The Elusive Crown
There have been 14 Triple Crown winners in the major leagues in this century, but you have to go all the way back to the Cardinals' Ducky Medwick in 1937 to find one in the National League and to 1967 and Boston's Carl Yastrzemski for the last American League winner. Few players have come close since, but two San Diego Padres, third baseman Gary Sheffield and first baseman Fred McGriff, have at least an outside shot this season.
"I laugh when people mention me," says McGriff, who at week's end was first in the league in homers (20), tied for third in RBIs (61) and sixth in batting (.311). "But Gary has a real good chance."
"It's crazy," says Sheffield, who was tied for second in homers (18), second in RBIs (64) and third in hitting (.327). "I don't think about it. No one will do it."
Let's assume that in a normal year it takes at least a .320 batting average and a minimum of 30 homers and 110 RBIs to have a chance to win the Triple Crown. The only active players who have reached those levels in a single season are the Yankees' Don Mattingly (1985, '86 and '87), the Royals' George Brett (1985) and the Orioles' Cal Ripken (1991).
Winning the batting title is the hard part. Since Yastrzemski won the crown, the home run and RBI titles have been won by one player in the same year 26 times. In those 26 times the average distance the players finished out of the batting lead was 50.4 points. The closest anyone has come was Dick Allen of the White Sox; in 1972 he led the American League in homers and RBIs, but his .308 average was 10 points behind leader Rod Carew of the Twins. Since 1967 only Montreal's Al Oliver (1982) and St. Louis's Joe Torre (1971) have won the batting title and another leg of the Triple Crown; Torre hit 24 fewer homers than Willie Stargell (48) and Oliver hit 15 fewer than Dave Kingman (37).
With some of today's players choosing to specialize as batting-average hitters, it has become tougher for the sluggers to compete for the crown. Boston's Wade Boggs could probably hit 25 home runs a year, but he has concentrated instead on leading the league in hitting. Boggs came into this season with a .345 lifetime average and five batting titles. Likewise, San Diego's Tony Gwynn entered 1992 with a .328 career average and four hitting titles.
To win the crown this season, Sheffield and McGriff will be hard-pressed to catch Philadelphia's John Kruk, who was hitting .350 through Sunday. "With Kruk's swing, the way he hits the ball to leftfield, I don't think he's going to go into a big slump," says McGriff.
But if anyone is going to win the Triple Crown, this is the year to do it. "The time is ripe," says Gwynn. "Home runs are down in our league, so are RBIs. Averages are down too. [Atlanta's] Terry Pendleton won the title last year with a .319. No one hits .350 and .360 anymore."
Another Phanatic Phil
There may be no more intense player in the game than Phillie third baseman Dave Hollins. "Intense? He's pretty intense when he sleeps," says Phillie pitcher Curt Schilling. "He chews bricks. [Dodger catcher] Mike Scioscia blocks the plate better than anybody in baseball, but in one game this year, he stepped out of the way to tag Hollins. When Hollins is coming around third with that look on his face, there are two options: Gel out of the way or spend a couple of months in ICU."
The look isn't seen until about 2 p.m. the day of a night game. Before that, Hollins is a normal guy. But from midafternoon till midnight, watch out. "He's the closest I've seen to Sybil," says Schilling.
"That's how I was taught to play," says Hollins. "I'm not blessed with the ability of some of these guys. I have to bust my butt to be good."
The intensity comes partly from football: "My first love," says Hollins. A star quarterback at Orchard Park High School outside Buffalo, Hollins had a chance to play major college football but went to the University of South Carolina to play baseball instead because he wanted to play as a freshman. But he still misses football and has season tickets to Buffalo Bills' games. He knows Bill quarterback Jim Kelly and linebacker Cornelius Bennett. "They tell me, 'Man, you got it made. You make all of that money, and you don't even have to hit anyone,' " Hollins says.
He has hit most National League pitchers, though; through Sunday, Hollins, a switch-hitter with a rare combination of power and patience, was batting .269 with 13 homers and 52 RBIs and was tied for third in the league in runs scored with 61. He has also been hit more times than any major leaguer (13), which is no easy feat for a switch-hitter who always has a clear view of the approaching pitch. In fact, Hollins already has the National League switch-hitters' record for most times hit by a pitch and is only two short of the major league mark set by Twin switch-hitter Gene Larkin in 1988.
The flop team of the year in the American League has been the Red Sox, who through Sunday were in sixth place with a 45-51 record in a division in which they were supposed to be a solid contender. The reason: They simply can't hit. At week's end they were on a pace to:
1) finish last in the league in runs scored and slugging (something they haven't done in either category since Fenway Park was renovated in 1934);
2) finish without any player hitting as many as 15 homers (a first since 1945);
3) finish without a 75-RBI player (a first since 1953, exluding 1981, the strike year).
Things are so bad that last week third baseman Wade Boggs, whose batting average has hovered around the .260's, decided to try wearing glasses. He used the new specs for the first time on July 22 and went 1 for 3. "They make a giant difference," he said. "Before, I was just trying to see the ball."
Major changes need to be made in Boston, but the Sox's Triple A Pawtucket team is loaded with minor league retreads, not prospects, and their budget is limited, which probably won't allow them to sign a quality free agent in the off-season. Their future, unfortunately, looks as bleak as the present.
One of the most lopsided trades of last off-season was Montreal's acquisition of righthander Ken Hill from St. Louis for first baseman Andres Galarraga. Hill's fastball has regularly been clocked around 95 mph, and he was 11-4 with a 2.63 ERA at week's end—a big reason Montreal was just two games behind first-place Pittsburgh. Galarraga, on the other hand, had 16 RBIs for the season and had walked only four times, same as Hill....
One Padre had this comment on reliever Randy Myers, who had a bloated ERA of 5.09 as of Sunday: "All I know is he throws it hard, and they hit it hard."
...There were 14 no-hitters in the major leagues in the past two seasons, but there hasn't been one yet this year.
No one has been able to wear the Triple Crown in the AL since Yastrzemski (far left), or in the NL since Medwick (below).
[See caption above.]
Boggs hopes his new look will help him see the ball better.
Between The Lines
The Abbott Curse
So far, this has been a bad year to be named Abbott. California's Jim was 4-11 despite a 2.96 ERA and was on the disabled list with a strained rib cage at week's end. Philadelphia's Kyle was 1-11 and has gotten little run support all season. And Minnesota's Paul has been in the minors most of the year because of arm injuries. While at Triple A Portland on an injury-rehab assignment, Paul did throw a 10-inning no-hitter on July 8. He got a no-decision.
Ouch, That Hurt
Padre pitcher Jim Deshaies, perhaps the game's worst hitter, with a lifetime .079 batting average and no extra-base hits in 342 career at bats, suffered further embarrassment on July 20 at the hand of Phillie pitcher Greg Mathews. Deshaies hit a scorching line drive that Mathews, who was making his first major league start in more than two seasons, caught with his bare hand. "That had base hit written all over it," said Deshaies. "But it looked like he said, 'Should I bare-hand this or use my glove? Aw, I'll just bare-hand it.' "
You Know You're Going Bad When...
Padre outfielder Jerald Clark, who has been in a slump for most of the season, broke his bat without making contact with the ball, the ground, his body, anything, on a swing against the Phillies on July 21. "If it can happen," Clark said, "it will happen to me."
By the Numbers
•Met pitcher David Cone has struck out 10 or more batters in a game eight times this year. Starting pitchers from the other five teams in the National League East have totaled only six 10-strikeout games.
•White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, 44, hit a triple on July 23. He is the oldest player to hit a triple since Pete Rose hit two in 1986 at 45.