June 6, 2015

Three Cheers for a Triple Crown?

When I was a kid, my sports hero was Carl Yastrzemski, beloved #8 of the Boston Red Sox.  I think I became a Sox fan because my one-year-older brother was one, and it seemed like the right thing to do.  I'm still one (insert snarky Yankee fan laughter here), and still think that Yaz was one of the best ever, even though he never won a World Series.

He did, however, win baseball's batting Tripe Crown, for having the most home runs, most RBIs, and highest batting average.  He also won the MVP that year, 1967.  Yaz's record stood until 2012, when Miguel Cabrera completed the almost impossible feat.  In all the years that baseball has been around, there have been only seventeen batting Triple Crowns, won by only fifteen people.  Paul Hines, 1878. Tip O'Neill, 1887. Hugh Duffy, 1894. Nap Lajoie, 1901. Ty Cobb, 1909. Rogers Hornsby, 1922 and 1925. Jimmy Fox (AL) 1933. Chuck Klein (NL), 1933. Lou Gehrig, 1934. Joe Medwick, 1937. Teddy Ballgame, 1942 and 1947. Mickey Mantle, 1956. Frank Robinson, 1966. Yaz.  And Cabrera.

I loved that, as the years went by, no one managed to to what my hero did. Forty-five years of Yaz sitting at the top of the heap, watching challengers (and cheaters) fail to match his success across three very different measures: the long ball, the ability to bring in men on base in front of you (which doesn't always require power), and consistency over the entire season.

I was sad when Cabrera won it in 2012, not just because it was Yaz's record that stood for so long, but because I liked that no one won it for so long. I like that it's not something that just anyone wins, that it's not an everyday occurrence.  The only thing that made it remotely OK was that Cabrera didn't play for the Evil Empire.

Similarly, I'm one of those cantankerous folks who has hoped, openly or quietly, that we don't have a horse racing Triple Crown winner.  I think the closest I came to rooting for a horse to win the race was in '03 when Funny Cide, the 'local boy', had a chance.  I cheered for him, our New York horse, I really did -- but with fingers crossed that he would not be successful, that the classic races in 1978 between Affirmed and Alydar would still be sitting at the top of the list when the dust settled.

Today, American Pharaoh will have a chance to break a thirteen-horse losing streak as he takes on seven potential heartbreakers in the Belmont. That's right: Pharaoh is the fourteenth horse to come into New York having won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and he's the odds-on betting favorite, as were his predecessors.

Pharaoh's trainer, Bob Baffert, knows the feeling of this moment better than anyone. He's been here four times -- four! -- with a Derby/Preakness winner staring at history, and coming up short. It's almost agonizing to watch the footage as his great and talented horses, ridden by great and talented jockeys, have fallen short, as many great players have fallen short of the magical batting Triple Crown.

The colt is running against a field of seven, five of whom did not race in the Preakness. Some say that's not right, that if any horse is to take down a potential Triple Crown winner, it should be one who has suffered through the two previous races, not one coming off a long rest. I guess, but they're three separate races; would it be necessary, for example, if a pro golfer won the first three majors of the year, that anyone who plays against him in the fourth must have played in the first three?  I don't buy that.

Sir Barton, 1919. Gallant Fox, 1930. Omaha, 1935. War Admiral, 1937. Whirlaway, 1941. Count Fleet, 1943. Assault, 1946. Citation, 1948. Secretariat, glorious Secretariat,  1973. Seattle Slew, 1977. Affirmed, ridden by 18-year-old Steve Cauthen, 1978.

Is 2015 horse-racing's 2012?  Is it time to let someone else sit on top of the world? I'm not sure. I might actually root for American Pharaoh this afternoon, but if I were to hazard a guess, I'd bet there'll be some at least gently crossed fingers hidden behind my back.