There is one name above all others: Ted Williams.
Last Sunday night, before Game 2 of the World Series, the Splendid Splinter appeared before a lustily cheering Turner Field crowd in Atlanta, placed alongside several other players on Major League Baseball's "team of the century."
Williams is now 81 and hobbled by the effects of a stroke. Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. each took an arm and escorted a wobbly Teddy Ballgame across a stage erected on the infield. Behind him, however, flashed the robust images of his youth, projected on a large screen.
There, in black-and-white film, was the Williams swing: a hitchless loop with a slight uppercut, ending with a graceful twist of his spidery frame, uniform number 9 turned to face the umpire.
Now, think of other swings, ones so perfect or majestic or effortless as to stay locked in memory forever, powerful arcs of eternity. The older ones are as fuzzy as daguerreotypes, but consider the swings of: Mel Ott. Lou Gehrig. Stan Musial. Roger Maris. Reggie Jackson. Tony Oliva. George Brett. Tony Gwynn. Darryl Strawberry. Barry Bonds. David Justice. Griffey Jr. Each one of them, like Williams, a lefty.
Proper homage should be given to exceptional righties Joe DiMaggio, Ernie Banks and Alex Rodriguez. Nevertheless, it's an understood though rarely analyzed aspect of baseball: that lefties have better-looking swings. But ask some ballplayers and coaches why that is, and it's as though you've asked them to explain why the sky is blue. It just is, okay?
Now, in the middle of a World Series, ballplayers have little patience for such esoteric matters. Now their game is about "matchups" and "execution" and "strategy" and "playmaking."
But on a lazy, sunny afternoon at Camden Yards, in the high numbers of September, when the Baltimore Orioles are so far behind as to be mathematically eliminated from next year's pennant--that's a time to talk about the more artistic aspects of the game.
We went to ask the hard question--why does the lefty swing look better? Even though the Orioles suffered through another dismal season, they were blessed with a certain artful grace, even in defeat. Through most of this season, the team had a high concentration of sweet-swinging left-handers: Brady Anderson, B.J. Surhoff, Harold Baines (now with the Cleveland Indians) and, perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing batsman of his generation, Will Clark, whose season ended prematurely with surgery.
On the field before a game, while waiting his turn in the batting cage, Anderson mused that there might be more mystique than matter to left-handedness. Once, he said, he was at home watching the fearsome Randy Johnson pitch on TV. He caught a glimpse of the TV screen in a nearby mirror, which turned the Arizona Diamondbacks' Johnson into a righty. Suddenly, Anderson said, Johnson "looked like an ordinary right-hander," no longer an intimidating port-sider.
But that's for pitchers. Anderson pointed out that when right-handed batters finish their swings, they are facing toward third base. Because they need to run the opposite direction after a hit, right-handers' follow-throughs are truncated, designed to shave crucial nano-seconds off of their sprint to first base. Their swings can appear choppy, rushed, unfinished. When a lefty finishes his swing, he is already pointed toward first; he can afford a graceful follow-through.
"Look at Otis Nixon," Anderson said, of the fleet switch-hitting Braves outfielder. "When he hits from the left, he's already halfway to first when he finishes his swing."
Anderson is asked: Could it be an optical illusion that makes lefties look better? After all, baseball viewers are accustomed to watching televised games from an outfield camera, which is always positioned slightly to the left of center field. Hence, viewers miss much of a right-handed batter's swing; his body obscures the bat. Viewers see a lefty's entire swing.
"No," Anderson said. "I see these guys from the field, not TV." Lefties just look better, he said.
Into the locker room before the game. We asked lefty Baines, who sports a fully extended, looping swing. As a disciple of the Charlie Lau/Walt Hriniak, top-hand-off hitting doctrine, Baines has converted his mechanics into a laudable .292 career average. Dealt to the Indians in August, he powered that team's drive into the playoffs, his flawless swing as effective in one Rust Belt city as another. As a hitting analyst, though, the taciturn Baines doesn't even hit .200. We moved a few lockers over to talk to Clark.
In Clark's first big league at-bat, he hit a home run. Off of Nolan Ryan. Before a series of injuries took their toll, Will "The Thrill" Clark was baseball's Next Big Thing, possessor of a swing so sweet and so characteristic that it earned its own nickname: the Clark Cape. Clark began his at-bat in an upright stance, drove a fluid swing through the strike zone and ended with his bat extended and his left hand hovering in space, looking for all the world like a steely-calm matador who'd just fanned his cape over a rushing bull.
Lefties "have a little bit more of a loop" to their swings, Clark said, making them appear more graceful. But why that is, he couldn't say. Clark videotapes his swing and analyzes it. He noted that, if you compare a lefty to a righty on videotape--frame by frame--they look the same. But the sum of the parts--the outcome--looks "completely different." A mystery, he acknowledged.
"For some reason," he said, "a lefty's swing evolves in a more pleasing-to-look-at fashion." And, as much as ballplayers like to say that "all that matters is results," the most crowded spot on the field before any Texas Rangers game is behind the batting cage, as visiting players study Rafael Palmiero and his enviable batting practice cuts.
Hmmm. Perhaps Terry "The Crow" Crowley, the Orioles hitting coach, would have an answer. As a big leaguer from 1969 to '83, he compiled a lifetime average of only .250. Yet, like many "those who can't do, teach" former players, he has earned a reputation as a fine hitting instructor. Crowley has been credited with coaxing career years from the bats of Baines and Surhoff. Further, it is said, he has livened up the geriatric bat of Cal Ripken. No mean feat, considering that--although Ripken is an unquestioned first-ballot Hall of Famer--he possesses one of baseball's grisliest swings.
After the game, Crowley stood in front of his locker, pulling on his street pants.
"I'm guessing--and write that down--'I'm guessing,' " he said, "that it comes from when [left-handers] are growing up."
He explained that, because there is a paucity of left-handed pitchers in youth leagues, left-handed batters face mostly right-handed pitchers. Pitches from righties--fastballs, curves, change-ups--all break toward a left-hander at the plate and away from a right-hander.
Therefore, he said, left-handed batters can settle in at the plate, rarely having to lunge to reach a pitch over the outside, and rarely having to bail out against a high-and-tight offering.
"They can get real comfortable up there," he said. "Real aggressive. And you can take a nice, natural swing. They hardly ever have to worry about getting one in the ear" from a southpaw pitcher.
This is the most persuasive answer we've heard all day.
But the exercise may be futile. After all, one can examine a Picasso, analyze the artist's brush technique, his choice of colors, his perspective, his medium, his inspiration and even his politics. And that may give us some insight into the work. At the end of the day, though, we take one last look at "Guernica" and we may never ever really know why it's so beautiful. It just is, okay?