The average major league baseball game features 56 balls in play – that’s 28 times each team has a chance to make a play in the field. for our Detroit Tigers that’s over 4,300 plays in a season, some of which are sent over the fence as home runs, of course. That includes weak groundballs, deep flyouts, high pop flies, errors, bunts, line drive singles, doubles down the line, and so on.
In the long history of the Tigers there have been more than 450,000 defensive plays, but even so, there’s a chance that you’ve never seen a triple play, one of the rarest plays to happen on the diamond. In the 113 years of Tiger baseball, the team has turned a grand total of 33 triple plays. That’s the most of any team in the American League, but I’ve spoken with a lot of hardcore Tiger fans who admit they can’t recall seeing even one.
That’s because it happens about once every 3-4 years, and even if one occurs, you might not have caught that game. My first Tigers’ game was in 1974 or 1975 (watching on TV) and I attended my first game in 1979. Since then I’ve been an avid Tiger fan year-in and year-out, at various times watching dozens or maybe 100-150 games each season. The last 4-5 years I’ve probably only missed a handful of games each season. But I can only recall seeing one Tigers’ triple play in my 35 years of watching them regularly.
The triple play is a fluke, an anomaly, a freakish accident. Seeing one is sort of like stumbling upon a black swan (which was once thought to be non-existent, by the way). Certain conditions have to apply for one to occur:
1) There must be at least two runners on base
2) There must be no outs
3) The ball must be put in play
4) The ball has to be fielded by a defensive player
Close your eyes, think about how many times you’ve seen the bases loaded with no one out, and then think about how many times the batter proceeded to hit the ball so a defensive player could make a play on it to attempt to make an out or outs. Seems pretty common, right? Well, according to Baseball-Reference.com, that situation happens about 20 times per team, per season. Runners on first and second with nobody out? That’s another 70 times per season, per team. So, that’s less than 100 times a season when a triple play is even possible in theory. Most triple plays occur when the baseball is hit hard as a line drive or a groundball, which means you can take that 90 opportunities and at least half them. Now I can see why I haven’t witnessed more than one Detroit triple play in my years as a fan.
As I mentioned earlier, no AL team has turned more triple plays than the Tigers. But even so, the Tigs haven’t performed a triple killing since August 1, 2001. In a game against the Mariners at Comerica Park, Seattle’s Mark McLemore hit a screaming line drive to Detroit second baseman Damion Easley, who flipped the ball to shortstop Deivi Cruz to double off the runner at second, who fired to first baseman Shane Halter to triple off the runner there. Triple play! However, the Tigers lost the game to the Mariners, 7-1. That’s another thing about triple plays that makes them less memorable, they often happen in games where your team loses. That’s because a triple play is more likely when your pitching staff is allowing a lot of runners and runs.
The previous Tigers’ triple play was in 1992, also against the Mariners, this time at Tiger Stadium. That time, it was the immortal Skeeter Barnes who snared a line drive off the bat of Omar Vizquel (know a Detroit coach), stepping on third, and firing to Cecil Fielder at first for the triple play. The Tigs won that game at The Corner.
But I didn’t see either of those triple plays. Did you? I hope so, because it’s apparently a once-in-a-decade thing for the Tigers. The previous triple play by the Tigers came in 1980. That’s the one I witnessed. It was August 20, 1980, and the Tigers were in Milwaukee facing the Brewers in a Wednesday night game. Detroit built a big lead on the strength of homers by John Wockenfuss, Tommy Brookens, and Lance Parrish, pushing their lead to 8-2 entering the 7th. But the Brewers clawed back, which made the eventual triple play even more dramatic. In the 8th inning, the Brewers pushed across two runs to pull within 8-5, which promoted Sparky Anderson to wave in Aurelio Lopez from the bullpen. Runners were at first and second with nobody out and a secent mid-week crowd of more than 20,000 was amped up as veteran slugger Sal Bando came to the plate to face Señor Smoke. Bando was a great fastball hitter and Lopez was a fastball pitcher. Bando got the heater and whipped his bat at the pitch which he sent on one hop to third base. Brookens fielded it, stepped on third, and tossed the baseball to Lou Whitaker, who showed why we loved Sweet Lou by forcing the runner at second before firing a relay to first with that powerful right arm. Richie Hebner, the old gravedigger, stretched for Whitaker’s throw in plenty of time to retire Bando at first. As I remember it, it was a rather easy triple play, no doubt about it at first. Not only was it a rare triple play, it was a clutch rally killer for Lopez and the Tigers. The Brewers scored one run in the 9th, but Lopez got out of a jam to close the game out for Detroit, 8-6.
It was the first triple play I’d ever seen. I was 12 years old, and I didn’t yet realize how rare they were. It’s happened twice since for the Tigers in 33 seasons, and it’s been 12 years and counting since the last triple play. Who knows when we’ll see another?
Fans in the late 1960s were treated to triple plays in both 1968 and 1969, the first a rare 1-6-3 (pitcher to shortstop to first base) triple play. Ask Denny McLain about that one – he snared a liner and started the triple killing, which came against the rival Baltimore Orioles and off the bat of menace Boog Powell. McLain won his 27th game that Sunday afternoon at Tiger Stadium, September 1, 1968.
The Tigers also turned triple plays in 1945, 1940, and 1934, all seasons in which they won pennants. As we go back further in time there are more triple plays because 1) there were fewer strikeouts and thus more balls in play, and 2) less home runs were hit which meant more balls were kept in the ballpark. Between 1927 and 1931, the Tigers made five triple plays, including two in 1927 less than a month apart.
The one Detroit Tigers’ triple play I wish I’d seen is one of the most famous in history. On May 31, 1927, at Navin Field, the Tigers faced the Cleveland Indians in an afternoon game. It turned out to be an epic pitchers’ duel and Detroit held a slim 1-0 lead in the top of the ninth when the Indians got their first two runners on base. The next batter hit a screaming liner that was snared by Tigers’ first baseman Johnny Neun, who quickly tagged Cleveland runner Charlie Jamieson off the bag for the second out. When he realized the runner at second was almost to third base, Neun ran to second base and stepped on the bag. It was not only the third out of the play, it was the final out of the game. It was just the seventh unassisted triple play in baseball history (ironically, a shortstop for the Cubs had done the trick the previous day).
Had I only been able to see THAT play, what a story I could tell!