Among my multitude of useless talents is the ability to imitate the batting stance of Tommie Agee, a centerfielder for the 1969 Miracle Mets and one of my boyhood favorites. I can re-create the way Agee would bend at the waist and tap the barrel of his bat on the plate, straighten up, then do it again before lifting the lumber to ear level, seemingly with great effort, as though he were hoisting the entire tree from which it came. Just the way he did, I wave the bat aloft, swaying slightly as if I might topple over from its weight.
My memory of every nuance of Agee's routine from four decades ago surprises even me, since at the very moment you are reading this there's a good chance that I'm standing in front of an ATM, trying to recall my PIN. But those childhood imitations seem to imprint themselves permanently on the brain. Every kid who ever fantasized about being an athlete has tried to mimic at least one. Which player did you do? Was it Luis Tiant turning his back to the plate during his windup, or Ken Griffey Jr. wiggling his hips and waggling his bat as he waited for the pitch? Was it Allen Iverson giving a head fake right before a crossover left, or Fred Biletnikoff using his forearms to help him get up after being tackled, to keep from spoiling his stickum-slathered hands?
Most of us outgrow the inclination toward imitation, which is a shame, because the older we get, the more we need those youthful routines. They're a bridge back to the time when all we knew about an athlete was how many dribbles he took before he shot a free throw, or what pose he struck on the mound as he peered in for the catcher's signs. That blissful fog of innocence dissolves in a hurry, burned off by the realization that players have plenty of imperfections, sometimes spectacular ones. Maybe we should take a mental health day to get away from the darker sports news and clear our minds—ignore the potential labor strife that's always lurking, the sex and steroid scandals and narcissistic travesties like The Decision, and head into the backyard to impersonate our old heroes in a game of Home Run Derby.
Baseball is particularly well-suited for mimicry, since every stance or delivery is unique, if only in subtle ways. The impersonations are pure fun, reminders of what drew us to the sport in the first place. That's probably why Gar Ryness, better known as Batting Stance Guy, has found that what he once thought was "the world's least marketable skill" is anything but. Ryness, a 37-year-old from Los Angeles who provides spiritual advice through a nonprofit Christian organization, is a human search engine for hitters' routines. Throw almost any name at him, current or former, star or scrub, and he morphs into the player, finding some distinctive quirk in his modus operandi and exaggerating it for comic effect.
For White Sox leftfielder Juan Pierre, Ryness walks to the plate as if he were entering the Cotton Club. "He has this kind of shimmy, kind of saunter," Ryness says of Pierre. "He should have a fedora, not a batting helmet." For Derek Jeter, Ryness doesn't even need to swing. He re-creates the way the Yankees' shortstop watches a pitch all the way past him, so intently it seems as if he's going to jump into the catcher's mitt to retrieve it. It's such a dead-on impersonation that players come up to him and simply ask him to do "the Jeter take."
Ryness has parlayed his talent into television appearances, YouTube superstardom and a special connection with fans. "It's definitely tapped into something much deeper than I expected," he says. "People just light up when I do some of these. It's like it takes them back to this really happy time in their lives. I'll get a 43-year-old husband and father of three writing me to say that after seeing me, he bought a Wiffle bat and went out in the backyard like he used to do when he was 12."
Even current players drift into reverie when they recall their childhood imitations. It took only a question or two before Mark Teixeira was doing his best Will Clark in the Yankees' clubhouse last week, waving an imaginary bat in small circles like the former Giants first baseman. Others remember taking their mimicry further. Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter idolized slugger Andre Dawson so much that he didn't merely copy the ramrod-straight front leg of the Hawk's follow-through. "I had a Jheri curl just like him," he says.
Hunter is gratified to hear from parents that their children now try to imitate his defensive moves. "They'll throw the ball up against the fence in their backyard, and their kid will jump up and say, 'I'm Torii Hunter,' as they rob a home run," he says. But generally, young fans don't pretend to be their favorite ballplayers as often as previous generations did. Maybe that's because technology is encroaching on imagination. Who needs to imitate Albert Pujols when you can control a virtual Pujols with a video game console?
Lately I have seen a few kids imitating Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum. It's obvious in the tilt of their head, the way they rear back so far that they almost tap the ball against the mound. Decades from now they'll still remember how they had a windup just like a big league ace's, and if they're lucky, they'll remember how that seemed like the best thing anyone could ever want.