Three Base Hits: The Triple, Miggy and Lance

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Chief Wilson had 36 of them in 1912. Sam Crawford had 309 in his career. Triples, that is. The three base hit. Some would argue it’s the most exciting play in baseball.

Some would also argue that I’m not a good listener. Okay, maybe I’m not.  A childhood spent too close to the blare of classic rock music pulsating out of gigantic speakers is my go-to excuse when friends point out I’m not paying attention to things they say to me. The doctor I sought out on the topic seemed to think it was less a hearing issue and more of an interest issue.  Meaning he felt I tuned out when not interested. Fair enough — somehow I don’t think I’m the only one guilty of that offense.

So while all of this may be partially true, when it comes to feedback on the SportsAttic, I am listening intently and always trying to come up with ways to improve my posts. I’ve noted the feedback (most recently from SportsDaughter1, who is always both constructive and on target when she makes a suggestion) that for even the most engaged readers, 3000+ words a few times a week can be, shall we say, daunting.

Which brings me back to the triple. I tend to speak and write in threes.  Three examples to support a point. Three paragraphs between the opening statement and closing passage  in an essay. So how can I insert some “threes” into SportsAttic and offer the occasional respite to busy readers with so many different social media options at their fingertips?

Because I acknowledge that I tend to be wordy (if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you are likely agreeing with that last statement). While I remain steadfast in my intent to continue to fully flesh out most of my upcoming anchor topics to extreme levels of detail (minutiae?), I also want to introduce the occasional shorter entry into the mix, and so, with that goal in mind, I give you Three Base Hits.

Depending on the sporting season, Three Base Hits may become Three Yards And A Cloud of Dust or Three Point Plays, but the gist of it will be three quick points on the sport in question (my preference is to keep it to football, baseball and basketball, although it is quite tempting today to add in Three-Putt as I watch the U.S. Open and Shinnecock make grown men cry), with brevity the goal. In all honesty, I’m not sure I can do it, but it is worth the old college try. So here goes:

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The Triple

I now return to Chief Wilson and Sam Crawford from an era when triples mattered. Awhile back I listed out some of the baseball records I consider to be unbreakable.  My bad for ignoring the triple, as my list had the potential to be much longer. Let’s begin by adding Chief Wilson’s (pictured at the top of the post) 36 triples back in 1912 to the list of the unbreakable baseball records. Right up there with Cy Young’s 511 wins.

At the risk of sounding like some old, traditionalist crank, the players today just don’t run hard enough from the crack of the bat to leg out lots of triples. Add to that the fact that homers garner the big contract nowadays, and we can quickly conclude that no one will ever even hit 25 triples again.  Ever.

Some stats to back that up: no modern major leaguer has hit as many as 25 triples in a season. In fact, the highest total since 1950 belongs to Curtis Granderson of all people, who hit 23 of them in 2007.  That’s only good enough for 22nd on the all-time list, by the way.

The next two modern players who pop up on the all-time triples in a season rankings are two who caught my attention for different reasons. Lance Johnson (a surprise, with 21 as a Met in 1996 — more to follow on that), and Willie Wilson (21 in 1985) are tied for 75th all-time. Johnson, a solid and unremarkable outfielder, I hadn’t thought about in years. Wilson was a star for the Royals, but always a B-lister after George Brett, Hal McRae, Big John Mayberry and others.

Johnson’s inclusion surprised me, as I would have guessed Jose Reyes held the Mets record for most triples in a single season (Jose’s best was 19 and as a quick aside, I don’t know that there’s ever been more excitement at Shea Stadium than when Reyes would line one in the alley and take off with a three-bagger on his mind — Hoooo-Zayyyy, JO-SE/JO-SE/JO-SE!).  Reyes is the Mets all-time triples leader (110 at last count), but Johnson in ’96 is the single season man.

Wilson’s presence among the all-timers didn’t surprise me, but it did jog loose a long ago memory. As a young kid I saw him single-handedly take apart Madison (NJ) High School to win the state championship for Summit (NJ) High — in football.  In fact, Wilson led Summit to back to back NJ state football titles in 1972 and 1973, and played both ways! What an athlete, and it is the raw natural athlete that accumulates lots of triples. Today’s players are too busy honing their trendy uppercut swing to think about the extra base when one of their bombs falls short of the seats.

Wilson is also the top modern era player in career triples with 147 (which only places him 55th all-time). The only almost-modern player above Wilson on the all-time triples chart is Roberto Clemente with 166 (tied for 27th all-time), and he played his last game in 1972. In other words, it is safe to say that Sam Crawford’s all-time total of 309 triples will never be broken. Ever.

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Miggy

Easily the saddest news from last week’s world of sports came when the MLB Network news  crawl at the bottom of my TV announced that Miguel Cabrera had torn his biceps tendon and was out for the season. Not only do I understand that to be an excruciatingly painful injury, with a long and uncertain recovery to follow, but at Cabrera’s age it could mean the end of a wonderful career is at hand. Miggy is 35, and while still a dangerous bat who would have been a terrific late-season pickup for a pennant contender, he has begun the inevitable slide toward the final curtain of what to me has been a Hall of Fame career.

This is bad news for the entire game of baseball, as Miggy is one of the MLB’s true good guys and fan ambassadors. For a period of time a few years back, I was fortunate enough to regularly sit in the second row of the special seats on the field behind home plate at the Coliseum in Oakland when the A’s were in town. From that “up close and personal” vantage point I got to see a lot of Miguel Cabrera, and he rarely disappointed.

For whatever reason, the Tigers were often the visiting team when I was at the game. An extremely cool feature of these field level seats was that the fans entered through the same corridor that the visiting team traveled between their clubhouse and dugout (I’m sure this was not a popular feature for visiting players, but super awesome for the fans). It allowed fans in this section to truly get a feel for the personalities of the guys wearing the jerseys on the field.

Before games, Miggy would always be out holding court and laughing with everyone — teammates, opponents, umpires, fans, photographers, grounds crew, you name it.  He would dish it out to the fans and take it with a laugh and a smile when the trash talk and barbs boomeranged back at him. He embodied the joy and innocence of our national pastime and made the fans feel like a part of things. He was as authentic and genuine as they come.

There was one particular time when he’d been joking and fake-arguing back and forth with a fan a few rows behind me about whether or not he’d get a hit that day. All in fun, with lots of gesturing and general hilarity, while he loosened up in the on deck circle. So of course Miggy effortlessly strokes the first pitch he sees on a rope into left field for a single.  As he rounded first base, he could barely contain himself, laughing and pointing at the fan in our section, in an obvious “I told you so” moment. We all laughed with him.  A moment shared with the greatest hitter in baseball back in the summer of 2013.

Fast forward to that fall. American League Division Series Game 5 — Tigers versus A’s in Oakland.  A’s rookie Sonny Gray was on the mound and matching zeros against Tigers ace Justin Verlander for the first three innings. It was tense on the field and in the crowd, with a classic elimination-game pitchers duel taking shape.

Miggy didn’t seem tense, though. He leaned against the rail in front of our seats as Gray began the 4th, doing the standard Miggy back and forth chatter, smile never leaving his face. Except this time a fan in the row behind us took it too far, with a personal insult that left all of us within earshot cringing.  Cabrera’s entire complexion changed as he scanned the crowd for the offending patron (for a terrifying moment I was concerned he thought I was the loud mouth, so I silently pointed my finger to the row behind me as I sunk low in my seat). He ID’d the loser in question and cast a cold blooded stare.

Then he turned his back on us and took the rest of his on deck swings in silence.  The first pitch he sees from Gray he launches — DEEP — into the left field seats. One run was all Verlander would need on this night.  The Tigers would move on and the A’s would go home. And those of us in the first three rows knew the real backstory.

As Cabrera crossed the plate after his blast and solemnly bumped fists with Victor Martinez, not once needing to cast a glance our way (his point had been made), my daughter leaned over to me and whispered, “Dad, I think I’m happy he just did that.” I whispered back, “Me too, Bear.  Me, too.” That night SportsDaughter2 became a Tigers fan (for the duration of the 2013 postseason, anyway) and Miguel Cabrera became my favorite player in MLB.

Heal up fast big man, and put up a strong 2019 so you can call it a career on your own terms.

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Lance

I had to return to Lance Johnson, because in the offense-starved history of the New York Mets, it is quite possible that Lance Johnson authored the most statistically impressive campaign in franchise history. Better than Darryl, or Keith, or Kid or Mikey P. More than Reyes or Wright or Rusty. The problem for Lance was that it happened in 1996.

Kind of like that old philosophy class question about if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it did it make any noise? The ’96 Mets were an uninteresting, bad ball club.  They went 71-91, finished in 4th place under the stewardship of Dallas Green (most of the year — Bobby V. replaced him for the last 30 games or so) in that dark age we can all now refer to as “PP” (Pre-Piazza).

In front of a million and a half  fans (they have not drawn that small a home gate since), Lance Johnson hit .333 with those 21 triples, which set a Mets single-season record still standing today (and I say likely to last a looooong time). In addition to those headlines, he also did the following:

*227 hits — another franchise record — by far

*117 runs scored

*31 doubles

*9 HR’s and 69 RBI’s from the leadoff slot

*160 games played and 682 AB’s

My gosh — Lance Johnson? And yet it never gets mentioned. By anyone. What’s perhaps even more amazing is that Johnson was gone midway through the following season, traded to the Cubs while he was only hitting .309!

Take a bow, Lance, for producing the most prolific offensive season of any New York Met, any year, any era.  As Casey would say, you could look it up.

And yeah, this post ran longer than intended.  Oh well. Happy Father’s Day everyone!

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