Wednesday, July 15, 2009

WE KNOW YOU, AL

To Cubs’ fans, this year’s All-Star Game break brings to mind the story about the man who incessantly banged his head against a wall. Asked why he did it he’d reply, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

The annual respite, however, can have other purposes, such as to assess the baseball season to date and the portents for its remainder. In that department, there’s a good possibility that the present campaign could stand out in a most-auspicious way, by producing the game’s first Triple Crown winner in quite a long time.

You don’t hear much about the Triple Crown because this most difficult of batting feats is such a rarity. Since the Red Sox’ Carl Yastrzremski last did it in 1967, few hitters have come close to leading their league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in during the same season, and the few bids that have occurred weren’t sustained enough to get the kettle drums of hype in full rumble.

But now comes Jose Alberto Pujols Alcantara, aka Albert Pujols, of the Dominican Republic and St. Louis, Missouri, with aptitudes and accomplishments that suggest that a breakthrough might be in the cards, or, at least, a Card. At this writing Sr. Pujols leads the National League in homers (with 32) and ribbies (with 87), and his .332 batting average is just 17 points behind that of the league leader, the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez. Two and a half more months of similar results and Pujols will be bidding fair to hit the elusive Tri.

If he does it he’ll join the 11 men who achieved the distinction over 13 seasons. They are Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909), Rogers Hornsby (1922 and 1925), Jimmy Foxx and Chuck Klein (1933), Lou Gehrig (1934), Joe Medwick (1937), Ted Williams (1942 and 1947), Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966) and Yaz. All of them were among the best of their eras, a distinction Pujols clearly shares. They’re also Hall of Famers, and he’ll be there, too.

There are a lot of interesting things about the Triple Crown, enough to fill a book. In fact, I proposed just such a volume several years ago, and even enlisted an agent (hi, John) in the quest. Alas, there were no takers, but nothing is lost to a writer, and thus this blog.

One name you might have noticed as missing from the above list is that of Babe Ruth, the game’s all-time best batsman (and player, by me). He led the American League in both home runs and RBIs in six different seasons, but never claimed a TC even though he hit between .372 and .393 in four of those years.

Williams, the second-best hitter ever (by me), missed a third TC because he went hitless in the final game of the 1949 season and lost the AL batting championship to Detroit’s George Kell, .3427 to .3429. The Cardinals’ Stan Musial won NL batting and RBI titles in 1948 but was one blast short of tying for the HR crown. Cleveland’s Al Rosen led the 1953 AL in HRs and RBIs, but finished a point behind Washington’s Mickey Vernon in the BA race, .336 to .337. If Rosen had been a half-step faster on a chopper to third in his final at-bat of that season, he’d have had it.

A Cubbie, Henry “Heinie” Zimmerman, made the TC list for a while years ago with his 14 HRs, 103 RBIs and .372 BA in 1912, but an official revisit to his stats shaved his RBI count to a less-than-league-leading 99. That was probably just as well, because Heinie was kicked out of baseball in 1921 for being part of a game-fixing scheme and wound up as a partner of the gangster Dutch Schultz in a New York speakeasy.

The near-miss list goes on, but not in recent decades. That’s at least partly because the modern game’s accent on power has batters of all sorts swinging for the fences, not a prescription for getting the kind of batting average that might supply the third leg of the TC stool. The massively built Pujols, who fills a batter’s box like few others, swings big, too, but when the situation calls for it he also swings smart, and is the rare power hitter who walks more than he strikes out. That’s why he’s been a TC threat since he came to the Major Leagues at age 21 in 2001.

Indeed, what leaps out at you from Pujol’s baseball biography (along with the fact that he wasn’t picked until the 13th round of the 1999 draft)is his consistency at the plate. In his first eight seasons in the Bigs he never batted below .314 or hit fewer than 32 home runs. Moreover, while big guys often are poor fielders and base runners, he’s come to excel in both those areas, a tribute to his dedication to his craft.

Yes, he’s a Cardinal, a wearer of the hated red, but let’s be big and put that aside. He’s one of the greats and we should consider ourselves lucky to share the planet with him just now.

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3 comments:

Andrew said...

Just read the last two articles, both excellent. Watch the footage on espnchicago.com of Obama meeting Pujols, Ichiro, Jeter, and others. It's amazing to see these guys starstruck.
As for the Cubs/Sox article....I'm with you. I don't know if you've been to "The Cell" recently but it is one of the best baseball atmospheres I have ever been around. Kudos to the Sox for turning a mediocre ballpark into a really great place to watch a game.

Marc said...

Albert Pujols won me over with the greatest performance I've ever witnessed, going 5-for-5 with 3 homers at Wrigley in 2004. I hate it when the Cubs lose, but I've been an Albert fan ever since. He's a class act.

skaps said...

I am and have been a big fan of
Pujols, his Redbird blood
notwithstandsing. My son, who is 4,
knows him only as "the Best Player."
As in "Dad that's the Best Player,
right?" I know he is talking about Pujols
(Not Soriano). TC would be something.
I am rooting for him.