With all due respect to the walk-off home run, or any his younger siblings, the triple is the most exciting hit in baseball. If you were to extend its total distance in a straight line from the plate, it'd barely be enough to clear the baskets in Wrigley's power alleys, yet the distilled action and energy in a three-base hit are enough to power a small city.
Of course, the fluidity of the human body doesn't deal in right angles, rounding bases to shave time and add distance. And it's that dynamism of motion, a battle of opposing forces as the velocity of an object powered by legs competes with that of own powered by an arm, that provides the juice.
The runner doesn't have the luxury of travelling as the crow flies, but the baseball does, and it's powered by, what else, a crow hop. It's been said that if man was meant to fly, God would've seen fit to give him wings. But as the runner rounds second and anticipation in the crowd builds to a crescendo, fueled by adrenaline and fermented malt, it's easy to imagine him floating just above the earth.
And that's no surprise, encouraged as he is by so many waving arms in the crowd, enough windmills to be mistaken for Holland, only without the tulips. Time slows and life blurs at the edges as focus narrows to only the most salient objects: ball, base, runner. Even the cacophony of cheers is dampened by the anticipation of the play's conclusion.
Even through the television, one can almost hear the abrasive grate of clay and sand on polycotton blend, followed by the soft "thud!" as cleat meets bag, then the sharp leather "pop!" as the crow-hopped sphere of cork, yarn, and leather finds a home in well-worn pocket of cowhide.
As the umpire extends his arms and calls, "Safe," the world snaps back into focus and the roar of approval from the crowd rushes in with the casting aside of those earplugs of anticipation. High fives are exchanged with total strangers as the batter does the same with his coach, then his pants, sending at least some of the dirt back from whence it came.
Florid decriptions aside, the triple is also exciting because it's so rare, and is becoming increasingly more so. Consider that, after Luis Valbuena's game-winner on Thursday in Cincy (he's now tied for the team lead with 3), the Cubs have only 21 triples on the season. Anthony Rizzo alone has 20 home runs. Consider also that the MLB season leader, Dee Gordon, has only 9 triples and only 7 other players have more than 5.
If you'd like a more historical perspective, we can look at single-season totals to see that Chief Wilson (36) holds the all-time single-season record, a mark he set with the Pirates in 1912. In those days though, the triple had much greater prevalence than it holds in the modern era.
In fact, of the 32 highest single-season triples totals, only 2 occurred after 1925 (Earl "The Kentucky Colonel" Holmes, Yankees, 1927, Curtis Graderson, Tigers, 2007). And while the list of the top all-time triples hitters contains legendary names like Cobb (295, 2nd), Wagner (252, 3rd), Speaker (222, 6th), and Musial (177, t-19th), it's decidedly lacking in recent names.
George Brett (137, 70th) is really the first player from the last 30 years or so to make an appearance. And the first active player to appear on the list, Carl Crawford (118, 100th) barely snuck into the Century Club. After Crawford, only Jose Reyes (114, t-111th) and Jimmy Rollins (109, t-127th) fall in the top 254.
If we're looking just at Cubs, the all-time club leader is Jimmy "Pony" Ryan with 142 (157, 45th overall). Stay gold, Pony Boy. Noted speedster Shawon Dunston hit only 48 triples for the Cubs, good for 31st in team history. And despite claims that he had so many two-base hits because he wasn't fast enough to get three, 90's hits leader Mark Grace actually had 43 three-baggers.
And while Arismendy Alcantra's presence in the lineup might spark a few more exciting hits than we're used to, but the triple, on the whole, has been disappearing from baseball. As Thomas Collelo lays out, changes to ballparks (adding fences and changing the height of the mound), the rules of the game (strike zone and DH), and to players (better athletes both in the field and at the plate), have all played roles in the demise of the three-base hit.
Collelo concludes that the triple will soon be "relegated to baseball's statistical scrapheap" and I suppose that could very well be true, at least from the SABR perspective. But as fans, that only means that the hit is more special when we do see it. And, really, you don't just see a triple, you experience it.
So the next time you see a player standing on third and dusting the signs of his effort from his pants, take note. You just witnessed an increasingly rare moment of baseball history.
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