Triples

Before we get started, I’d like to offer some triples-trivia to (hopefully) whet the appetite.

  • The record for most hits in a season without a triple is 216, set by Magglio Ordonez in 2007.
  • In Game 7 of the 1903 World Series, Boston & Pittsburgh combined to hit seven triples.
  • In 1904, Roger Connor was the all-time leader in both home runs (138) and triples (233).
  • Jimmy Rollins has the most triples in baseball since 2001.
  • When Curtis Granderson and Jimmy Rollins each reached the 20-triple mark in 2007, it marked the first time since 1930 that two players reached the mark in the same year. In 1930, Adam Comorosky (23) and Earle Combs (22) each did it.
  • Curtis Granderson’s 23 triples in 2007 were the most in the Majors since Dale Mitchell had 23 in 1939.
  • Willie Mays (20 triples in 1957) is the last right-handed batter to have 20 triples in a season.
  • Johnny Estrada is the all-time leader in most at-bats (2027) and most hits (567) without a triple.

Nearly a decade ago, my good friend and colleague James walked over to my desk, and asked (without any real introduction) if I could name the five players to have collected 20 doubles, triples, and home runs in a season. This type of challenge was (and is) typical for the two us, for we have spent countless hours talking baseball, arguing stats, and imagining all-time lineups. I thought about the question for a minute or two, made a few guesses, and then followed along as James called up each player’s season on baseball-reference. For the record, the five players (at that time) were:

  • Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, 1911: 30 doubles, 21 triples, 21 home runs
  • “Sunny” Jim Bottomley, 1928: 42 doubles, 20 triples, 31 home runs
  • Jeff Heath, 1941: 32 doubles, 20 triples, 24 home runs
  • Willie Mays, 1957: 26 doubles, 20 triples, 35 home runs
  • George Brett, 1979: 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 home runs
Triple machine Jimmy Rollins (Julie Jacobson/AP).

Since that day, this club (and it’s members) have remained at the top of my baseball list titled “fun.” There is just something engrossing with the idea of the combination of these numbers and the type of player built to make a run at joining the club. And since that day, I had been keeping an eye on the baseball landscape to see if another player could emerge and collect 20 of everything. For a while, the prospects looked dim. Between 1957-2006, only five players had a season in which they reached the 20 triple mark: the aforementioned Mays and Brett, and a trio of light-hitting (in terms of extra-base power) speedsters-Willie Wilson, Lance Johnson, and Cristian Guzman. Triples, for the most part, had become the domain of the slap-hitter who could fly. And so I waited, wondering if I would get to see a player with enough of a varied skill set to join Schulte, Bottomley, and the rest of the boys in the 20-20-20 club.

For anyone who closely followed the 2007 late season pennant races and joined in the milestone-watches, the answer to that question above is fairly obvious. For in the late summer shadows of the 2007 season, two players-Curtis Granderson of the Tigers and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies-improbably collected 20 doubles, stroked 20 triples, powered out 20 home runs, and joined the 20-20-20 club. And aside from the pragmatic concerns of helping their teams (Rollins led the Phillies to their first NL East title since 1993, and Granderson contributed to a Tigers’ offense that scored the third-most runs in the Majors), these two ballplayers also gave us a glimpse into the past, and afforded us the wonderful opportunity to recall, investigate, and celebrate Wildfire Schulte, Jim Bottomley, Jeff Heath, Willie Mays, and George Brett. And in doing so, another thread linking the past to the present was created, reminding us again of the ability of the game and its players to transport us back and forth between eras.

Once upon a time, the triples suggested power. Ballparks were immense, with outfield walls seemingly miles away, opening up expansive gaps that afforded power hitters the space to litter the outfields with rocket line drives that in turn allowed the batter to motor the 270 feet from home plate to third base. More recently, triples thrived on artificial turf-where the fleetest of base runners could utilize the hardness of the ground to whistle balls toward the walls and then run, and run, and run. No matter what the circumstance or the milieu, triples have always provided an excitement, a rising sense of anticipation and fervor that builds and apexes with a slide or downshifting into third. When we watch a triple, we get to see the ballplayer in a sustained picture of motion, in which all of the assets and abilities combine and manifest themselves. And so for more than a hundred years, triples-because of their rarity, their combination of power and speed, their sustained and elongated action-have forced us out of our seats and created an almost reflexive desire to clap and smile.

One of the best parts about working for MLB Productions is that my desk sits a mere 50 feet away from our library. In the thousands upon thousands of hours of footage, certain images remain with me, growing in my mind’s eye until they have become permanent snapshots of the photo album I know as “baseball.” As I have been thinking about triples over this past week, a few of these images have leapt to the forefront and demanded my attention. I’d like to share some of them with you.

Lou Gehrig triples at Yankee Stadium
Gehrig stands in the left-handed side of the batter’s box, feet planted close to the line that separates the space from home plate. His compact swing is forceful, but curiously he almost lays the bat down as he breaks out of the box. Gehrig seems to be almost at full speed three steps out of the batter’s box, and only 30 or so feet from the plate, he begins to widen out in anticipation of an extra-base hit. His head and eyes look directly out toward right-center field, following the ball and movement of the outfielders. His gaze remains on the play in front of him until after he hits first base, and then turns to fix squarely in the middle of the diamond. At the same time his head swivels toward second, Gehrig kicks into another gear, and I know instantly that he is not going to stop at second. He displays a machine-like power in his gait: arms piston-ing, legs churning. But there is also a sense of the contained about his dash. His head and torso keep still, focused on the next destination. Gehrig hits second with his right foot, elongating his last stride before the bag in order maintain his flow. And then he really turns on the speed. The upper body and head rock, aligning themselves in a pendulum against the arms. Gehrig is flying, allowing his power to fully assert itself. And then, 20 to 30 feet from third base, he begins to slow, and he pulls into third, standing, decompressing. This is a power-triple.

Roberto Clemente in the 1971 World Series
Immediately, I am drawn into the swing: the slight lift of the left leg in anticipation, the hands moving back and up. The bat flashes through the hitting zone, on an even plane that scorches the ball back from whence it came. Clemente’s head, so focused on the collision between ball and bat, now raises and directs the eyes toward a gap in left center where the ball is rocketing. As he hits second, the head is turned over his right shoulder; he is watching, reflexively calculating. His right foot hits second base, and he begins his last 90-foot dash in that inimitable style. His gallop…his hop. Giving the impression of both feet leaving the earth simultaneously before touching to gain power. Clemente’s teeth are bared, betraying the effort in his journey. Hands are clenched. He begins his slide, left leg bent under right, and glides over third base. The momentum carries his lower body past, but Clemente keeps his left hand connected. The left hand stays-always in contact-as he looks over his shoulder out toward left field. This is the dictionary-definition triple.

Joe Girardi triples in the 1996 World Series
Girard stands still in the right-handed batter’s box. And then, a measured swing (just a tad of the inside-out variety), sends the ball toward right-center field. Unlike Gehrig and Clemente, who seem to be running full blast immediately out of the box, Girardi lopes, more interested in the flight of the ball and its possible interception by the fielder than he is by the need to run. He starts to run hard after hitting first-the arms tight to the body, the compact frame chugging. Once he cuts the corner at second, he begins that Gehrig-like rock that shivers from head to waist. The slide-unlike Clemente’s (which seems to be both aggressive and necessary)-returns Girardi to his earlier pace. It is a slowdown, a nice, measured hello to third base. And with the stadium rocking, Girardi’s triple seems to have been the most contained element in the ballpark. This is the series-changing triple.

Jimmy Rollins triples at Wrigley Field
Rollins stands in the right side of the box, still for just a moment. It is the last time he is immobile, for his body always seems kinetic, electric. He is all measured movement, from the slightly upper cut swing, to the casual tossing of the bat. He runs fast, smooth. Rollins glides. If Clemente is a stallion, Rollins is a deer. He runs with a tilt in his body, as if the left side of his torso was being drawn to a center found on the mound. His 270 foot dash requires only one speed-Rollins on cruise control. His head, like the others’, remains focused on the play in the field. As he pulls into third, he stands with both feet on top of the bag, and reaches a height that almost allows him look into the eyes of his third base coach. This is the artistry inside the triple.

I never got to sit in the stands and watch Mays run out a triple, hat flying off somewhere between second and third. There is no footage of Schulte sending a long, deep drive in between fog-hidden fielders at Chicago’s West Side Park. But I know that these men followed the form of those who came before, and that their own interpretations of the triple influenced those who have played after. And so I will sit down tonight, and if I am lucky to watch a triple unfold, I will smile happily, knowing I am witnessing another version of the same dance between a player, three square bases, and 270 feet of field.

 

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