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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Born Near Third Base

The old adage “if you wanna win a ballgame, you gotta be able to triple” doesn’t exist, but based on foundational Mets lore, maybe it oughta. In their first nine games of existence, the Mets totaled 68 hits. Eight were doubles, twelve were homers, the rest were singles. All of the games were losses. In their tenth contest, a Met tripled. Bobby Gene Smith, who came on as a defensive replacement for right fielder Gus Bell in the bottom of the seventh at Forbes Field on April 23, 1962, batted in the top of the eighth with two out and two on. Smith proceeded to stop where no Met batter had stopped before. Previous Met runners had made it to third. Those twelve Met instances of home run-hitting presumably encompassed the touching of third, though with those Mets you wouldn’t automatically swear every base that needed to be touched got properly grazed.

Smith we know tripled. Stroked a ball to center, scored Felix Mantilla from second, Elio Chacon from first. Put the Mets up over the Pirates, 9-1, which is to say had Bobby Gene not been quite so dynamic, the Mets would have still led substantially and probably still would have won, thus rendering the triple excess extra-base baggage. You’d take it, though you didn’t exactly need it. But, again, these were the 1962 Mets trudging a zero through the win column. You’re not gonna retroactively turn down a surfeit of insurance runs on their behalf. And good luck proving a counterfactual. The Mets hadn’t tripled for nine games and were 0-9. A Met finally tripled, and just like that, that and that, they were 1-9.

If they wanted to win more ballgames, they had to be able to triple.

Yes, triples should have become a essential component of the Mets playbook (that’s assuming there was a Mets playbook). Casey Stengel should have fined anybody who didn’t poke a ball into a Polo Grounds alley and proceed t’run like the ushers is chasin’ ya outta th box seats. Smith should have been Casey’s go-to guy, Mr. Triple incarnate. Instead, the Mets paid their burst of good fortune no mind. Within three days of his signature three-base hit, the Mets traded the author of their first and thus far only triple to the Cubs for Sammy Taylor.

Never mind that Smith was a .136 batter overall for the 1962 Mets. Never mind that Taylor was imported to beef up a catching corps that was judged so lacking in bulk that on the same day they acquired Sammy, the Mets promised a player to be named later to Cleveland for another backstop, Harry Chiti (the player to be named later eventually identified as, uh-huh, Harry Chiti). Never mind that no proof exists that Bobby Gene Smith was anybody’s answer to anything in 1962. We shall not deny that the man hit .172 for the Cubs, was sent to the Cardinals, hit .231 for St. Louis, and then stayed free and clear of further major league action until 1965, when he resurfaced as a California Angel, stinging the ball at a .228 clip before retiring.

Together, Smith and the Mets may have had something going. Apart, they got nowhere. Bobby Gene never tripled again after April 23, 1962. The Mets had a hard time winning 39 more games the rest of that first year, despite the additional 39 triples Casey’s Metsies managed in Smitty’s absence (including nine from Charlie Neal, who established a club record that went unbroken until 1984, and one from Bob L. Miller, who became the first of 21 Mets pitchers to triple — or 20, when you consider Jon Niese’s lone triple came as a pinch-hitter). Was there a burgeoning chemistry triangle brewing among Smith, the Mets and the triple that would have accelerated the development of a champion? Or was that just the aroma wafting over Coogan’s Bluff every time a vendor poured a Rheingold? Who’s to say for sure where triples are concerned? They are by their very nature squirrelly creatures: difficult to pin down, challenging to make sense of, but nuts to take lightly.

You get a guy who shows you he can triple, and you win one game after losing all nine you ever played, maybe you ride that squirrel for all he’s worth. Maybe you don’t unload him on the Cubs for Sammy Taylor.

More than half-a-century later, perhaps the Mets have learned their lesson. Consider the most recent triple in club history, which occurred on September 30, 2017, also the date of the most recent win in club history. That triple was delivered at Citizens Bank Park by Smilin’ Brandon Nimmo, the youngster’s first ever. In the ensuing offseason, it would be reported the Mets could have made a trade packing potentially far greater impact than Smith-for-Taylor. Supposedly, they could have plucked former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates had they parted with Nimmo. No dice, the Mets said of letting go of their Wyoming-bred product who had just given them three bases on which to chew and chew hard.

Trade Nimmo? The guy who tripled? You mean like our predecessors traded Smith, all but ensuring the worst record in modern baseball history? Sure, McCutchen has credentials, but Nimmo tripled and we won.

We don’t know this was anybody’s thought process, but we do know what did happen. The Mets declined the Pirates’ reported entreaty, Brandon stayed put, the Buccos looked elsewhere for a transaction partner, Cutch headed to San Francisco, Jay Bruce came back to New York, and the spirit of the late Bobby Gene Smith could finally rest, for the Mets had at last paid his triple its proper due.

Of the 1,043 men who have played for the New York Mets, 313 Mets have — à la Smith and Nimmo — tripled at least once, which is to say 730 have not, meaning a tick over 30% of all Mets are responsible for 100% of their 1,667 triples in regular-season history. While you can render a pretty good guess as to who composes the 30%, you can never truly know unless you look up the answers. For example, was Eric Cammack one of your guesses? Eric Cammack was a reliever breezing through the Met pen at the turn of the century. He came to bat exactly once, in 2000, and made it count in triplicate, recording one triple, or one triple more than solid, professional hitter Willie Montañez.

That’s the same Willie Montañez, who…

• came to bat 1,019 times as a Met in 1978 and 1979;

• drove in 96 runs in his one full Flushing season;

• and inspired the San Diego Chicken to display heightened acts of hot doggery in tribute to the master;

…yet didn’t triple at all for us.

Bruce, sidelined as we speak with a sore left heel, has 575 Met ABs so far and no triples whatsoever. Should Jay take it easy on that foot — not make a heel turn, as it were — he stands an excellent chance of ranking fourth among all tripleless Mets batters by the end of April. He’s currently in seventh place, not too many swings behind apparent triskaphobics Tommy Davis, Charlie O’Brien and Mark Carreon. On the other hand, Bruce has hit more home runs as a Met than anybody who has never tripled as a Met, so we probably won’t hold his failure to pull into third after taking off from home against him.

Every batter just tries to hit the ball, right? Just make contact. If that’s your goal, and you’re good enough and lucky enough to reach your goal, you could single. If you’re committed to hitting the ball hard and you know what you’re doing, doubles figure to be within your purview as a big leaguer. Muscle up, as they say, and you could reasonably expect launch a homer. There’s a whole angle devoted to that these days.

A triple is different. A triple is as exotic as it is exciting. A triple takes skill, yet tripling is not exactly a skill. On some level, it just kind of happens. To be sure, there are multiple skill sets that contribute to their materialization, but if Eric Cammack can hit one, if Victor Zambrano can hit one and if Al Freaking Leiter can hit one — they each hit exactly one as Mets (same as Amos Otis, Robin Ventura and quadragenarian Willie Mays) — it doesn’t seem like a triple is specimen whose forensic formula can be broken down precisely in the lab.

There’s the hitting part, there’s the running part and there’s the dumb luck part. Kooky dimensions can aid and abet the batter whose sprint morphs into a marathon. It helps if an outfielder falls down, which explains Leiter’s three-bagger, not to mention John Olerud’s cycle. It also helps if the luck is only so dumb. Marlon Anderson and Ruben Tejada each motored for inside-the-park home runs when defensive foibles overcame their outfield opposition, yet Anderson never tripled as a Met and Tejada did so only once. Come to think of it, on his first out-of-the-park homer, at Wrigley Field in 2010, Ruben was so certain the ball he actually hit over the fence remained in play, he slid diligently into third. Tejada literally couldn’t triple for homering.

Once Smith introduced the Mets to the joy of three, the club has averaged one triple approximately every five-plus games. That’s one or two triples a week — save for the oddball occurrences like Doug Flynn tripling three times one night in Montreal — which leaves us generally unprepared to respond instinctively to a triple. All game and personnel situations being equal, we generally know what to do when faced with other varieties of hits. We clap politely for a single. We are heartier in our applause for a double. We leap to our feet for a home run. And for a triple, we…what do we do? We don’t know in advance that our scratch-off lottery ticket has three-matching prize amounts any more than we realize a triple is just kind of happening. Then it unfolds across an eternity. The ball has been hit, it’s in the outfield, we know it hasn’t been caught, that it’s good for one base for sure, most certainly two and…OH MY GOD! HE’S NOT SLOWING DOWN! HE’S AROUND SECOND! HE’S GOING FOR THREE! IS HE GOING TO…YES! YES! HE MADE IT! THREE! THREE! TRIPLE!

The only semi-regular baseball experience more thrilling than watching a triple become a triple would be to watch us watch a triple become a triple.

You can bet your sweet BABIP that triples occasionally reveal themselves as freaks of nature — Sid Fernandez had two as a Met, same as Mike Piazza — but the ability to hit combined with the gift of speed goes a long way in getting a Met to third base often enough so the surprise factor diminishes. Still stimulating, just not as shocking. For a veritable handful of Mets, triples were less aberration than arsenal. You’re probably familiar with the handiwork of Jose Reyes, who has legcrafted 110 triples in his two terms as a Met. Or is that legwork and handcrafted? Either way, this category has officially belonged to Reyes since July 20, 2008, when his 63rd career triple, achieved at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, whisked him past Mookie Wilson. (Observing the passing of the torch was the Reds’ rookie center fielder, Jay Bruce, a lad not impressed  enough by the whole three-bases concept to duplicate it eight or nine years later.)

The Mets team record for most triples in a season, 49 (in endless 2009), is lower than the Mets team record for fewest homers in a season, 57 (in strike-shortened 1981). It follows that high individual triple totals are  not in abundance in these parts. Reyes and Wilson are the only Mets with as many as 50 triples as Mets. Well in back of Mookie’s total of 62 is Buddy Harrelson at 45, after which we have only three other Mets who’ve tripled more than thirty times: Cleon Jones (33), Steve Henderson (31) and Darryl Strawberry (30).

Had he stayed longer than approximately a year-and-two-thirds, chances are that the next Met on the list, Lance Johnson, would slot higher than seventh and claim a whole bunch more than 27 triples. One Dog, as White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson dubbed him in his base-racing prime, showed us how the right pair of feet, in association with a pair of hands working splendidly with a bat, could send a Met tripling up this chart. Lance chose 1996, his one full season in Queens, to be at his Johnsonian best. Originally a Cardinal pest nurtured to thrive on Astroturf, he never hit like crazy prior to 1996, not in St. Louis, not on Chicago’s South Side. But in ’96, he lashed like a lunatic: hit .333, slugged .479. The gaudiest portion of the larger number was born of three-base power. Johnson found his gaps and took advantage of them with aplomb, chalking up 21 triples among his 227 hits. Both established Mets records. Only Reyes has approached the former and no Met has neared the latter.

Wouldn’t you know it, the Mets of the moment have a budding tripler who already resembles Lance a lot. This tyro tornado of the basepaths also gets compared frequently to Jose, which is understandable, given the multiple strands of their workplace proximity association. With any luck — and not the dumb kind — he may emerge as a singular archetype in his own Met right. First, he’ll need to run like we’ve seen him run, and hit more than we’ve seen him hit.

It should be fun watching him try.

One triple prior to Nimmo’s three-base finale of 2017, on September 26, 2017, we were treated to our fourth taste of tripling as a way of life when, with nobody on, Amed Rosario zoomed into third base, having shot what (pending a sudden signing somewhere) looms as the final pitch of R.A. Dickey’s career deep into center at Citi Field. Amed wound up stranded on third — is there anything more frustrating than a wasted triple? — but the kid’s mission statement stood.

Shortstop Amed Rosario wasn’t promoted from Triple-A at the outset of August to stop at second base. He didn’t always drive the ball between two outfielders, and he didn’t always round second before one or the other picked it up and threw it in, but just the small sample size that indicated how capable he is of regularly sparking such a scenario sure feels like something worth leaning into. As exciting as it is keeping tabs on Dom Smith’s alarm clock and calculating how many starters will squeeze inside Mickey Callaway’s new age rotation, 2018’s most tantalizing lure is the promise of Rosario blazing a path toward third base from the moment this season starts.

Of course getting to first is a first step, and young Amed didn’t do that with anything reflecting reassuring regularity during his two-month sneak preview. He tripled more than he walked. Same could be said for homers and doubles: he whacked four of each to three bases on balls. The slugging percentage was pumped up decently, but the on-base percentage was nowhere to be seen. There was also an uncomfortable ton of striking out and some preliminary Debbie Downer data, presented by Eno Sarris for Fangraphs, that suggested, 170 plate appearances into his big league tenure, that Son of Reyes may not be as savioresque as we dream him to be. “Though he showed some power,” Sarris wrote in November, “he usually hit the ball softly and on the ground.”

Yet four doubles, four homers, four triples before turning twenty-two years of age gives us, I think, realistic hope that Rosario — universally rated highly as a minor leaguer and compared by the ever upbeat Callaway to Francisco Lindor — isn’t a lost cause, sabermetric or otherwise. The Rosario Speedwagon to whom we wish to hitch our star notched his fourth 3B by his 151st AB. That sounds prolific.

It is, even if his pace of exhilarating play is not wholly unprecedented in Mets history. A dive into Baseball-Reference’s Play Index informs us eight Mets rookies besides Rosario racked up at least four triples in the first season they broke into the majors. Strawberry totaled seven, Henderson and Jeromy Burnitz, six; Juan Lagares and Edgardo Alfonzo, five; and Reyes, Rey Ordoñez and Ron Hunt, four. All of those fellas debuted significantly earlier in their maiden campaigns than Amed did in his. Straw needed three months to reach four triples (which nobody much noticed, since we were preoccupied monitoring Darryl’s home runs), whereas Rosario got there in less than two. Reyes was a four-triple wonder by his 41st game, which isn’t surprising, considering Jose emerged from the womb halfway to second.

The statistical parade Reyes heads is ideal for advancement. It doesn’t take too many triples to rise relatively high as a met. Rosario’s fourth triple catapulted him into a 25-way tie for 92nd place on the all-time Mets triples list. If he’s not in the Top 20 by 2020, something’s probably terribly awry. For perspective, Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, with five triples apiece, are two of 17 Mets tied for 75th place. After 56 years, only 46 Mets have double-digit triples as Mets.

By gum, we can plod with the best of them.

A few veterans from elsewhere have made indelible triples impressions upon alighting as Mets. Start with the fast-wagging tale of One Dog. Johnson showed up in our midst on April 1, 1996, and was a four-triple Met by April 21; two days later, as if to commemorate the 34th anniversary of Bobby Gene Smith’s three-bag feat, he added two more…and by May 1, Lance had seven triples and was definitively off to the races. The year before, Brett Butler spent barely more than three months as a 1995 Met, yet registered seven triples in the orange and blue (or as many as Rusty Staub rumbled for in nine seasons here). Then there was the strange case of Cory Sullivan, an overlooked avatar of 2009 Metsiness. Cory joined us on July 22 of that besotted season, a slog during which the only thing the Mets did well was triple. It’s what brand spanking new asymmetrical Citi Field was allegedly designed for. Nobody could homer…and nobody could stay healthy…but everybody could triple.

To prove it, Sullivan slipped in among us as a one-piece body for 64 games and produced five triples in 136 at-bats. That’s approximately one triple every five minutes, which is certainly not a bad thing. The impact his tripling wrought, however, did us little good. Not Cory’s fault; what was he supposed to do — not triple? The 2009 Mets legged out 49 triples. They’re the ones who own the franchise record. They also lost 92 games, demoting The Most Exciting Play In Baseball to mundanity, not to mention a state of competitive uselessness. Tim McCarver’s proclamation that triples are better than sex was filed well prior to the platonic three-bagging perfected by the 2009 Mets.

If there’s a grand correlation between winning and tripling, I haven’t stumbled into it. Lance Johnson may have never been called out at third when stretching his doubles, but he also couldn’t hustle the Mets to more than 71 wins, as the ’96 Mets tripled 47 times in service to losing 91 games. The ’78 team that featured Willie Montañez amusing the San Diego Chicken also compiled 47 triples, or roughly half as many as triples as they had losses (96). At the other end of the spectrum, no Mets team tripled less than the 1999 edition, which chugged from home to third a paltry 14 times — and that was with a 163rd game tacked on as a coda. The ’99 Mets overcame their aversion to tripling to win 97 games and the National League Wild Card. Tied for second-fewest triples was the 2015 Mets, with 17 triples on their dance card and an embossed invitation to the World Series anyway.

There’s not necessarily an inverse relationship at work. Good Mets teams have tripled competently. Lousy Mets teams have tripled sparingly. Reyes’s tripling no doubt fueled the 2006 Mets in their quest for the postseason. Harrelson’s tripling was part and parcel of the 1970 Mets’ legitimate attempt to repeat their 1969 heroics. And it’s not as if the crummy 1992 Mets were any less crummy because no 1992 Met tripled more than twice.

We come back to the flukish nature of the triple. It is a special guest star in any given box score, a recurring character available for only so many episodes in a given season. You simply can’t count on triples. They’re three bases of lightning in a bottle, with no guarantee you can pour them fluidly home. Yet with triples, especially when you get a Rosario who plants in you the notion that he can be ninety feet from scoring in a heartbeat, there is an old adage that might apply if you don’t mind paraphrasing:

It’s not the destination. It’s three-quarters of the journey.

___

Here’s Eno Sarris’s cautionary piece on Rosario’s first two months.

10 comments to Born Near Third Base

  • Ken K. in NJ

    Fascinating triples study. Until I read this Bobby Gene Smith had been forever buried in my pea-brain childhood subconscious as always being confused with Bobby Del Greco. No more. Bobby Gene Smith: First Met Triple. Got it. Thanks!

  • Dave

    Yeah, triples are often the blocked punts of baseball…almost random occurrences that don’t necessarily happen because the guy who did it is good at doing it, more that everything lined up the right way. Reyes and Mookie and One Dog hit balls to places where people hit them all the time, usually resulting in a double. Their speed makes it a triple instead. But let’s hope that Rosario starts showing enough skills with the bat that the “who’s going to hit leadoff” questions will be answered, perhaps resulting in his share of leadoff triples.

  • Gil

    Eno Sarris’ article presupposes that we Mets fans think Rosario is Roy Hodges. Clearly, this man has never spent time in Queens.

    His scientific, graphical, statistical article also reminded me of a great song lyric:

    “All this science I don’t understand / its just my job five days a week.”

    Sorry, Eno – it didn’t move the dial for me.

  • Pete In Iowa

    For all the “advanced analytics” fans out there, a question:
    With all the buzz these days about OPS and slugging percentage, I wonder if any of the advanced analytic warriors out there keep track of all the lollygagging base runners these days when they turn sure doubles into singles and sure triples into doubles, by way of posing, preening and/or trotting?
    With what used to be an expected major league effort, surely these guys would have a significantly higher OPS, and therefore, an accompanying longer term free-agent contract with a higher annual average value.

    • Gil

      But Pete, how are you going to get your bat flip just right if you are hustling to first base? And let’s not forget when you run too hard with all your jewelry exposed you risk an eye injury.

  • eric1973

    Hey Pete, lollygagging does have its rewards. Dom Smith could have saved his quad if he didn’t go from first to third.

    Even his alarm clock needs an MRI.

  • Argman

    I believe McCarver stole his line about triples being better than sex from Phillip Roth, in “The Great American Novel.” Unfortunately I seem to have lent out my copy so can’t give an exact citation, but I’m pretty sure that “you could look it up,” if so inclined.

    • From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1987:

      Tim McCarver also has told his audience that a triple reminds him of a love scene from a Philip Roth novel (“Do you love me?: “Do you mean more than a triple?”)