It has now been 43 years since a player last won baseball's Triple Crown. When Carl Yastrzemski led the league in batting average (.326), home runs (44), and runs batted in (121) in 1967, he did so with numbers that, while certainly very impressive, have been approached or bested plenty of times in recent years.
Albert Pujols, to take one example, has put up years of at least .327/41/117 five times, and may do so a sixth time this season. And yet, the Triple Crown eludes him over and over and over again, like a long, cruel, meandering joke without a punchline.
Over the past 15 years, baseball seems to have allowed most of its untouchable milestones to be realized -- the home run records, the consecutive games streak, world championships for the Red Sox and White Sox -- while continuing to place others -- the .400 mark, a world championship for the Cubs, the Triple Crown -- firmly and hopelessly out of reach.
Why, in this age of Triple Crown-caliber hitters such as Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, and Joey Votto, has no one achieved it? Well, there are reasoned, objective arguments to be made, but these arguments are made to distract us from the ugly truth: that a cabal of unsavory villains, the sort you read about in comic books, are making sure it doesn't happen.
These are the 10 worst triple crown villains, for reasons I will explain.
10. Ryan Howard
Thwarted: Albert Pujols (2006)
At .331, Albert Pujols finished third in the National League in batting average to Freddy Sanchez's .344 and Miguel Cabrera's .339. Cabrera avoids scorn since he's at least a marginal Triple Crown threat every season. Sanchez, who rudely hit .344 out of nowhere, would take this spot had he not paid his dues. He did. He endured four unremarkable seasons, three of which were effectively extended cups of coffee.
Ryan Howard did not pay his dues, and in a outrageously disrespectful act, he tried to cut in line. In his first full season in the league, he won the home run title by smacking 58 of them while winning the RBI crown with 149. His .313 batting average meant that in many years, he himself would not have been far away from a Triple Crown.
But while Howard was skipping rope, or whatever idle distraction minor leaguers occupy themselves with, Pujols, who was actually younger than Howard, was putting up Triple Crown-caliber numbers, year in and year out, only to watch them fall under the shadow of Barry Bonds' mammoth numbers. All Pujols had to do was wait him out.
He did. By 2006, Bonds' production had finally slowed. Pujols had a window, only to stare through it as Howard naively and irresponsibly dawdled into the record books.
When we are young, we are told that baseball is meant, above all else, to teach the values of diligence and teamwork. This is not true. The day your T-ball coach penciled you into a lineup, you learned the first, paramount, and perhaps only lesson that baseball is interested in teaching you: wait your f***ing turn.
Ryan Howard did not wait his turn.
Thwarted: Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols (2004)
During the mid-1990s, Castilla was a member of the vaunted Blake Street Bombers. They were something to behold. In case you're unfamiliar, just picture the 1927 Yankees playing baseball on the hull of the Starship Enterprise.
This gang, which included Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, and Ellis Burks, produced a handful of Triple Crown threats. Castilla, who was good at hitting for average and collecting home runs and RBI, was never quite good enough to lead the league in any of these categories, and as the sun set on the 90s, Castilla left town.
He spent the next few years with the Rays, Astros, and Braves, toiling as a journeyman whose craft was beginning to escape him, then returned to the Rockies in 2004. Did he trudge back to Denver through the snow, fail to remove his scratched, weathered snow goggles, and see Galarraga where Helton now stood? Did he confuse Jeromy Burnitz for Dante Bichette? Was he rendered half-delusional by months of slogging through snow banks and subsisting on ice and hardtack?
It is difficult to say, but he certainly seemed to believe that the Blake Street Bombers were still there, immune to the passage of time, as he returned from the maw of oblivion to lead the league with 131 RBI. As before, though, his home runs and batting average were not high enough to make a run at the Triple Crown, and so when he destroyed the ambitions of Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre, he did so for nothing.
Is Castilla evil? Well, are villains necessarily completely evil? Perhaps some of them are not. It is not up for debate, after all, that Mr. Freeze adored his wife.
Thwarted: Albert Pujols (2003)
The supposed cruel nature of these Triple Crown denials sometimes rests upon the admittedly assailable premise that, were it not for the offending party, the Triple Crown hopeful would be incentivized to go for that extra handful of home runs and RBI he needs. Such will be the case as we explore the 2003 story of Albert Pujols and Preston Wilson.
Yes, Albert Pujols again. I'm sorry, but he is a fairly common thread in this discussion. If these men are the villains, Pujols is the district attorney tied to the minute hand of the giant clock. No story is a tragedy that does not have stakes.
This time, Pujols' Triple Crown bid was stamped out in large part by Preston Wilson, a statistically enigmatic fellow who managed to lead the league with 141 RBI -- more than he had managed in his two previous seasons combined. Upon surveying what he had ruined, Wilson promptly retreated into mediocrity and left the game four years later.
Now, it is true that Pujols' 124 RBI also trailed Gary Sheffield and Jim Thome by a handful, but seven or eight extra RBI are easier to muster than a full 20. Wilson's year-by-year totals resemble a precisely targeted rocket, slowly building until it blasts into 2003 with the force of 141 runs batted in, shattering into fragments that land all the way out in 2007. It was a bitter, cruel attack, and worst of all -- or, perhaps, for the better -- we will never understand Wilson's reasons.
7. Bill Madlock
Thwarted: Mike Schmidt (1981)
Along this same line of reasoning, we visit Bill Madlock and his .341 batting average in 1981. It's important to note that thanks to a mid-season strike, the 1981 season was only 102 games long.
Over the course of his career, Mike Schmidt led the National League in home runs eight times, and he led the league in RBI five times, but believe it or not, he was never able to sustain a batting average of .300 or greater over the course of a full season. This was not a full season, and so Schmidt hit .316. It was his only shot at the Triple Crown, and he did his best by leading the league in home runs and runs batted in.
Bill Madlock never had a reasonable shot at a Triple Crown. He was, though, a man of batting titles, having won four of them throughout his career. He looked at his bat, and looked at Schmidt's pursuit of history, and looked at his bat again, and then proceeded to viciously and repeatedly assault the baseball, leaving a trail of base hits long enough to lead him to the batting title and dwarf Schmidt's average by a full 25 points.
Madlock wasn't the Big Bad. He was more of a side villain; the aggravatingly short-sighted lackey whose finite ambitions inadvertently result in another's peril. In other words, if this were Die Hard, Madlock would be Harry.
6. Rod Carew
Thwarted: Dick Allen (1972), Jim Rice (1978)
These are not the statistics of a Hall of Famer.
Yes, yes, I know. Jim Rice was inducted a couple of months ago, and his stats were pretty comparable to these -- indeed, on a per-at-bat basis, they weren't as good. I'm afraid that the man responsible for these stats, Dick Allen, never got his parade.
Had Allen managed to win a Triple Crown in 1972, it might have been enough to get him into the Hall -- after all, every player to win a Triple Crown within the last hundred years is in Cooperstown. Unfortunately, he played in the era of Rod Carew, a remorseless hit machine who never gave a second thought to Allen or his dilemma.
Carew won his second of seven batting titles in 1972, and this man, who would go on to hit greater than .350 a staggering four times, only bothered to hit .318 this season. It was good enough. Allen, who won the RBI and home run crowns, fell short with a .308 batting average.
There's something terribly sadistic about this, especially considering that Carew himself cruised directly into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He did not need that batting title, but he took it anyway. He was, in fact, so consumed with greed that he wrested his seventh and final batting crown from Jim Rice, denying him a Triple Crown of his own.
Rice, after a very, very long wait, finally entered the Hall of Fame, but Carew made his mark. His only sin was greed, and so he was the rare sort of villain who does not deserve our sympathy.
5. The Intentional Walk
Thwarted: Barry Bonds (2000s)
It's worth wondering how much time passed between the invention of baseball and the first intentional walk. I doubt we'll ever know for sure, but this moment -- perhaps in 1858 in a cow pasture outside St. Louis -- was the moment baseball first lost its innocence. It preceded institutionalized racism, the reserve clause, strikes, gambling, steroids, or anything else you can think of.
Walks were meant as a deterrence, not an element to be manipulated. It's a betrayal of intent similar to that of a teenager who, upon receiving a twenty-dollar bill from his loving but penny-pinched mother with the expectation that he goes to Target and purchases a new pair of jeans, instead opts to spend it on the newest album from critically-acclaimed rap-rockers Limp Bizkit.
Anyway, during his artificially-induced prime, Barry Bonds was intentionally walked/unintentionally walked/unintentionally intentionally walked so often that he, the Triple Crowniest player on color television, was denied a Triple Crown.
Thwarting: Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton (2010)
Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown viability has already been discussed, and now Josh Hamilton's bid deserves attention. His story is already the most inspirational of our era (this is the first time in quite a while that I haven't balked at the word "inspirational"), and to boot, he's leading his Rangers, a franchise that has won one playoff game in its 50-year history, to the postseason.
Into this halcyon procession marches Jose Bautista, clashing cymbals and spitting at the wedding party, followed in tow by his major league-leading 42 home runs, one fewer than the number he had hit in 2007, 2008, and 2009 combined. His batting average of .266 is about 80 or 90 points away from what he would need to mount a Triple Crown bid.
Hey, look at that. He just took a fistful of cake and dropped it into the punch bowl.
What a jerk.
3. Tony Gwynn
Thwarted: Dante Bichette (1995)
Tony Gwynn is a corporation, in that he presents a friendly public image, is coldly calculating, and is solely motivated by self-interest.
This may be difficult to hear. From his jovial personality to his knowledge of the game to his status as one of the very best contact hitters who ever lived, he provides us with plenty to like, but we must remember that in 1995, he rendered moot any realistic discussion of Dante Bichette's Triple Crown chase.
Bichette led the league in home runs (40) and RBI (128), and were it not for Gwynn's self-indulgent .368 batting average, he would only have had Mike Piazza to contend with. Piazza's .346 average was ahead of the .340 with which Bichette eventually finished, but note the premise I outlined earlier: that given a fighter's chance at a Triple Crown, a hitter is perhaps more likely to attain it.
Also, please consider that Bichette lost out on an opportunity to become a household name. A childhood friend of mine may have spoken his name with respect. Instead, he held up his baseball card and said, "Dante Bichette! Get it! Dante Bitch-ette! He's a girl bitch!" I lost touch with this fellow, and I hope that he eventually learned not to use the word "bitch" pejoratively; I also hope he learned at some point that the dictionary definition of "bitch" defines it as necessarily feminine. Regardless, his journey is not mine, and it certainly isn't that of Bichette, who went on to cobble together the sort of career that would never have granted him the level of baseball legend that a Triple Crown would have.
Gwynn, meanwhile, never hit more than seventeen home runs in a single season. He deprived of others what he could never have himself, and the worst of it may be that he did not do so consciously. He was a machine of flesh, blood, grins, and giggles, obliviously hitting single after runner-advancing, justice-defying single, unable to step back and consider what he was doing to Dante Bichette, a man who never did anything to hurt anybody.
2. The Strike
Thwarted: Frank Thomas, Albert Belle (1994)
Whenever I'm tempted to believe that the news crawl we see on cable news networks these days is a recent invention, I think of my first memory of the news crawl. I believe I was watching a preseason NFL game. A crawl informed me that no World Series would be played in 1994. I didn't get it, and as a testament to my perpetual naivete, I still don't.
When the players struck on August 12, this is what the American League Triple Crown race looked like:
.359 - Paul O'Neill
.357 - Albert Belle
.353 - Frank Thomas
40 - Ken Griffey, Jr.
38 - Frank Thomas
36 - Albert Belle
Runs batted in
112 - Kirby Puckett
103 - Joe Carter
101 - Frank Thomas
101 - Albert Belle
Neither Thomas nor Belle led in any of these categories, but they were both within striking distance. The future may well have held a statistical race more compelling than most playoff races, not only because the prize was such a rare one, but because the two players were so different.
Belle was a cranky recovering alcoholic who also happened to be an absolutely outstanding hitter. Originally playing under the name Joey, he reverted to his given name, Albert, in an attempt to reform himself, but his tantrums remained, the press hated him, and he was forced into retirement at age 34 with a hip condition.
Thomas was about the same age. He was also cranky from time to time, especially in the latter half of his career, but not as cranky as Belle. He suffered from injuries, but not injuries as serious as Belle's. Some of the press didn't like him, but not all of the press.
Today, the accomplishments of these two players are under-appreciated. Perhaps this wouldn't be so for one of them, if one of them could have managed that Triple Crown in a non-strike reality. Failing that, perhaps both hitters could have been remembered for the most historic Triple Crown race in baseball history. The strike ruined this. Who, or what, begat the strike? Well, that's beyond the scope of this hyperbolic piece, but a trip down the rabbit hole would lead to an indispensable lesson: that we are all monsters.
1. Omar Infante
Thwarting: Joey Votto, Albert Pujols (2010)
Thanks to a trusted source, I have obtained a couple of transcripts from phone calls made by Atlanta Braves infielder Omar Infante.
PHONE TAP TRANSCRIPT, MAY 26, 2010, 4:54 P.M.
Parties involved: Bud Selig, Omar Infante
Infante: Listen up. I have constructed a giant bomb that is going to blow up the entire world unless you do what I say.
Selig: I'm listening.
Infante: I want you to fix the All-Star balloting so that I get a spot and Joey Votto doesn't.
Infante: Because I'm an insane person!
Selig: Oh, goodness. Well, okay.
Infante: Okay, I will not blow up the entire world with the giant bomb which I made.
Selig: Thanks. What about the final vote?
Selig: The final vote. One more player can be voted on the roster after the main round of voting has finished.
Infante: Whatever. I'm going to go superglue a ping-pong ball to a ping-pong paddle and then go play ping-pong against my reflection in the mirror. Bye!
PHONE TAP TRANSCRIPT, SEPTEMBER 1, 2010, 7:34 A.M.
Parties involved: Joey Votto's voicemail, Omar Infante
Votto's voicemail: This is the J-man. You know what to do. [BEEP]
Omar Infante: Hello, my batting average is about 15 points better than yours. I have been hitting really well on purpose because I don't want you to win the Triple Crown. This is because I don't like you because I am an insane person. Okay, well, I'm going to wrap myself in packing tape with the sticky side out and then roll around in my front yard until all the grass is ripped up and I won't have to cut the grass anymore. Bye!
We knew all along, of course, that Infante was hellbent on ruining Votto's ambitions however he could, but the specifics are, well, disturbing. We still don't know why Infante has it out for Votto, but this is the sort of perverse Triple Crown-centric evil the likes of which baseball has never seen. It's a disappointingly fitting continuation of a 43-year-long trend of cynical, underhanded evil of all stripes. Carl Yastremski was the last man to win a Triple Crown, and we may not see another for a long, long time.
In his reckless pursuit of Votto's ruin, Infante is inadvertently dashing the hopes of Albert Pujols as well. Yes, Pujols again. Once again, he's at the brink, and once again, he looks unlikely to slay the dragon. He's the greatest hitter of our time, but I shall let this stand as the first-ever Google result for "albert pujols is not good enough": Albert Pujols is not good enough.