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At first glance there's nothing unusual about Bill Buckner's batting routine. Buckner, 32, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman for the Cubs, smooths the dirt on the right side of the plate and digs a hole deep in the batter's box to plant his left foot. He points his right foot toward first while surveying the pitcher and then assumes a conventional stance perpendicular to the rubber. After lightly tapping the plate with his bat, he's ready to swing.
Ah, but that slight, seemingly insignificant tap has made Buckner the scourge of the National League, by triggering in his mind a posthypnotic suggestion. In early August a hypnotist taught Buckner to visualize himself being selective and attacking only those pitches he wants to hit. Feeling nothing but positive vibes, he would see himself making nothing but perfect swings and hitting line drives.
Ever since, Buckner has been in a zone of his own. As the National League's Player of the Month in August, he batted .405, with six homers, 35 runs batted in and seven game-winning RBIs. At week's end he was among the league leaders in batting (.307), runs batted in (91), hits (170), game-winning RBIs (13) and doubles (30) and was headed for the best season of his distinguished 12-year major league career.
As late as Aug. 2 Buckner would have preferred to forget 1982. That day he visited a baseball camp in Darien, Ill. run by Cub scout and former major-leaguer Eric Soderholm. At the time, Buckner was batting .278—fine for most players, but subpar for a .296 career hitter—and he complained to Soderholm that the season was dragging. Soderholm suggested that Buckner see hypnotist Harvey Misel, who has treated many athletes, including Rod Carew, and was also at the camp.
Buckner spent about 90 minutes with Misel that afternoon. "I asked him to visualize how good he felt when everything was going right," says Misel. "Bill realized afterward that he'd been making some mechanical mistakes, particularly opening his right shoulder too soon." Misel asserts—and Buckner agrees—that as a result of their session Buckner became more confident, relaxed and selective at the plate.
It's possible, though, to make too much of the effect hypnosis has had on Buckner. "A hypnotist can't turn a mediocre hitter into a superstar," says Soderholm. "He can help about 10%, which is what has happened in Bill's case."
Buckner, the National League batting champion in 1980, has long been one of the game's toughest outs. While playing for the Dodgers from 1971 to 1976, he had to take numerous pitches as the No. 2 hitter behind base stealer Davey Lopes. Nonetheless, Buckner had only one bad season, 1975, when he hit .243 while trying to play on a badly sprained ankle that eventually required surgery. He underwent surgery again, in October of 1976, for removal of bone chips from the same ankle, and the Dodgers thought so little of his prospects for a good recovery that they traded him to the Cubs along with Ivan DeJesus for Rick Monday and Mike Garman. Indeed, Buckner's ankle has never fully come back; to this day when he walks he feels it snap, crackle and pop like a bowlful of Rice Krispies.
Yet Buckner hasn't had a bad season in Chicago. "Before every game we run through the same 45-minute routine: ice, whirlpool, ultrasound, massage, tape," says Cub Trainer Tony Garofalo. "He could hardly walk when he came here. He worked to get a range of motion, and now he's got it." Buckner's range, however, still is not normal.
Buckner has been compared to Carew and Pete Rose because he hits to all fields and meticulously studies opposing pitchers. But in one respect his style is unique. Most batters take a stride of 10 to 12 inches; Buckner hardly shifts his feet. "The more you stride, the more your body moves and your head moves and your hips lock," he says. "You slow everything down that way. The less movement you have with your legs, the quicker you are and the longer you can wait before committing."
"He can wait so long because he's sure he won't strike out," says Chicago hitting instructor Billy Williams, the former Cub slugger who had a .290 career average, hit 426 homers and bombed in Hall of Fame voting last year. "An average hitter might strike out more than 60 times a year. Bill will do it 20 times and put the ball in play the other 40."