The style remains the same

Ken Griffey, Jr., is a little thicker in the legs and the waist, but the swing remains the same. I saw him in a Spring Training game on TV; he with the same relaxed stance with his hands close in, near his neck. Legs pretty straight, a little rockety rock through the hips, head cocked towards the pitcher. With the swing, his hands move in that protractor-grade arc and the bat moves on such an assured plane that it suggests the pitch was thrown to the path of the bat, that the swing is the constant element in the equation, and that the pitch just meets it where it always is. His front leg stays straight, his back leg gives a little. The swing is over in an instant.

It’s the same swing that I saw when I saw Griffey as a kid, when the Kid was a kid, proving in one sense that as age and ability evolve–increasing in the case of the former and diminishing in the case of the latter–style will kick it around for a while. Style is what stirs the embers of sense memory and emotion. Griffey’s swing stirs the embers, while his home run count does not.

I watch baseball through this style lens. A result, probably, of all the time I spent on the bench. My baseball career spanned a couple of decades–a run that took me through D-3 college ball–the last six or seven years of which I spent backing up better catchers than I. In other words, I did a lot of watching, a lot of ruminating about the games progressing on the other side of the chain link fence. When you aren’t in the game, making quick decisions and throwing yourself around, the currency that you rely on most for entertainment and for insight is style. The stances and swings of my college teammates are as familiar to me as those of Bagwell, Biggio and Berkman (my hometown heroes) and as characteristic as a smile.

Devo, an outfielder with a puckish grin whom I once met up with on his home island of St. John, USVI (he was floating in blue water up to his neck, with his sunglasses on): he held his hands by his waist so that the top of the bat made it maybe up to the top of his head, and he swiveled his hips Griffey-like before improbably cranking the ball. Ethan, a senior who looked to my freshman eyes like a 35-year-old: from a deep crouch he jerked the bat up and down again in the box, unloading from the left side of the plate and letting his front toe fly in the follow through; firmly in the Barry Bonds school. Danny Dynamite, my friend and roommate and an academic masochist: he held his arms straight out behind him as if they were pinned in place.

You can tell a really good friend from 200 yards just by the way he walks, or takes a walk.

Baseball observers swim in deep, still waters, the slow, satisfying current of which is familiarity. Griffey, Jr., is that current for now, and though he’ll be gone from the big game sometime soon, I’ll bet that his swing will be the same when he’s eighty.

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