Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Triple: Baseball's Endangered Species

“I don't know why people like the home run so much. A home run is over as soon as it starts. The triple is the most exciting play of the game. A triple is like meeting a woman who excites you, spending the evening talking and getting more excited, then taking her home. It drags on and on. You're never sure how it's going to turn out.”

~George Foster

And this from a left-fielding National League leader of homeruns in 1977 and 1978. This from a player whose nickname was “the Destroyer” when he played for the Cincinnati Reds during the Big Red Machine era. But I agree. The homerun is as overrated as Spiderman 3, especially since it has developed into a showcase for corporate sponsors at the Homerun Derby.

The best part about a homerun is scoring a run, or four. That’s a gimme. However, the worst part about a homerun is sitting through the next at-bat. After the hitter scores and plenty of knucks and manly pats on the caboose are passed around, and the fans take their seats, the next batter is practically forgotten. We already stood up and cheered our faces off, clapped our hands red, and had our scoring excitement for the inning. No need to pay attention to who’s next because we’re probably still commentating on the last at-bat. Unless the next batter hits a homerun too, I’m back to tidying up my scorecard or working on the Sudoku puzzle at the back of my GameDay.

Homeruns are as common in baseball now as the loon is in Minnesota. For 38 years, Roger Maris sat atop the single season homerun list, and suddenly, in the span of only four years (1998-2001) he was knocked down the list to number 7. Sosa passed 61 homers in a season three times, McGwire two times and Bonds once. Is it ironic to note that all three have been heavily accused of being infected with the steroid bug? And is it also interesting that they are all from the NL, when the AL is most often considered the more power-hitting league?

A number of active players from the last decade pepper the top 100 list of single season homers; there are nearly 20 active players in the top 100 for career homeruns. Names like Griffey, Thomas, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Jones (Chipper and Andruw) sound familiar. How about these names: Maranville, Magee, Brouthers, Konetchy, and Bottomly. Anyone? They are all members of the top 100 career triples list. Guess how many active players make that list…one—a lone player by the name of Steve Finley, and he’s number 92 on the list. Kenny Lofton and Johnny Damon are the next closest active players to have a snowman’s shot in hell of adding their names to the list.

“It drags on and on. You never know how it’s going to turn out.”

A triple gets the most excitement out of a crowd because it magnifies the emotions one feels towards the middle yellow glare of a stoplight—do you risk it and go, do you play it safe and hold up; how long will it last? Fans get to scream, pray, cheer, and clutch their bladders while the ball is in the air or bounding down the line, kicking off the baggie or bouncing off the fence, dancing around in a corner while the runner, well, runs; the third base coach waves him around second; the fielder picks the ball up and his morale is immediately shattered to see how far the runner has gone; he hurls the ball off target; the base coach throws his arms down, signaling a slide; befuddled and hurried, the third baseman straddles the bag, hoping not to get spiked; and the runner slides in safe amid a dramatic cloud of dust only 90 crucial feet from heaven while the third baseman cries the gravel out of his eyes and the pitcher mutters “Luck S.O.B.” into his glove. The crowd doesn’t completely settle down after that; fans cheer in appreciation for the successful venture and effort and because the next batter is just as important with a chance to knock in an RBI.

Isn’t that much more exciting than when the ball is hit high, higher; you watch it, watch it, wait for it, wait for it, keep following it if you haven’t already lost it against the dome, and it’s gone! Cheering erupts and the score immediately increases without any assistance from the fielders or other batters. In many cases a homerun is effortless and yet the fireworks go off, the milk jug lights up, and sirens blare; confetti bombs explode, planes fly overhead, rainbows arch over the field, children weep, and somewhere an angel gets its wings. All the while the batter doesn’t even break a sweat. He circles the bags pondering what toppings will grace his sub sandwich after the game. Or, if he's the DH, he ponders what shade of pink, red, or frosted sunset berry to paint his nails during the next inning.

The enormous, loud, abrasive finality of a homerun is incomparable to the teasing, risky, prolonged anticipation of a triple. It drives a pitcher batty wondering how it happened. Homeruns are easy—one bad pitch and the player jacks it, and pitching to the next batter feels like a fresh start, a second chance.

If homeruns are over once they start, then triples are just getting started once they start. Embrace the triple. With the way the game is progressing, who knows when you’ll ever see one again.

Food for thought: In all seriousness, why the lack of triples?
Game dominated by power-hitters?
Game dominated by players with lung capacity of a two-year-old?
Game dominated by players with the physical makeup of Ortiz and Fielder?
Better throws from right fielders? (Knucks for Cuddyer)
No-talent baserunning?
Not enough weird outfield apparatuses for balls to take weird bounces off? (No, there’s still the baggie, the Monster, that really pesky brick wall at AT&T Park, the uneven ivy leaves at Wrigley.)

Career triples leaders:
Sam Crawford – 309 (The only player in history with 300+ triples)
Ty Cobb – 295
Honus Wagner – 252


John said...

"Or, if he's the DH, he ponders what shade of pink, red, or frosted sunset berry to paint his nails during the next inning."


Blaze said...

seems to me like a lot of the very old parks at the beginning of the century were bigger (weren't some parks 450 feet to center?) that may have had some impact on the chances for a triple.

Thea said...

Your articles are always a treat to read...Thank you for yet another "beautiful" bit of writing!

Rooster said...

Rooster said . . . great subject -I totally agree. Wonderful use of quote from George Foster as he was quite a character in his own right as well as being a devastating hitter. You have a gift for writing and a good grasp of the game - hope to see more!

Aunti K said...

As always, you're a real hoot and a chip off the old (Grandpa) block. Okay, okay, maybe I should give your mom some genetic writing talent, but then again, she got hers from her dad, too. Way to go Sweet Baby Gina!

carmen said...

Y'know, there's a reason Moonlight Graham's wish was to get a triple in a big league game, not a homer. Brilliant, G. A triumph.

Anonymous said...

So you are going by Reggie Phalange these days?? Anyway, great article, as always!! You had me laughing out loud in my office! Everyone knows I am obviously not working!! PS I think Cuddyer hit that one just for you last night!!

carmen said...

Can I also express my delight that you mentioned Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford?
"Are you sure this is legal?"
"Of course! Ty Cobb and Wahoo Sam Crawford used to do it all the time! Just try it, will ya?"
"You're the boss..."