The triple is now the least common single box-score-statistic occurrence, except for its defensive cousin the triple play, which is so scarce as to be almost negligible, and the balk, which doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the triple. (The inside-the-park home run doesn't show up separately in the box score, and at any rate should be properly regarded as an extra-base triple.) Even the somewhat lamented, widely disdained sacrifice bunt crops up more frequently now than the triple.
Ballparks have gotten smaller over the years, so hitting a home run is easier and hitting a triple is like building a ship in a bottle. Many of the new parks of the 1970s had artificial turf, which gave a ball in the gap enough scoot to enhance a triple's chances, but inorganic grass is finally going the way of the leisure suit. And as we know, the most powerful hitters hit the ball farther these days, for whatever reasons, so it's harder to keep in the park.
But the triple's decline is not entirely a matter of architecture and physics. From the player's point of view, there is little incentive to stretch a double into a triple. Offenses are so formidable these days that it generally makes more sense to stop at second and expect to be driven in from there than to risk making an out. It has long been gospel that you should never make the first or the third out of an inning at third base. Third base coaches protect themselves by interpreting this dictum conservatively, very seldom waving a runner to third on a close play—the runner can ignore the stop sign, but if he's out, it's his mistake.
Triples are not much of a bargaining chip in contract negotiations. When Jim Palmer and Davey Johnson were Baltimore Orioles teammates, Palmer recalls, Johnson hit what should have been an easy triple, in the late innings of a tie game with one out, but pulled up at second. The Baltimore bench was mystified. "We said, 'Why didn't you go for the triple?' He said, 'I've got a doubles clause.' We said, 'Don't you think they'd give you credit for a double on a triple?' He said, 'I've got a doubles clause.' He went on to make a pretty good manager," says Palmer, "but we called him Dum-dum."
It used to be that serious home run hitters—Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle—also sometimes led the league in triples. Doesn't happen anymore. Mark McGwire, who did so much to make the home run what it is in the 21st century, hit four triples as an A's rookie in 1987 and exactly two for the rest of his career. In one stretch he went 4,618 at bats between triples.
You don't have to be a bulked-up, walk-conscious slugger to get by without three-base hits. In 2002 Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada, a slashing, free-swinging speedster, set an alltime single-season record for at bats (662) without a single triple. He was the American League Most Valuable Player that year. (The previous record was set by the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, in 1998. He was the National League MVP that year.)
There is a traditionalist explanation for the triple's decline. Broadcaster Tim McCarver, who as a St. Louis Cardinals catcher led the National League with 13 triples in 1966, told the New York Post, "Players, through the years, have been in the habit of standing around, looking at the ball. The triple mostly comes from running hard right out of the box." In McCarver's day the hitter was past first when the ball went off the wall or cleared it. "You'd never see the first base coach congratulate a hitter [for a home run]; the hitter was long gone. Now you see it a lot."
Blame it on Deion Sanders, maybe. In 1992 Sanders, playing for the Atlanta Braves, led the majors with 14 triples, in only 303 at bats. Perhaps the triple ceased to strike him as enough of a challenge after that, for his triples production slacked off, but what remained distinctive about his triples was the way he produced them. "He'd kind of just cruise to first base," recalls Mark Grace, then with the Cubs and now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, "and once he saw it was in the gap, he could get from first to third faster than anybody I've ever seen. Deion was a guy who could actually outrun the baseball. There were a few I saw him hit in the gap, and I was just, like, I can't believe he's trying for third. He'd round second base and the ball would already be in the cutoff man's hand and he'd still get third base. It was almost like in football, how he would be way off his man, in pass coverage, and just goad the quarterback—he could close so fast. Same way in baseball, he'd goad guys into trying to throw him out at third."
It will be recalled that Sanders threw ice water all over McCarver, three times, in the Atlanta locker room after a 1992 National League Championship Series game, because McCarver had criticized him from an old school point of view. McCarver came by that attitude honestly, as a Cardinals teammate of the quintessential hard-nosed pitcher, Bob Gibson. Gibson was black and McCarver white, and this was back in the '60s, when racial integration was still aborning in the South, where McCarver came from. For years Gibson kept McCarver at arm's length and off-balance, testing him with racial jokes. But after McCarver hit a triple one day, Gibson said to him, "Hey, you like to hit triples," and the way he said it, it struck McCarver as a magic moment. The two went on to become close friends.
2. Here's Something Really Rare: A Walk-Off Triple
Ozzie Guillen, the Florida Marlins' amiable third base coach, is one of the few people who will say that his goal as a player was to hit as many triples as possible—he wound up with 69 in 16 years. Guillen points out that a walk-off triple hardly ever happens "because there's going to be a play at the plate, and most guys stay at second to let the winning run score." But Guillen has seen it done, by Lance Johnson, his teammate on the Chicago White Sox. (Johnson led the American League in triples four years in a row, from 1991 through '94, was beaten out by the Cleveland Indians' Kenny Lofton on the last day of the season in '95, then signed with the New York Mets and led the National League in '96.) Once in a sudden-death situation with Tim Raines, a fast man in his own right, on first base, "Lance hit a triple down the line and made it. He was sliding into third base when Raines was scoring." Of course, it could have been a smart play to reach third, if Raines had been thrown out at home for just the first out. But then it wouldn't have been a walk-off triple.