Jeff Francoeur, you may have heard, hit into an unassisted triple play the other day, one that ended a briefly promising ballgame for the Mets.
It was the second time this year I was left sitting on the couch with my jaw apparently broken, dangling uselessly below the rest of my face while I tried to catch up with current events. Wait, what? The game’s over. What the heck just happened?
The first time I felt sick with rage for about 20 hours. This time I felt pretty sick too — but within a couple of minutes I felt something else. Disbelief. And, to my amazement and briefly to my shame, happy disbelief.
I watched baseball faithfully from the time I was seven, in 1976, through 1981. And then again, as faithfully as I could, from 1984 until today. That didn’t mean I saw or heard 162 Mets games a year, plus whatever postseason lagniappe came my way. I spent my high-school years in Massachusetts with no cable TV, before WFAN existed. After college I lived in suburban Maryland, at the outermost limits of radio range, and they took WOR off the cable package a couple of months after I moved there. There have, unavoidably, been gaps.
But I’ve done most everything I could. I chose one college over another so I could listen to Mets games. I’ve cut long drives ridiculously short so I wouldn’t leave radio range of FAN, and I’ve extended long drives recklessly to get into radio range of FAN. I’ve spent weekend days crammed behind the wheel of a little Honda by the Potomac River after discovering that the water somehow amplified the signal so you could get the Mets game during the day. I’ve bought crackpot-science signal amplifiers in efforts to boost radio signals and stood in storklike positions holding antennae when I thought that helped. I’ve paid for Gameday Audio and stayed up all night to listen to the Mets in London and in Lausanne. I’ve snuck headsets into weddings and parties and movies. I’ve been a pretty good fan.
I’ve been a good enough fan that every so often I allowed myself to imagine something I knew was unlikely: that one day I would see an unassisted triple play.
When I was a kid, I knew there had been eight unassisted triple plays, and every so often I’d peruse the list and think about how events had to line up like cosmic tumblers to produce one. The first had come in 1909, the second in 1920 (in the World Series, no less). The third and fourth, oddly, had come within a month of each other in 1923. The fifth came in 1925. The sixth arrived on May 30, 1927. The seventh, even more oddly, came on May 31, 1927. And then, as if this flurry had exhausted the baseball gods, there wasn’t another one until 1968. And that’s where the count stayed as I grew into my teens and then into my twenties, leaving me to consider imponderables, like why unassisted triple plays seemed to come in bunches, and how it could be that of eight such plays, five involved the Cleveland Indians.
Then, in the last days of 1992, Mickey Morandini of the Phillies turned the ninth-ever unassisted triple play against the Pirates. I got to see that one on Headline News, and was amazed to learn that some longstanding Pirates employee had now seen three of the nine — the one in 1925, the first one in 1927 and now 1992’s. I was mournful: An unassisted triple play had come and gone, and judging from the record so far it might have been my only chance to see one.
But then John Valentin turned one for the Red Sox (the third involving them) in 1994. And in 2000, Oakland’s Randy Velarde did it against the Yankees. That one tore at me even more: I lived in New York by then, and I could have seen it on TV. (Never mind that I wasn’t in the habit of watching Yankees-A’s games.)
The new millennium seemed to usher in a deluge of sorts: Rafael Furcal turned an unassisted triple play against the Cardinals in the summer of 2003, and I managed to be angry at myself for not having been randomly watching TBS. The Braves were on the other side of one (their third UTP) in 2007, when the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki tripled them up singlehandedly. And then last May, it was back to the Indians and Asdrubal Cabrera. This boded ill — the number of unassisted triple plays had jumped from eight to 15, which surely ushered in another drought.
I’d never seen a triple play at all until 1998, and had made it a calling card of sorts for my fandom, this random flukey lack. That ended on Aug. 5, 1998, when the Mets turned a conventional triple play against the Giants with me sitting in the mezzanine. My friend Megan, who’d endured the lack-of-triple-plays discussion several times, watched me gape at the field and let out a slightly nervous laugh. My immediate reaction was a bit odd: Having now seen a triple play, I found myself thinking Now what do I do? And a bit later I had the answer: Hope I get to see an unassisted one.
But waiting for an unassisted triple play is the ultimate triumph of warm human hope over cold pitiless math. There have been, more or less, 389,320 games  in the history of major-league baseball. (Trust me, with numbers like this “more or less” is good enough. You’ll see.)
Factor in 15 unassisted triple plays and you get one every 25,955 games. That means if you watched your favorite team faithfully day in and day out — 162 games a year — you could expect to see an unassisted triple play every 160 years. 160 years ago? Zachary Taylor became our 12th president. It was the year of the Irish Potato Famine, there were 30 states in the Union, and the beginnings of organized baseball were still a generation away.
The unassisted triple play stands alone; it’s comparable to nothing I know of in sports. Hail Marys happen. Goalies score from the other end of the ice. Bowlers roll 300 games, by comparison, all the time. Holes in one? Please. Perfect games are almost as rare, granted — but you can see a perfect game coming. You’ve got a window of 15 minutes to a half-hour to get to the set. Go to the bathroom at the wrong time and an unassisted triple play will come and go without you.
So yeah, I hope you’ll forgive me if once I pulled myself together I felt happy. Brian Schneider was still sitting on the bench perfectly motionless, blowing a pink bubble of Zen despair, and Jeff Francoeur was still halfway to the base he’d never reach, but I was happy. I just saw an unassisted triple play. I really, really did.
And then I had that familiar thought: Now what do I do?
And this time, I had an answer: Hope this never, ever happens to my team again.
* * *
Since it’s foolhardy to imagine getting to see an unassisted triple play as a fan, imagine what it’s like for a broadcaster.
And now consider this.
The total time elapsed, from Brad Lidge starting his motion to Eric Bruntlett tagging Daniel Murphy, was 4.6 seconds. This was Gary Cohen’s call on SNY:
“2-2, the runners go! Line drive — CAUGHT BY BRUNTLETT! He makes the tag … it’s a triple play … and the ballgame is over! An unassisted triple play to end the ballgame! UN-believable! [beat] With the runners going and nobody out, Bruntlett — who had made two bad plays in the inning — has a line drive hit right to him at the bag. He stepped on second for the second out and tagged out Murphy to complete the triple play!”
Given a rarer-than-Halley’s-Comet situation that happens instantly and cannot be rehearsed, Cohen got the play-by-play, grasped what had happened and how rare it was,explained the mechanics for those still catching up, and noted the context of it being Bruntlett’s redemption. Total time: 37.5 seconds.
You can expect the next unassisted triple play involving the Mets to come along around 2170. It might be even longer until we get an announcer the equal of Gary Cohen.
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