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Triple Play

No Longer in Vogue, Triples Provide Baseball Fans a Run for Their Money

June 30, 2002|RICK FREEMAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jimmy Rollins led the National League in triples last year and is leading again this year. He wanted to know: What's the single-season record?

The answer surprised him.

"Thirty-six triples in a season, huh?" he said. "You might as well forget about that."

Baseball's record book sometimes seems as if it should be written in pencil. But there's at least one hitting record that should be safe in this era of unprecedented power.

No one has come close to Owen Wilson's record of 36 since he set it in 1912.

Triples are down about 30% from a quarter-century ago, meaning Wilson's mark doesn't figure to be in jeopardy anytime soon.

Not that Rollins needs reminding. He hit 12 last year, and he has six so far this season.

The speedy Philadelphia shortstop is a prototypical triples hitter. And while he could make his second All-Star game in a row, players such as Rollins aren't in vogue the way bashers are now.

Sluggers such as Barry Bonds draw fans. Sometimes the crowds come for batting practice, where moonshots are routine.

But even home run king Hank Aaron would rather see a player sprint around the bases than trot.

"The triple is the most exciting play in baseball," Aaron once said. "Home runs win a lot of games, but I never understood why fans are so obsessed with them."

It's not as if ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" shows a daily list of players who tripled.

"When you go to arbitration, home runs is a big issue," Phillie Manager Larry Bowa said. "Home runs and RBIs. So I would think home runs is on everybody's mind in this generation."

Just look at Sammy Sosa.

In 1988, as a prospect in the Texas Rangers' system, he actually led the Florida State League with 12 triples while hitting only nine home runs.

In 1998, as the NL MVP, it was a different story. He hit 66 home runs--no triples, though.

Strength didn't always trump speed.

Triples outnumbered homers for a long time, even after the end of the dead ball era.

Back in 1929, two years after Babe Ruth hit 60 homers, there were still more triples than homers in the AL. The last time that happened in the NL was 1931.

The long ball has ruled ever since.

Minnesota's Cristian Guzman is the lone active player to have hit 20 or more triples in a season. Guzman, Lance Johnson and Willie Wilson are the only big leaguers to have done it since George Brett in 1979.

Smaller ballparks and bigger outfielders have helped keep triples rare. So has the near-disappearance of artificial turf.

Wilson, a lefty, played at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, which was 376 feet to right field that year. No current major league park has such a dimension.

Detroit and Colorado led their leagues in triples last year. Both teams have home parks with spacious outfields.

"It just doesn't happen very often," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I don't know if you say it's a forgotten art. But you know, you've got bigger, stronger outfielders who get the ball in quicker. The ballparks have changed a little bit now, there's not that many parks that are just huge.

"There's not that many opportunities to hit triples."

Guzman has just two this season. But his knack for getting three bags hasn't gone unnoticed.

"He pretty much hits them and doesn't plan on stopping," Philadelphia's Doug Glanville said. "When it's a double, he's still not going to stop."

Gardenhire was Guzman's third-base coach before he was his manager. He's seen plenty of triples happen, literally right in front of him.

The excitement hasn't worn off yet.

"When they hit a ball in the gap, your heart starts pounding away," Gardenhire said. "You know they're coming to third base and you know there's going to be a play."

Rollins feels the same way. He was reduced to sound effects when he described watching Glanville leg out a triple.

"It's like 'voooosh!' You know?" Rollins said. "He's just hittin' them corners and it's like an art. It's like an art."

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