Triple threats?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It has been more than three decades since Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski won back-to-back Triple Crowns in 1966 and '67, and that is no accident.

In a sport that seems to become more specialized by the day, the likelihood of one player winning the home run title, the batting title and the RBI title in the same year has diminished considerably since Yastrzemski led the Boston Red Sox into the World Series with a .326 average, 44 homers and 121 RBIs.

Cleveland Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez came the closest last year, ranking in the top five in each category in the American League. His numbers either equaled or exceeded Yastrzemski's in all three areas, but this is a different time and - by some accounts - a different baseball.

Robinson and Yastrzemski didn't have to worry about somebody hitting 70 home runs or somebody else batting .390 in the thin air of Colorado. They both put up spectacular numbers for their time, but none of their Triple Crown numbers would have led either league in 1999 or come close to the projections for those categories this year.

"It's a very difficult achievement. ... much more difficult than people realize," said Robinson, "and it's possibly more difficult today because of the numbers these guys are putting up. The competition is much deeper and the numbers are much higher.

"I don't think you can expect somebody to hit .370 with 70 home runs and 160 RBIs. What you need to do is catch hitters down in one of those categories. If you have to put those kinds of numbers up, you're not going to see a Triple Crown winner."

Not that they aren't trying. Ramirez delivered the baseball's highest RBI total (165) since Jimmie Foxx had 175 in 1938 and fell just four homers behind Ken Griffey (48) for the American League lead. He finished fifth in the league with a .333 average, 24 points behind Nomar Garciaparra, but close enough to consider that few extra bloop hits and a couple more home runs would have put him very close to the elusive Crown.

This year, there are several players ranked among the leaders in all three categories, most prominent among them Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez - who outpointed Ramirez for last year's American League MVP award because of his outstanding all-around performance.

Rodriguez is hitting .354 with 26 home runs and 81 RBIs, all ranking him among the top six in the American League. If anyone has the speed, power and offensive versatility to win the Triple Crown in the "juiced ball" era, it just might be Pudge.

"It's possible, because in baseball, anything's possible," Rodriguez said recently. "As long as you concentrate on preparing yourself mentally and physically, you can do it. It's hard to do, but you've just got to play hard and let the baseball go where it's going to go."

Of course, to look at him, you would never believe it possible. In an era when baseball players are bigger and more powerful than ever, Rodriguez is just 5 feet 9, yet he's on pace to hit 50 home runs.

Can a little man still win one of baseball's biggest prizes? New York Yankees manager Joe Torre thinks so.

"Yes," said Torre. "I didn't think that he had the home run power that he's showing this year. He's not your prototypical home run hitter. He has speed and he hits for average, which definitely gives him an advantage. But you have to think that he's going to drop off in the second half, because of the catching. It does take a toll on you."

If not Rodriguez, then how about Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado, who has emerged as one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball? He leads the league with 29 home runs and is third in batting and fourth in RBIs. Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez also is having a great all-around offensive season, but his chances are tempered by being on the disabled list with a knee injury.

"I don't think you can go into a year and and say that this guy or that guy has a chance to win the Triple Crown," said Robinson. "Those things just don't happen every year. It's something that develops over the course of the season - a guy does better in one area than you expect and has a super year where everything else falls into place."

Robinson's 1966 performance is a good example. The Cincinnati Reds had just traded him to the Orioles because they thought he was past his prime. Instead, he had no trouble adjusting to American League pitching and led the Orioles to their first world championship.

"It was no big deal at that time," Robinson said. "I didn't think about it that much, because we were in a pennant race and our focus was on winning the pennant and getting into the World Series."

The Triple Crown didn't have the same aura then because the feat was not considered as rare as it is today. To that point, there had been at least one Triple Crown in each decade of the 20th century. Mickey Mantle had won one in 1956 and Ted Williams had won two in the 1940s.

Of course, that was when there were only eight teams in each league. Today's players have to compete in a talent pool that is twice as large as it was in the pre-expansion era.

"The Triple Crown is tough," said San Francisco's Barry Bonds, who won the home run and RBI titles in 1993, but fell well short of the batting crown even though he hit .336. "It's a tough feat because you have so many different types of players in the game.

"You have guys like Tony Gwynn and Larry Walker who have multiple batting titles, and then you've got to think how you're going to hit more home runs than Mark McGwire, then you've got to think how you're going to drive in 165 runs like Manny Ramirez."

Outfielder Gary Sheffield came just as close in 1992, winning the batting title with a .330 average in the last year that any National League batting champion has hit lower than .350. He fell two homers and nine RBIs short in the last year before expansion - and the dawn of baseball at altitude in Colorado - inflated offensive numbers in both leagues.

"It will be extremely difficult nowadays, especially guys with legitimate power," said Sheffield. "There are guys hitting 60 home runs, and you're going to have to hit .360 to win a batting title. And they aren't going to pitch to those guys at the end of the year when the games are more meaningful."

Obviously, the likelihood is higher in the American League, where there is a higher percentage of players who hit for both power and average. In the National League, the presence of home run kings Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa - neither of whom is likely to contend for a batting title - makes it less likely that anyone will make a serious bid for a Triple Crown in the next few years.

The National Leaguer with the best Triple Crown numbers at the All-Star break was Giants second baseman Jeff Kent, who leads the league in RBIs and ranks sixth in batting average. However, his 23 home runs leave him out of the Top 10. The National League hitter making the biggest Triple Crown charge is Sheffield, who has surged to the top of the home run charts with 31, is tied for fourth in RBIs and is seventh in batting.

Frank Thomas, Ivan Rodriguez, Delgado and Alex Rodriguez are positioned much better in the American League, where the homer and RBI chases remain wide open.

The guy who figures to stand in the way of an AL Triple Crown this season is Boston Red Sox shortstop Garciaparra, who batted .357 last year and leads the league with a .393 average. He and Anaheim Angels outfielder Darin Erstad are well ahead of the rest of the pack in the AL batting rankings, which will make it difficult for anyone else to get all three jewels of the crown.

"Is it possible?" Garciaparra said. "Anything's possible. The only thing that I think will be impossible to do is break Cal Ripken's streak. You've got guys who can DH, guys who are expected to hit home runs, guys who drive in runs ... guys specifically geared towards that. It's going to be tough ... but impossible, no."

2000 Triple Crown hopefuls

No player has won the Triple Crown since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. This year, seven players are in the top 10 in home runs, RBIs and batting. The leading contenders with league rank in parentheses (T-tied):

American League

Player, team HR RBIs Avg.

Ivan Rodriguez , Rangers 26 (T-5) 81 (5) .354 (6)

Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays 29 (1) 82 (4) .356 (3)

Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 24 (T-8) 78 (9) .345 (8)

Frank Thomas, White Sox 28 (T-2) 85 (T-2) 339 (9)

National League Player, team HR RBIs Avg.

Mike Piazza, Mets 27 (T-5) 76 (6) .355 (5)

Gary Sheffield, Dodgers 31 (1) 77 (T-4) .338 (7)

Vladimir Guerrero, Expos 25 (T-9) 82 (2) .364 (4)

Note: Statistics through Sunday's games

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