3. There Is Something About the Number Three
Heaven forbid we should slop over into mysticism here. In the computer-based, rigorously unsentimental, cost-effective baseball thinking of today, rationality rules. Let us just mention three outs; three strikes; Babe Ruth wore number 3; the red, white and blue (sorry, strike that); beginning, middle and end; Moe, Larry and Curly; and the eternal triangle. And consider this observation by science writer Jim Holt (not the same Jim Holt who hit 10 triples for the Minnesota Twins and As between 1968 and '76) in The New York Review of Books: "Why does our everyday world have three dimensions?...In a space of more than three dimensions, it can be shown, there are no stable orbits, either for planets or for electrons. Therefore, there could be no chemistry, and hence no chemically based life forms."
4. The Junior Felix Factor
So named, not so much because the career of Junior Felix is such a clear-cut example as because junior felix, in Latin, means "younger happy."
There are, of course, many exceptions to the rule that triples tend to reflect youthful ebullience. If the Diamondbacks' Steve Finley, who at week's end had nine triples, placing him only one behind the Braves' Rafael Furcal for the National League lead, should wind up first in the category this year—as he did a decade ago with the Houston Astros—he will become the oldest player, at 38, ever to top either league in that department. So far that distinction is held by Jake Daubert, who led the National League at age 38 in 1922 with 22. But only 29% of league leaders in triples, going back to 1900, have been as old as 30. Home run prowess tends to build as a player matures, but triples are largely a phenomenon of the early years.
People slow down and muscle up as they get older, of course, but not as rapidly as their triple totals tend to decline. Consider the numbers of Junior Francisco (Sanchez) Felix, of Laguna Salada, Dominican Republic, in a career that stretched from 1989 through '94, with the Toronto Blue Jays, California Angels, Marlins and Detroit Tigers.
Rookie year: eight triples, one every 52 at bats. Second year: seven triples, one per 66 at bats. Third year: two triples, one per 115. Fourth year: five triples, one per 102. Fifth year: one triple, in 214 at bats. Sixth year: one, in 301. Then retirement. No doubt there were injuries along the way, but nobody slows down that progressively between the ages of 21 and 27. Conceivably the devil was in the home runs. As a rookie Felix hit just one more dinger than he did triples; in his second year, more than twice as many. In his last season Felix hit 13 home runs to the one triple. (After the second year, when Toronto traded Felix to California, Bill James wrote of a computer program that projected Felix to be a possible superstar, with 237 more home runs in his future; he had hit nine in '89, 15 in '90. His lifetime total was 55.)
He had lost zest. It tends to happen. In his first three full seasons Garry Templeton led the National League with 18, 13 and 19 triples, but then at age 24 he became alienated, told his manager he was tired and made an obscene gesture to a fan on Ladies' Day. In 11 more seasons he never again reached double figures in triples. In Pistol Pete Reiser's first season as a regular, at the age of 22, he hit 17 triples for the Brooklyn Dodgers to lead the National League. The almost mythical Reiser, who kept running full tilt into the concrete walls of Ebbets Field in the act of trying to kill opponents' triples, had several other productive campaigns, but all his dislocations and concussions took their toll: He never again hit more than five triples in a season. (Once, when Leo Durocher inserted Reiser into the lineup too soon after a hospitalization, he hit a shot that had triple all over it, then fainted dead away while rounding first.)
Ted Williams hit 25 triples in his first two seasons, when he was the Kid, and 46 in the next 17, as he became a more professional and irritable collector of walks and home runs. Ryne Sandberg, who hit a league-leading 19 triples in his third full season, when he was 24, never had another double-digit triples year in his 12 remaining seasons. Junior Gilliam's only year hitting more than eight triples was his rookie year, when he led the league with 17. Kirby Puckett's only double-figure season was his second one, when he hit 13. Paul Waner led the league in triples twice, his first two years. Willie McCovey hit two triples in his first game, and 44 in his next 2,587.
Consider catchers. We do not associate them with triples, because they squat so much, but when it comes to the Junior Felix factor they are like most people. McCarver is one of only two catchers to lead his league in triples ( Carlton Fisk, who hit nine for the Boston Red Sox in 1972, is the other), which he did at age 24. In his 20 other seasons he averaged 2.2. Yogi Berra hit 10 triples at the age of 23 and only 39 in his 18 other seasons. Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Wally Schang, Bill Freehan, Manny Sanguillen, Andy Etchebarren, John Bateman, John Roseboro—each of these had one quite respectable triples season in his tenderest years, then crouched down into workaday reality. Ernie Lombardi, the most famously lumbering base runner of all time, who stole eight bases in 17 years, and about whom it was said, "A triple for an ordinary batter is a double for Lombardi," managed in his first full season, 1932, to leg out nine triples—a third of his career total.
Consider large first basemen called Moose. Walt Dropo hit eight triples as a rookie and 14 over his other 12 seasons. Bill Skowron hit nine triples in only 215 at bats during his first year, an average of three in his other 13. Other large, un-speedy sluggers who played first base and had similar triples records include Vic Wertz, Dale Long and Harmon Killebrew.