Hitters use the first round of batting practice every day to loosen up, to stretch tired muscles and ease their way into the day's work. They flip the bat at the ball, the handle loose in their hands like a yo-yo. For almost every hitter, the hard work of the swing -- the effort, the strain, the violent explosions -- starts in Round 2, as they start to create the force needed to drive the ball.
But for two decades, Rafael Palmeiro has looked as if he's in the midst of that first round of batting practice -- his swing always free of tension, his hands always loose, all the parts fitting together, without strain at the seams of hitting mechanics. "It's almost as if the bat is swinging itself," said Brad Ausmus, one of thousands of major leaguers who have marveled at the beauty of Palmeiro's swing.
Palmeiro has reached 3,000 hits, and the debate is ongoing about whether he has the credentials for the Hall of Fame. But his swing, with its easy path and natural arc toward the ball, will probably always be regarded as the model of his generation. "A very graceful swing," said former Yankee Paul O'Neill. "It's a fluid swing, never violent."
Ausmus counted four elements that defined the perfect swing: the smoothness of it; the apparent effortlessness of the hitter in drawing the bat through the strike zone; the quickness of the hands, and by extension, the bat; and the power.
Most hitters have two elements, some have three. Almost no hitters have all four elements, but Palmeiro does. "And the thing is, his swing hasn't really changed at all," said Ausmus. "Some guys will tinker with their swings or their stances, but he pretty much has had the same swing for 20 years."
Rod Carew had a smooth swing, said Larry Bowa, a seemingly effortless swing, a quick swing. "But he didn't have the power," said Bowa. "Palmeiro's got great balance, great hands, and he's got great power. You've got to have incredible eye-hand coordination to have a swing like that."
O'Neill had a nice swing, but as he said, his swing could have several faces. "When I tried to hit homers, I changed things," he said, "and it looked ugly. It would look different depending on what the count was. But the thing with [Palmeiro] is that if the count is 3-0 or it's 0-2, it's still the same swing. It's always fluid, he never looks like he's overswinging, or that he's got a violent swing."
Bowa has stood outside batting cages and watched Palmeiro take BP. "If you only looked at his swing, and not the situation, you see the same swing every time," he said. "You don't know if the count's 3-1 or 0-2, or if he's trying to drive the ball or not. It's always the same swing."
O'Neill notes that most of the best-looking swings of all-time -- that of Ted Williams, Ken Griffey, Jr., Will Clark, Palmeiro -- belong to left-handed hitters. "Maybe that's because they see a lot more right-handed pitching growing up," O'Neill said. "Maybe it has something to do with that, I don't know."
Ausmus has a theory that makes a lot of sense: The follow-through of left-handed hitters naturally takes them toward first base, meaning that as Palmeiro finishes the sweeping arc of his swing, his momentum takes him down the line -- and his swing and the effort remains seamless, in appearance. On the other hand, right-handed hitters have to break down their swing: With their follow-throughs taking them toward the third base side of the field, they have to break down quickly in order to run to first base. "Right-handed hitters have to redirect their bodies," said Ausmus. "Left-handed hitters always look natural."
The best-looking swings among right-handed hitters, Ausmus believes, might belong to Juan Gonzalez and Manny Ramirez -- because as they swing through the ball, the angle of their bodies takes them toward right-center field in their follow-through. Ramirez and Gonzalez, like left-handed hitters, are moving toward first base naturally. On the other hand, a great right-handed hitter like Albert Pujols is dug in at the end of his swing, and needs to redirect his body. "He's got tremendous power and very quick hands," said Ausmus, "but it doesn't look effortless. He doesn't have a swing you'd paint a picture of."
Palmeiro does, maybe the best swing of his time, a swing seemingly as natural as a hand closing into a fist.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is being released in paperback on May 1 and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.