As their first indelible baseball memory, most fans remember some huge, high-profile event: the ball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs; Bo Jackson in the All Star Game; Luis Gonzalez’s climactic hit in the 2001 World Series; whatever. Me, I remember Johnny Wockenfuss.
You remember Johnny Wockenfuss, right? Platoon catcher with the Detroit Tigers, great name, heroic mustache… You’ve seen pictures. Or not.
Truth is, if you remember the guy at all, it’s for the same reason that I do: His closed-tight batting stance, in which he wiggled his hand as if signaling to a family member or ladyfriend stationed along the first-base line.
Wockenfuss started me on a lifelong fascination with the batting stance. While I haven’t taken it as far as Batting Stance Guy, I find it infinitely more interesting to think and talk about some of the great plate rituals lost to time—Lee May’s stirring-an-upside-down-drink bat waggle, Freddie Patek’s subterranean crouch, Willie Stargell’s windmill routine—than I do tomorrow’s Mariners-Royals tilt. Here are the ones that continue to capture my imagination, many years after the fact in some cases.
Gary Sheffield: The batting stance as indicator of homicidal intent. He waves the bat menacingly, as if to cower the ball into submission. Gary Sheffield’s batting stance has been shipped to our troops in Saudi Arabia and is being dropped by our warplanes on Iraq. Do not taunt Gary Sheffield’s batting stance.
Dick McAuliffe: The batting stance as do-not-try-this-at-home primer. The hands placed unevenly on the bat, the feet pointed seemingly in eight different directions—if you’re teaching a young’un how to hit, McAuliffe’s stance is the absolute worst place to start. His stance has more moving parts than an automobile.
Mickey Tettleton: The batting stance as slacker pose. Tettleton stood rail-straight and held his hands chest-high, which had the effect of keeping the bat almost parallel to the ground. When the pitch came plateward, however, Tettleton didn’t uncoil so much as unfold. How he made contact with hurled projectiles, I’ll never know.
Julio Franco: The batting stance as yoga. Franco, still not entirely sure if he’s retired for good at age 50, literally wrapped the bat around his head as he waited for the pitcher’s delivery. His arms and shoulders may well have been made of a flexible synthetic fabric.
Kevin Youkilis: The batting stance as exhaustive nuisance. Where to begin? With the hands slip-sliding down the bat, as if he’s bowing a violin? With the knees pressed together as if he’s trying to clasp a penny between them? With the do-the-hokey-pokey tushie shake? He holds himself in a way that would allow for simultaneous swinging and hula-hooping, which is a rare skill indeed.
Tony Batista: The batting stance as body language. Batista kept his body wide open, with head and torso directly facing the mound. In doing so, he literally turned his back on the catcher and umpire. How rude is that? Perhaps they have a history.
Craig Counsell: The batting stance as Napoleonic kiss-off. I MAY BE TINY BUT I WILL HOLD MY BAT HIGH AND PROUD.
Jeff Bagwell: The batting stance as profound feat of coordination. Okay, pick up a broom or some other bat-like household implement. Grip it tight, with your elbows positioned at the same height. Crouch low. Spread your legs three yards apart. Have you fallen yet? Somehow, Bagwell never did.
Felix Millan: The batting stance as pathetic acknowledgement of offensive impotence. Come on. We have no problem with choking up on the bat – Barry Bonds did it for some time, as did blonde wonderboy Davey Eckstein—but Millan took the practice to its most extreme. Here’s a tip: get a smaller f*#$in’ bat.
Phil Plantier: The batting stance as limbo practice. All together now: How low can he go? How low can he go?
Roy White: The batting stance as wily accommodation of physical quirk. The coolest part of White’s stance is invisible in most photos: the way he pointed both his feet inwards, as if trying to construct a triangle. Whether or not White could help himself, the pointy-toed stance made for some fun imitatin’ during recess.
Joe Morgan: The batting stance as unwitting tic. (Batting Stance Guy demonstrates 1:33 into the above video) Before he gained renown as America’s least informed color commentator, Morgan was a pretty darn OK baseball player. His swing, in which his back elbow twitched with the menace of a screen door off its hinges, always smoothened before it reached the zone.