Long and loopy as a Friday night under a full moon, full of commotion but effortlessly quiet, effortlessly quiet but punctuated by the sudden, crisp pock! of bat on ball, large and ever larger into a follow-through in which all tension is for a moment released--except for the muscles in the right hand, which still holds the bat, and those of the wrist and forearm, which hold the bat out and away from the body at an acute angle--is the swing of Harold Baines. Baines's swing is a complex, Conradian jungle, a tangle of orchestrated events, and it seems to grow a little wilder every year.
Pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, his left-handed stance places the feet closer together than they used to be, but he aims directly toward the mound, although this can change depending on the pitcher. The left knee points in as the right stands relaxed; both are slightly bent. The hands are held close to the body, tucked in under the left ear as if they held a stuffed animal instead of a baseball bat. The swing starts, however, as they drop down abruptly, almost to waist level, and the right leg lifts the foot high and begins the stride. The hands then move up and back, although perhaps they only swing up into something resembling their original position, for now the trunk of the body is surging forward, sideways, toward the pitcher. The hands are hitched, the foot is down, the weight comes forward off the back foot, and the trunk swings the arms and the arms swing the bat in a long, wide arc that chops down on the ball before finishing with an upswing and the long, stylish follow-through that is, apparently, the only thing he learned from Charlie Lau.
Lau was a poor-hitting backup catcher in the early 60s before he transformed himself into baseball's most renowned hitting guru in the 70s. More than just a few mystics consider that the White Sox' chances to repeat died along with Lau during the spring of 1984. First with the Kansas City Royals and George Brett, then with Tony LaRussa's White Sox, Lau remodeled the baseball swing the way engineers remodel cars, bringing it up to date, studying it for aerodynamics, removing the rough edges. Seen most noticeably with Brett or the Sox' Greg Walker, the Lau swing is a long, smooth stride into the ball, forcing the bat to follow a long, smooth plane across the plate. The extended follow-through is a trademark; as in golf, by concentrating on finishing correctly the player must swing correctly. By 1983, even sluggers like Greg Luzinski and Carlton Fisk had adopted many of Lau's tenets, while youngsters like Walker and Ron Kittle were being weaned on them. A year later, Lau was dead of cancer, and the White Sox were struggling to get the bats to work while the pitching was effective and vice versa.
In an age of efficiency and scientific study, Baines's swing stands out like a Model A parked next to a Honda Prelude. Every baseball player, from little league to the major leagues, is taught to remove the hitches from his swing, while Baines's swing has more hitches than a car-leasing agreement. His pronounced, high step with the right foot is an antiquated echo from the old days. The New York Giants' Mel Ott had baseball's craziest swing; photos show the left-handed hitter with his right foot almost a foot above the ground, with his hands below his waist. Meanwhile, the few action photos of Ty Cobb (his prime was 20 years before Ott's) show him, too, with his right foot raised off the ground and his hands held low. Ott, of course, hit 511 home runs, while Cobb holds baseball's highest lifetime average, .367. These are players of eras, however, when reflexes were king, and we wonder how Baines can adopt what are seemingly their worst characteristics and make them somehow work in these modern times. The key is his sound grasp of how the swing works, along with his confidence in what to him is the most comfortable swing.
Timing for Baines is everything. He has a swing like a pitcher's delivery. The hands come down as the right foot goes up, and this starting mechanism, ideally, keeps the swing in rhythm throughout its course. The fulcrum between the hands and right foot is the left leg. Last Sunday, during batting practice, he kept slapping at his left knee, urging it to remain fixed. (Seeing this was as startling as finding out that William Faulkner did not write As I Lay Dying without changing a word but had to revise and rewrite just as everyone else does; it was the sudden realization that "a natural" had to work at it too. For that matter, Ted Williams points out in his Science of Hitting that Ott tailored his unusual swing to the park he played in, the Polo Grounds, with its 290-foot short porch in right. So much for "the Natural.") Anyway, as for Baines's fixed left knee, the reasoning is obvious and often spoken of in golf instruction manuals: the left knee, for Baines, must keep the body from swaying. This is essential, for how safe is a teeter-totter with a flexible pivot point? The hitch of the hands, meanwhile, is a child's trait honed to a fine edge. Every hitter wants to cock the bat like a gun, to reach back for that extra oomph, and Broadway--or, at least, the streets of minor-league towns--is lined with men who couldn't get this impulse under control. Williams, again, in the standard text on the subject, stated that a little hitching was inevitable but that too large a hitch could "disturb your rhythm." Baines gets away with so much because his swing is as settled in its rhythm as a Lester Young sax solo. The right foot, however, remains the most remarkable part of his swing, and his use of it is unique. A week ago Thursday, in the first game of the second half of the season, I saw Baines wait on a breaking pitch as if he were a flamingo waiting for rain. The foot stayed up, poised to strike, and at the last instant it came down, the weight transferred from back foot to front, and he slapped a single into left field. Perhaps we should say that this use of the right leg in timing the pitch is unique to Baines and one other player, Sadarahu Oh, the Japanese home-run king, who modeled his swing on basic tenets of samurai swordplay and stood, like a flamingo, at the plate with his right leg raised.
The reason for this sudden celebration of Harold Baines, meanwhile, is that he is about to pass Bill Melton and become the team's all-time home-run king and may have already done so between writing and publication dates. He hit his 153rd last weekend, and Melton hit 154 homers in a White Sox uniform. That total is the lowest of any that leads one of the original eight American League teams--by a large margin. Comiskey Park, with its long distances down the foul lines and its deep power alleys, has never been hospitable to power hitters, and in previous generations--when the center-field fence was removed and the bullpens moved to the sidelines--it took a 440-foot blast to hit one out to center. (This has been done all of seven times in the 77-year history of the park.)
Home-run hitters have played for the Sox, but never for very long. Shoeless Joe Jackson, who is, arguably, the greatest hitter ever to play for the Sox, peaked with 12 in the 1920 season, after the Black Sox series and before the discovery. Luke Appling, who hit the best for the longest in a Sox uniform, finished with 45 home runs in 8,857 at bats. Given an extra season, Baines has also outperformed Carlton Fisk, who finished last weekend with 131 home runs as a member of the White Sox. To be a slugger for the White Sox has been to be trade bait, usually for a pitcher, because that was the emphasis the ballpark placed on the team. As recently as last year, the team traded Ron Kittle--the only other active member of the White Sox with more than 100 homers--to the New York Yankees, with the key man being pitcher Neil Allen. Almost two decades ago, the Sox traded slugger Pete Ward, Melton's precursor at third base, to the Yanks for Mickey Scott, a then young pitcher, not to be confused with the Houston Astros' Mike Scott and who probably never will be aside from their side-by-side placement in The Baseball Encyclopedia.
Melton was a home-run hitter who led the league with the relatively small number of 33 in 1971, when, on the last day of the season, manager Chuck Tanner batted him leadoff to give him more chances to hit the home run that would give him the lead. He did hit one, but I don't remember it being in his last at bat, but that was typical Tanner, always worried about the players and their egos. Melton is best remembered these days as a clumsy fielder who once let a pop fly elude his mitt and break his nose. He was a big man with an erect carriage at the plate. He held his bat high, his hands next to his cap, and he had a nifty, short stroke with deceptive power. Back problems struck the following year, however, in 1972, and of course he was eventually traded, although not for a pitcher.
Baines, meanwhile, is a complete player. He has one of the best arms in the league and plays a good right field. If he can, sometimes, seem tentative, at other times--such as in Tom Seaver's 300th victory two years ago--he can save a game with an outstanding catch. This year, because of a knee injury, he has been limited to being designated hitter, and although he should return to the field soon he has never hit better. Despite missing the first month of the season, he is again on pace for 20 homers and 100 RBI. His sixth straight 20-homer season would break another White Sox record--five, which he set last year. His .311 average, meanwhile, leads the Sox this season.
Yet, despite his impressive statistics, it is his unique swing that has set him apart since he came up with the White Sox seven years ago, at the age of 21. It is remarkably natural, smooth, and free-flowing, and it is only recently that we've begun to realize what care Baines takes to maintain and develop its advantages, while managing its excesses. It is also, like baseball in miniature, infinitely complicated. One could spend one's breath describing the meaning and purpose of the smallest detail within the swing, the hitching of the hands or the lifting of the left foot or the way these two movements lock and rock together. We've only begun with what appears here.