’ll get there in a moment — that was unique. Franco would stand there in the box with his feet more than shoulder-width apart but his thighs velcro’d together and knees only an inch or two apart. Then, he’d raise both hands high above his head and point the business end of the bat back at the pitcher, almost in a taunting fashion. He looked like a knock-kneed cobra, waiting to uncoil and strike viciously at hanging breaking balls and headstrong fastballs that had lost their way. And he did this all while swinging a heavy 36-ounce bat, somehow. And he used that same stance in a career that spanned from 1982, when he was a teammate of Pete Rose (born in 1941), to 2007, when he was teammates with Jarrod Saltalamacchia (born in 1985). Franco was a wonder, for many more reasons than just his batting stance.
2. Gary Sheffield
The Stance Signature: I’m not sure what you would call what Sheffield did with his bat as he waited for the pitcher to come set and deliver the pitch. It sure was intense as hell, though. He’d wave/waggle/swat it around like the world’s most energetic metronome. He was daring the pitcher — practically begging the guy on the mound — to throw anything anywhere near the plate so he could mash it into outer space. And when the swagger and stance were repeated by those of us in backyards everywhere? Well, let’s just say our plate discipline wasn’t great on those pitches, because how can you take that aggressive, anticipatory approach at the plate and then let anything sail by you? Basically, what I’m saying is I have no idea how Sheffield walked 304 times more than he struck out in his career, because I didn’t see any patience in that approach (even though it clearly was there).
1. Ken Griffey, Jr.
The Stance Signature: Unlike most of the players on this list, the art of imitating Griffey was in the finish, not the beginning. Watching that swing let anyone holding a baseball bat know that perfection existed, and the pursuit of that perfection was an admirable quest, even if achieving that end goal — an actual Griffey-esque follow-through — wasn’t likely. That reality didn’t stop a kid from believing, from posing after a swing, whether or not the ball went over the fence. There were definitely days when I hit a ball into the pine trees in my buddy Garrett’s backyard — those coniferous landmarks were basically deep right-center — and, yeah, I stood there with my cap on backwards and smiled like I’d cleared the Kingdome fence.
Now, folks, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go find a buddy and a backyard and get to work.