For years, Rick Dempsey's wife Joanni has known better than to sit up quickly in bed in the middle of the night if she hears a swishing sound above her head.

It's just her husband, Louisville Slugger in hand, continuing his eternal quest for the perfect batting stance.

Like almost everyone who's ever been infatuated with playing the game, Dempsey is convinced that his .239 career batting average has nothing to do with those cursed pitchers.

If he could just get comfortable at the plate, really feel relaxed and yet concentrate. If he just felt that he had all of home plate covered, that he could wait long enough to see what the pitch was, yet still be quick enough to smash it.

If he could just find the right way to crouch, then coil, then, finally, pull the trigger perfectly so his hips would clear and the bat would slash across the plate, delivering effortless power to the exact point his mind's eye had imagined.

Yes, it's all in the stance. Dempsey knows it. Don't we all?

For a ballplayer the search for a batting stance is a kind of search for athletic identity. Is anything in sports so undeniably a signature as The Stance?

Yeats has that haunting line, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" It's true in baseball, too. Once a man does something from childhood on, stands in front of countless mirrors, watches his shadow in the dust, even stands above his own bed in the dark, that thing becomes one with him.

When you must stand before thousands, perhaps millions of eyes, and perform, the way you stand, the tilt of your head, the cock of a wrist, is no accident, but, rather, a kind of animal body language.

Ted Williams was clinical, almost dispassionate, his stance drained of quirks until only a sort of arrogant majesty remained. His passion for distinction so overrode his other traits that he was able to burn away the personal and leave only the coldly artistic.

To swing at a bad pitch, even if it might win a pennant, was a violation -- in a broad sense -- of his stance toward the world. On bad teams or good, isolated in a lineup of clowns or surrounded by Pesky, Doerr and Stephens, Williams still had to be dealt with on his own terms.

"Ted's stance was a thing of beauty," says California Manager Gene Mauch. "He was so balanced, so commanding. And he changed on every pitch, depending on the count and the situation. When he wanted power, he got his feet closer together, took a longer stride. When he had two strikes, he'd choke up an inch on the bat and widen his stance so he could wait a split second longer to decide."

Once, in the 1946 All-Star Game, Williams even invented a stance for a new pitch -- Rip Sewell's blooper. Williams ran up in the box so he could generate enough power to hit the pitch over the wall. Nobody else ever did it.

Just as a politician with style can lead or mislead millions simply by the conviction in his voice and the gesture of a hand, so a great hitter can give false clues to a whole generation.

"No one ever ruined as many hitters as Joe DiMaggio," continues Mauch. "He looked so wonderful with his wide stance and his hands high that, for years, we all thought you had to hold your hands that way. We couldn't imagine Joe's way was only his way, not the right way."

Like a golfer's tempo, a hitter's stance runs so close to the grain of his personality that the two must coincide for him to perform at his best.

Henry Aaron's inner calm, his desire to blend with his surroundings until it was time to strike, was reflected in his motionless, almost camouflaged stance. Willie Mays, left index finger off the bat, never really seemed to have a stance until the pitch was thrown. He was a creature of reaction and he hit that way, too. Mays seemed to scramble in the box, stride into one pitch, then open up on the next. Even when a home run left his bat, it sometimes seemed Mays had to regain his balance before he could sprint to first base.

When we see films of Babe Ruth and hear of his legendary excesses, can we imagine him having any different stance? Feet together so that he could stride his whole 250 pounds at the ball in one great lunge that would produce either a 500-foot blast or a whiff that would force the man into the ground. Could Ruth have gripped the bat anywhere but on the end -- no one ever had before -- or resist using a bigger club (48 ounces) than any man before or since? No, no more than he could have stopped eating those hot dogs and drinking those beers.

The closer you get to the game, pairing images from the batter's box with the human faces that match them, the more undeniable it becomes that a man's batting stance may give you a more honest reading of him than his face.

Frank Robinson stood on top of the plate in a posture of perpetual territorial defiance. Meet him off the field and he'll still crowd the plate on you.

Dave Winfield thinks mighty well of himself, likes to spread himself out, take up all the space that his 6-foot-6 frame permits. Naturally, he's the only man who's in danger of obliterating both the front and back lines of the batter's box.

His Yankees teammate, Rickey Henderson, loves to irritate people. He's the kid who snatches your glove, runs away and taunts you to chase him. In the box, he has such an exaggerated crouch that pitchers are tempted to throw at him instead of the plate. Henderson wouldn't mind. Then he could steal second and third, too.

Few hitters have been more of a chameleon than Carl Yastrzemski, who had a half-dozen barely similar incarnations. Not only did he hold his hands a foot above his head at one stage, but for a whole year he laid the bat forward (has anyone else ever tried that?) as though pointing the barrel at the left field foul pole. Yaz's transformations weren't cosmetic. He remade himself from a fast ball hitter into a breaking ball scourge late in his career. He also had high- and low-ball periods.

Interestingly, Yaz also may have done as much growing and changing as a person during his career as any player. He arrived in Boston remote, selfish and narrow in perspective; he left 22 years later communicative, unselfish and broad.

While Yastrzemski paid attention to his stances, he sometimes forgot to watch his mouth. "Pitchers loved to watch Yaz's stances and guess with him," recalls ex-Yankees pitcher Mel Stottlemyre, now a New York Mets coach. "I didn't. I read his lips.

"Yaz talked to himself silently at the plate. If I saw his lips saying, 'Be quick, be quick,' I'd throw him a changeup. If he was saying, 'Stay back, weight back,' I'd throw a fast ball."

Of all hitters, none was more distinctive than Stan Musial, who almost turned his back on the pitcher, showing that "No. 6" to his foe. Musial always was thought to be a quiet man whose stance seemed too stylish for him; meet him now in silvery old age and he can match clothes with anybody. It just took The Man a while to get his off-field game down.

Often cited as a player who hit and lived oppositely was Lee May. Off the field, he seemed utterly phlegmatic. At the plate, he waggled the bat constantly above his head as though about to have an adrenaline fit.

May's silent treatment was an act, a defense mechanism. In the safety of a clubhouse, when he didn't think reporters were in sight, he immediately went into a jag of tall tales and high-pitched laughter.

When modern players talk about stances, they focus on the good, the bad and the ugly. Two ideal models come up often: Steve Garvey and Pete Rose.

Of all current players, Garvey seems to have most self-consciously carved a stance that is a perfect mixture of defensive inviolateness and the potential for attack. His whole posture says, "I've got every inch of this plate covered. You have nowhere left to throw it."

Garvey measures his distance from the plate, the relative position of his feet, and, basically, never changes. He always knows exactly where he is.

What else would you expect from The Senator, who also must know his conservative bearings absolutely in politics and morals? His stance is uptight, yet admirable -- a mirror of the man. "His weakness is the fast ball on his fists," says catcher Bob Boone, "but he's so strong that he muscles that pitch over the shortstop's head time after time, even if you break his bat."

Rose's stance is as combative as his heart. He crouches and glares. No one, it's said, can hit so many types of pitches in so many locations so hard. Rose has grooved his swing by monomaniacal practice to the point where he sees a pitch, identifies it, then applies the meat of the bat to that spot.

Says one catcher, "Pete's only weakness in his prime might have been the fast ball down the middle. Since nobody ever tries to throw that pitch, he didn't bother to learn how to hit it. We got him out for a while throwing it down the pipe. Of course he learned."

Rose screwing his helmet onto his head, as though it were a grapefruit, is -- in a sense -- part of his stance, too, because it brings personality to bear on the battle with the pitcher. He's advertising his determination just as Thurman Munson's batting glove fidgets and neck twitches held menace.

As Reggie Jackson says, "How you walk to the plate can be important. You can tell which hitters 'own' which pitchers just by how they go up there. In a game situation, I might go into that act even if I don't hit that pitcher too well. Hey, maybe he doesn't remember."

Tiny Joe Morgan's "chicken wing" move -- flapping his elbow against his side -- always looked like a little man's way of spurring himself on beyond the normal limits of his ability. That "wing" made Morgan look as threatening to a pitcher as a rattlesnake shaking its tail.

Perhaps the most exotic notion on the relationship between personality and stance belongs to Roy Smalley Jr., son of the former National League shortstop, nephew of Mauch and maybe the best-read player in the game. Smalley is a switch-hitter who points out, "The right half of the brain, which is more analytical, controls the left side of the body. And the left half of the brain, which is more intuitive and poetic, controls the right half.

"So I have different stances. When I'm up lefty, I'm more mechanical and precise. Right-handed, I improvise and guess more often."

The '85 Elias Analyst, the game's stat bible, says, "Smalley's dominant switch-hitting side has alternated every year of his career." Strike up the Twilight Zone music and call Dr. Freud.

The lore of stances is almost endless since no two are identical. In fact, perhaps only one successful team -- the late-'70s Kansas City Royals -- ever had what might be called a "team" stance. At one point, coach Charlie Lau had eight hitters using his theories. All used variations of the stance that George Brett continues to make famous: fairly narrow, closed stance; stand far off the plate and stride in toward it; start with weight shifted to the back foot as the pitcher winds up, bat held so flat it's almost parallel to the ground.

Lau and Rod Carew may be the two major recent contributors to stance theory. Even a slugger like Mike Schmidt has bought the elaborate Lau notion that the baseball swing is just the golf swing in another plane.

Carew's contribution is the concept of multiple stances to combat different pitchers. Sir Rodney, who owns seven Silver Bats, holds the bat in his finger tips like a baton and has, he says, six positions for his feet.

Cecil Cooper and Eddie Murray are his disciples. Each can inside-out one pitch to the opposite field, then change stances and pull the next pitch out of the park. Murray claims to have five stances -- three lefty and two righty -- plus a couple of others that are still in the stage of batting practice research and development.

"I want my hands to be quick and I want to see the ball well," says Murray. "If I don't see the ball well against a (certain) pitcher, I'll change stances. That changes my head position. Can't hurt . . . Why be stubborn?"

Few pastimes intrigue major league ballplayers more than mimicking others' stances. A player like Derrel Thomas can imitate the whole league.

Among the bizarro favorites are John Wockenfuss, Mike Fischlin and Mike Hargrove.

Not since the days of Sammy White in the '50s has baseball seen as weird a stance as Wockenfuss'. White laid the bat back so far it looked like he was trying to stab the catcher. Wock's trick is to screw his front around so far that it's actually pointing back at the catcher. "Helps me keep my front shoulder closed," he claims. Also, Wockenfuss "flutes" the bat handle with his finger tips constantly.

"How can you pitch to somebody who looks like that?" says Mike Flanagan of the Orioles. "He kills me. I start looking at his feet or his fingers and I throw the ball right down the middle."

Mauch says, "I hate to use Wockenfuss' name in the same sentence with Lou Gehrig, but Gehrig used to 'flute' the bat handle that way, too."

A journeyman like Fischlin -- what's he got to lose? -- thinks nothing of batting with his hands so low that he looks like he's trying to scratch his ankle with the knob. However, other players don't become all-stars until they stop changing stances.

Dwight Evans had eight mediocre years until Boston coach Walt Hriniak got hold of him in '81 and told him, "Stop changing your stance every time you have a little slump. Stick to one method." Evans, with only himself, not his stance, to blame, became a star.

Most opponents wish Hargrove would get into any stance. Not since Vic Power whirled his bat like a propeller in the '50s has anybody made such a show out of getting in position.

One frigid night in Baltimore, Hargrove was adjusting his glove and helmet, measuring the plate, holding his hand up for "time" as the Orioles screamed, "Get in the box and hit." Finally, Dempsey found a cure. One of his throws back to the mound "slipped" and drilled Hargrove right in the ear.

Catchers are always the stance experts. Nothing tells so much about a hitter's thinking as his feet. Boone calls stance study "a big part of my program. I couldn't tell you exactly how everyone in the league hits, but a bell goes off in my head if they've changed. I'll say, '(Steve) Balboni's different. What's he doing? Do we need a new book?' "

Some pitchers don't need a brainy catcher. "I can tell a hitter's weaknesses the first time I ever see him," says Gaylord Perry. "If he carries the bat high and wraps it back around his neck, well, then you know he can't hit the fast ball in on his hands. It takes him too long to get the bat started and clear his hips out of the way.

"And if the hitter holds the bat low or lays it out away from him, then he can't hit the outside pitch with authority, especially the breaking ball. You can get him to pull the trigger too soon."

What if a hitter changes stances in mid-pitch? Do you drill him?

"I hope so," said Perry.

Stance reading has reached such a level that Flanagan says, "Now the hitters try to set you up. Chet Lemon will move way up in the box like he's looking for a curve so that you'll throw him a fast ball.

"The worst guy is Al Cowens. He's got a thousand stances. I finally figured it out. He's looking for a fast ball in all of them."

Some hitters even have a bunting stance. "Whenever Pepe Frias wanted to bunt for a hit," says Baltimore coach Ray Miller, "he'd stand in the back of the box and get a running start charging toward the pitch.

"So, as soon as we saw his foot hit that back line, we'd throw a fast ball up and in and he'd almost kill himself trying to flip backwards out of the way. He looked like Charlie Brown when he gets undressed by that line drive in the comic strip.

"Pepe'd get back in the box, shake his head and ask Dempsey, 'How you guys know?' "

It is a pleasure to report that, with stances, it's never too late to find the right one. As Joanni Dempsey knows. It took 15 years of married life but her husband Rick finally found the right stance last August.

Let's see. Feet wider apart. Hands back and lower. Chin on the left shoulder. And swing as hard as you can.

What happens? Why, the ball goes over the fence, dummy.

In less than 200 at bats since his discovery, Dempsey has a dozen homers -- five times his previous career rate. So far this year he has 19 RBI in 78 at bats -- which is about Babe Ruth's pace.

At last, Mrs. Dempsey can sit up in bed any time she wants.

At least until Rick hits a slump.