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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Can He Stretch It Into a Triple?

June 27, 2004|Ross Newhan

Could Vladimir Guerrero be headed toward a coronation in which he trades his ugly, pine-tar-smeared batting helmet -- "If he ever gets hit by a pitch there, the ball will stick," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia says -- for a Triple Crown?

Any such celebration would be the first since Carl Yastrzemski won the American League Triple Crown while serving as left-field architect of the Boston Red Sox's "Impossible Dream" in 1967.

Although seldom mentioned in the same context with the 63-year drought since Ted Williams became the last player to hit .400 and Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games during that same summer of 1941, leading a league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in is proving to be almost as difficult and elusive.

It has been done only 11 times since the RBI became an official statistic in 1920, and it has been 37 years since Yastrzemski and 67 since 1937, when Joe Medwick became the last to do it in the National League.

The multitalented Guerrero began the weekend series with the Dodgers among the league leaguers in each of the three categories. His pace projects to a .354 batting average, 42 homers and 149 RBIs, but there's a long way to the wire, as Smarty Jones learned trying to end horse racing's 26-year Triple Crown drought.

"Home runs and RBIs tend to go together, but getting the batting average, getting that third part, is probably the toughest aspect," Yastrzemski said from his summer home near Boston.

Now 64, Yaz batted .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBIs during a memorable season in which he catapulted toward the Hall of Fame and helped the surprising Red Sox win a pennant.

Among current Triple Crown candidates, he said, Guerrero, Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols share two factors that were critical to him as well: protection in the lineup -- Tony Conigliaro batted behind him -- and a competitive team.

"I'd have never won the Triple Crown if that had been the only thing on my mind," Yaz said. "But we were in a four-team pennant race the last month of that season and there wasn't one thing written about me and the Triple Crown.

"I can remember winning the pennant on the last day of the season and not knowing I won the Triple Crown until I read it in the paper the next day. I was just so focused on the race.

"I know that on an individual basis, when there wasn't a pennant at stake and I was going for my 3,000th hit, it took me, like, 14 at-bats because I was trying to do it with a home run, unlike '67, when I was only trying to respond to the situation that was called for at the time to help the team win a game.

"I can remember the last day, when the bases were loaded against Dean Chance [then with Minnesota] and I kept telling myself, 'OK, base hit up the middle because he's throwing sinker away, sinker away.' Whereas, if I wasn't involved in a pennant race, my thinking might have been different. I mean, it's just tougher keeping up your intensity when there's nothing at stake for the team."

Still active at times as a Red Sox instructor, Yaz has his memories and perspective.

Yet, it's hard to explain 37 years without a Triple Crown winner when the longest previous span was 10 years, between Mickey Mantle in 1956 and Frank Robinson in 1966.

Some theorists say that the home run has become such a dominant factor, that bulked-up players think only of tailoring their swings in that direction, at the expense of situational hitting. That means it has become more difficult to correlate high average to home runs.

Some theorists also say that frequent expansion has increased the work force, making a difficult accomplishment even more competitive.

Said Steve Hirdt, an analyst at Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's statistical house:

"The bottom line is that winning a Triple Crown involves different skills and is just very hard to do. You also have to be on a good team to get the RBI opportunities, and you need good hitters behind you. Barry Bonds is one guy who continues to hit for high average with a lot of home runs, but he doesn't have the protection and he doesn't get the RBI opportunities because he's walked so often."

In that regard, Scioscia said, "it's almost a curse to be too good."

Of course, Guerrero at 28 is still coming, even though, in Scioscia's words, the right fielder already takes scary to a higher level than any player he has seen, measures up to the best ever and "is a guy with the capability of hitting 50 homers and batting .350, and if he does that, he should be in the RBI hunt."

"I can't think about the Triple Crown right now," Guerrero said with the help of coach Alfredo Griffin. "I'm just focused on doing a good job, and we'll see where my stats are at the end of the year. I think it would be difficult to lead the league in all three of those categories because there are so many good hitters."

Guerrero's best season in Montreal was 2000, when he batted .345 with 44 homers and 123 RBIs, but here's how difficult it is to win a Triple Crown:

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