"It's going to have to be a great year like last year, and everything will have to click," he says. "I'll have to get some long hitting streaks and some home run streaks, and I'll need some guys ahead of me to get on base so I can drive in runs. But it's possible. I wouldn't say it's impossible."
After all, Lou Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown in 1934—if not the MVP, in which he finished a puzzling fifth—at the height of a hitters' era. All Gehrig had to do was hit .363 with 49 home runs and 165 RBIs, the sort of numbers that may be needed to win the Triple Crown today.
Says Piniella, "The way baseball is now, to win a Triple Crown you're talking about hitting .350, hitting at least 40 home runs and driving in at least 125 runs. That's a tough chore."
Only five active players have numbers like those on their résumés: Bagwell, Belle, Bichette, Thomas and the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Belle hit .357 with 36 home runs and 101 RBIs, missing the batting title by two points, the home run crown by four and the RBI title by 11. At week's end Belle shared the home run lead with Brady Anderson (25) of the Baltimore Orioles and had 69 RBIs, trailing Thomas by six. But Belle, who was hitting .316, was well out of the race for the batting title (the Baltimore Orioles' Roberto Alomar was hitting .373), largely because of a June slump (.238) that coincided with the notoriety of his bulldozing of Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina.
"He's been messed up with everybody getting on him," Thomas says of Belle, who served a two-game suspension for unnecessary roughness last Friday. If that's the case, how would Belle fare with the national media scrutinizing him during a Triple Crown chase in September? He remains the rabbit in the home run race, however, having slammed 63 of them in his last 162 games through Sunday.
"It would be tough for Mo or me to win the home run title," Thomas says, "because we play in places [where the wind conditions make it) tough to hit home runs early and late in the season. Not Albert. Plus I'm the kind of hitter who'll do anything to drive in a run. I'll break my bat and give myself up rather than try for a home run. RBIs mean the most to me."
The best chances for a Triple Crown this season fall to Vaughn and Bagwell, players who were drafted the same year (1989) by the same team (Boston), spent the same Florida Instructional League season in the same Sunshine State Holiday Inn and developed similar plate-hugging, I-dare-you-to-pitch-inside open stances. They also share a similar philosophy about being pitched outside: Connect with the ball deep in the hitting zone—not in front of the plate—and drive it the other way.
At week's end Bagwell (.330, 21 home runs, 72 RBIs), trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers' Mike Piazza in the batting race by 27 points and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa in the home run race by four while leading the league in RBIs. "I'm not me kind of power hitter who is going to lead the league in home runs," says Bagwell, who, after just two minor league seasons, was shipped by the Red Sox to Houston in 1990 for reliever Larry Andersen. "And I'm not likely to lead the league in average. The only category I could probably lead the league in is RBIs. And that's the one that's important to me. If I'm driving in runs, I know I'm doing my job."
At week's end Vaughn trailed Alomar by 11 points in batting, Belle and Anderson by one home run and Thomas by five RBIs. But Vaughn is a career .285 hitter who whiffed 150 times last year, hardly the pedigree of a batting champion. "I wouldn't think of him as a .360 hitter, because he strikes out a lot," Bagwell says. "I know he can hit .300, but when you talk about leading the league in hitting, it's probably going to take .360 or something like that, and I don't know if he can do that."
Vaughn is famously aggressive, and not only with the double order of cheeseburgers and fries he scarfed down before a game last week. But with Jose Canseco, who had blasted 23 home runs through Sunday, hitting behind him, Vaughn has tempered that ferocity and become more selective at the plate. He has also fattened his average by hitting the ball more often to leftfield. His first order of business when stepping into the batter's box is to find a point to focus on in leftfield, like a sailor finding the North Star. He has a guidepost to orient himself in every ballpark. For instance, at Jacobs Field in Cleveland last week, it was an Ohio Lottery sign on the wall. "It gets my body in the right position and keeps me from spinning off the ball, from trying to pull it," he says.