Kevin Youkilis’ batting stance is, shall we say, a little different than most.
He keeps his hands far higher than most MLB hitters and almost points the bat at the mound at one point. One could call it unorthodox, cool, equal parts (seemingly) impractical and deliciously wacky or any number of adjectives.
Though given his .281 career average, 150 home runs and 618 RBIs in 10 MLB seasons, you’d have to admit it works.
“I didn’t come up with it really, it just came to be,” Youkilis said in 2010, as part of a Westinghouse Digital Q&A session with fans. “It keeps my hands relaxed so I can get through the ball easier with better contact. It also allows me to get ready for the pitch without thinking too much.”
So far Japanese fans have only gotten to admire Youkilis’ peculiar stance from afar, save for the four games (two exhibition, two regular season) he played with the Boston Red Sox in 2008, when MLB opened its season at Tokyo Dome.
Youkilis recently agreed to join the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, so NPB fans will get to see him up close and personal in 2014.
Which makes now as good a time as any for Japanese baseball fans to become acquainted with Gar Ryness aka The Batting Stance Guy.
Ryness has made a name for himself imitating batting stances, and probably knows Youkilis’ stance better than anyone other than Youkilis himself.
“Japan would actually understand what he’s doing more than America,” Ryness told The Japan Times over the phone from San Francisco. “There are players (there) who have their hands apart, and that was just completely brand new (in MLB). Almost never seen before, to have someone’s hands that far apart. He points the barrel of the bat at the pitcher, like Julio Franco did for many years, and he has his knees pretty close together, and he’s bouncing around,” he says, noting Youkilis has since tweaked his routine slightly.
“At that point, that kind of stuff didn’t really happen. It certainly didn’t happen in the World Series, and I think in ’07 when he was in the World Series (with the Red Sox) against the Rockies, that was a shock to the system of Little League baseball coaches.”
If anyone knows batting stances, it’s Ryness.
He’s has taken his ability to perform spot-on imitations of the batting stances of players past and present — what he calls “the least marketable skill in America” — to the big time. His imitations have made him a YouTube sensation, and he’s been profiled in The New York Times. There have also been appearances on MLB Network, among other outlets, as well as “Late Show With David Letterman,” and he’s even done motion capture for Sony’s popular “MLB: The Show” video game series.
Ryness keeps a record of his exploits on his website, www.battingstanceguy.com, which also features numerous videos of him doing stances and interacting with players, including a meeting with Youkilis himself.
“Youkilis is like the Michelangelo of stance,” Ryness said. “He’s put together this performance art piece that is so fun to watch. And I’m so glad he’s a good hitter and that people like him.”
In 2010, he published a book which happens to contain a tidbit about Youkilis that’s very interesting in retrospect.
“I wrote a book, ‘Batting Stance Guy: A Love Letter to Baseball,’ he said. “In it, there’s an actual quote . . . I say: ‘Whenever the MLB magic runs out in Kevin Youkilis’ career, all he’ll need to do is send a tape of his at-bats to the Seibu Lions, and he’s in. It’ll be like the band in ‘This is Spinal Tap.’ Once the luster fades here in the States, Youk will continue to be huge in Japan.’
“I wrote that years ago, because I wrote a book of the 50 greatest stances in my lifetime, and what I noticed is, a bunch of the players in it, Tony Batista, Bobby Tolan, Felix Millan, played over there. So it’s as if Japan is like a finely-tuned art critic that can sense when someone has an awesome stance.”
When the news broke last spring Youkilis was going to alter his stance, by lowering his bat and using a wider base. Ryness playfully created a video pleading with him to reconsider. Youkilis didn’t, of course, but as they say, old habits die hard.
“Because no one had really seen him hit yet, I was hoping he would just revert back to his old ways,” Ryness said. “I feel like that’s a hard stance to chuck. You’re so used to it. So it was really fun have the season start, and have him little, by little, by little slip back into his old ways. His knees got back to being close together and his hands got really high. For the most part, he kind of went back to his normal thing. Which, holy smokes, do I hope he brings to the good Golden Eagles fans of the world.”
Ryness doesn’t miss anything in his imitations, no matter how minute, from the exact way Ichiro Suzuki tugs on his sleeve, to how (Red Sox star) Dustin Pedroia’s eyes get wide each time he steps to the plate
He’s got imitating MLB stars down to a science, but has also taken on the challenge of Japanese players (in both MLB and NPB), and says there are a few things that stand out.
“For one, the bat twirl,” he says, referring to Japanese hitters’ penchant for flipping their bats. “Take a normal player, (Kosuke) Fukudome, when he hits a ball, doesn’t even have to be a homer or a double, usually any player from Japan, when they hit, the bat will kind of spring off their shoulders and flip loudly back toward whatever dugout they’re hitting from. “When (the Dodgers’ Yasiel) Puig does it, he gets plunked later in the game. You can’t do that here, you’re going to get a ball in the ribs. Then every time (Hideki) Matsui does it it’s just, Oh, ok that’s just Matsui.”
It’s not only bat-flips The Batting Stance Guy has noticed many Japanese players have in common.
“Generally, players when they bat are falling away,” Ryness said. “So when I do an imitation, let’s just say Matsui, I’m almost falling back on my heels as if, if I swung and missed I’m just going to land on my back. That’s kind of rare. People don’t really fall backwards, they kind of go toward the mound. It seems really crazy when there are righties doing it. Because the righty falling away makes no sense, because you’re not even going toward first base.
“When there’s a player in Japan, I kind of know, they’re gonna stand sort of close to the plate, they’re going to kind of fall away while they’re hitting, and they’re going to kind of start running to first before they’ve even finished their swing.”
Ryness had seen videos of Japanese hitters, but got his first real taste of Japanese baseball in 2000, when he attended a pair of Hanshin Tigers games at Koshien Stadium and, “was stunned with how entertaining the games were and the hitters were.
“I’m so glad that Youkilis is there,” he said. “I hope he plays great. I wish there was a way for Americans to get more into NPB. I was amazed at just how much fun it was, and how alive the stadiums were, and how choreographed all the songs and cheers were for each of the players. It was just so fun.
“I was not used to balloons launching in the middle of the game and chicken on a stick and high school football in Texas-cheering sections the whole game. It was great, and it’s such a fun league.”
Often when Ryness gets recognized, fans will ask him to imitate a stance, usually someone from their favorite team or a player currently in the news.
“The only player who goes to all generations is Julio Franco,” he said. “There’ll be a 9-year-old kid, a 20-year-old, a 40-year-old, an 80-year-old, Julio Franco is the only guy that everyone asks. Because the 75-year old doesn’t know who Craig Counsell is, and the 11-year-old doesn’t know who Bobby Tolan is.”
Ryness gets a special kick out of doing imitations for the players themselves.
“The players pick up on every nuance,” he says. “There are multiple times where I’ve done an imitation of something that I don’t know of one person who would get the joke, and then the players will punch me, throw their glove at me, and high-five each other. It’s like a joke that they never thought they’d hear. Because these guys are their co-workers. They’ve see this person lift up his heel a thousand times a year in batting practice, spring training.”
The players keep Ryness on his toes.
“At this point, my favorite imitations to do are ones that have never been asked for before. I’ve been able to do Youkilis a thousand times for players and fans. So (White Sox infielder) Adam Dunn walked up to me and said ‘Hey, let me see Moises Alou,’ and that was probably my favorite.
“It’s when players will ask me for Ben Oglivie. It feels like you’re a band, and you go to a concert. You know a bunch of people are going to yell out your popular songs. It’s when that one person yells out that weird B-side that you made 20 years ago. And you kind of look at that person like, ‘I wanna hang out with you all evening.’
“So that’s really fun. Adrian Gonzalez’s wife one time pulled me aside and said let me see Coco Crisp. ‘Where did you guys even know each other? Oh, Adrian and Coco were in the minors together.’ I would’ve never thought to prepare Coco Crisp, meeting Adrian Gonzalez. That’s really fun.”