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Miguel Cabrera ends triple crown drought

Carl Yastrzemski said it wasn't a big deal when he accomplished feat in 1967. Cabrera finishes with a .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs.

October 03, 2012|By Kevin Baxter

Man had not yet walked on the moon the last time a player won baseball's triple crown.

It was 1967, the Summer of Love in San Francisco and a summer of riots in Detroit and Newark. The first Super Bowl was played that year, three months before Toronto's Omar Vizquel — the oldest current major leaguer — was born.

"I'm surprised that it's gone this long, to be perfectly honest," says Carl Yastrzemski, the last man to lead the American League in hitting, homers and runs batted in the same season before Detroit's Miguel Cabrera matched the feat Wednesday. "I thought somebody would have won it a long time ago."

Instead, it took 45 years with Cabrera, despite going hitless in two at-bats in the Tigers' final regular-season game in Kansas City, finishing with a .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs.

Between Yastrzemski and Cabrera, baseball has gone through six commissioners and four waves of expansion, adopted free agency and the designated hitter, moved the World Series to the dark of night and brought its drug problem into the light of day.

Cabrera took the field Wednesday knowing he had already won the triple crown because Texas' Josh Hamilton, who had 43 homers, was held to a single in an afternoon game in Oakland and the Angels' Mike Trout, who needed to go six for six to catch Cabrera in the batting race, went two for three in Seattle and ended the year hitting .326.

And if he didn't know, Cabrera could have checked the Internet or social media such as Twitter, both of which were blowing up with triple crown news. Or he could have asked someone from ESPN or MLB TV, because both cable networks peppered their programming with breathless updates throughout the day.

Contrast that with 1967, when Twitter was a verb not a noun, and the country had only three TV networks — none of which cared about the triple crown.

"The triple crown wasn't even mentioned once," says Yastrzemski, who finished with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs and 121 RBIs. "I didn't know I won the triple crown until the next day when we read it in the paper."

Part of the reason for that, Yastrzemski says, was that his Red Sox were locked in a tight pennant fight. The race wasn't decided until the season's final weekend when Boston — behind seven hits and six RBIs from Yastrzemski — swept a two-game series from the Minnesota Twins to win the title.

Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who finished third in the AL batting race that year, says Cabrera also benefited from focusing on a close pennant race, hitting .333 with 11 homers and 30 RBIs in his final 31 games to help the Detroit overtake the Chicago White Sox to win the AL Central.

"No question about it," Kaline, a special assistant with the Tigers, said by phone as he watched Cabrera take batting practice at Royals Stadium. "When you're doing something individually you put an awful lot of pressure on yourself. Doing it as a team, your only thought really is do the best you can for your team. And whatever it takes, that's what you do."

Another reason why Yastrzemski's feat inspired yawns while Cabrera's is recognized as historic is because Yaz's triple crown came only a year after Frank Robinson won one with the Baltimore Orioles. And 10 years before that, the New York Yankees' Mickey Mantle had become the third player to do it in 14 years.

The 45 years separating Yastrzemski from Cabrera is more three times longer than the previous triple crown drought.

"It's much harder now," says former big league outfielder Willie Horton, another contemporary of Yastrzemski who now works in the Tigers' front office. "The game is structured for the pitcher. A starter used to go the whole game. Now you've got the starter, you've got the setup [guy], you've got the closer."

Kaline agrees.

"The bullpen, relief pitchers, have really changed the game," he says. "That's why you have to marvel at players like Miguel and guys that are having these great years."

Whether Cabrera's year is judged to be the best in the American League won't be known until next month, when the MVP balloting is announced. The last three triple crown winners all won the MVP, earning a combined 99% of the vote.

"If Cabrera wins the triple crown, he has to be the MVP, absolutely," Royals Manager Ned Yost told reporters Wednesday.

Yost's support aside, though, the Tigers third baseman figures to receive a strong challenge from the Angels' Trout, who leads the major leagues in runs and stolen bases.

Both Horton and Kaline say Yastrzemski, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was among the best all-around athletes they played against. But Yaz never led the league in homers or RBIs after winning the Triple Crown.

Horton expects Cabrera, at 29 a year older than Yastrzemski was in 1967, to be a contender for the honor the next several seasons.

"Every year he's getting better and better," Horton says. "I just think he'll have more of those opportunities in the future. He's a very smart young hitter."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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