Saturday, September 29, 2012

Yaz, Cabrera and the Triple Crown

My earliest memories of baseball are from the summer of 1967 when I was a four-year old boy growing up on Puffer Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. I was not a Tigers fan at the time or even a baseball fan yet, but I was slowly figuring out that baseball was about the most important thing in the universe.  That was the summer of the impossible dream Red Sox, who surprised the baseball world by capturing an improbable American League pennant after finishing ninth in a ten-team league the previous season.

Turn arounds like the one the Red Sox made between 1966 and 1967 were more difficult in those days as there no playoffs where a team could sneak into the World Series by virtue of a weak division or a wildcard berth.  They had to beat out every team in the 162-game season.  So, the Red Sox were a big deal in Massachusetts that year.  The exception was in my household where my father was a Cardinals fan. The Cardinals of course, defeated the Red Sox in the World Series that year, so I was hearing it from both sides.  I had no idea what was going on, but I was captivated nevertheless.

The words "pennant" and "World Series" became part of my vocabulary for the first time that year along with "Red Sox" and "Cardinals".  I imagine the word 'Tigers" must have been uttered at some point as they were part of the epic AL pennant race that year.  I did not become a fan of the Tigers until some time in 1968 though.

I also probably heard the phrase "Triple Crown" that summer because that was the the year of the last triple crown winner.  Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski led the league in all three triple crown categories that year batting .326 with 44 home runs and 121 Runs Batted In.  Some called him by his proper name of "Cahl Yascrimski", but mostly it was just Yaz.

The whole neighborhood was talking about Yaz. The Cote boys were yapping about him.  The girl across the street worshipped him. My eight-year-old sister Vera had a Yaz baseball card of which she was very proud.  Her friend Brian next door had a bigger collection of cards including multiple Carl Yastrzemskis. I admired their card collections, but would not get  my first pack until the following year.  Always the contrarian, I would corner the neighborhood market on Lou Brock cards by the middle of the summer of 1968. 

When the neighborhood kids would play baseball in the yard next door, there was a tall kid with an eye patch who was apparently very good as everyone would get excited  when he came up.  He was like the Yaz of Puffer Street.  Everyone would wait for him to go into his Yaz stance with his bat held exceptionally high.  

Local fans admired Yaz so much there was even a song about him.  I distinctly remember the chant "Cahl Yascrimski Cahl Yascrimski"   There were other players who were mentioned such as Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg.  They also liked Lee Stange for some reason.  His record was 8-10 that year which didn't normally earn a pitcher a lot of love in the sixties.  Either they were early sabermetricians or they just liked his nickname "Stinger".  I think they had a song about him too.  Still, it was clear that Yaz was some kind of god above all the others.

Forty-five years later, Tigers star Miguel Cabrera has a very good chance to be the first triple crown winner since Yastrzemski.  His three-run homer in the eighth inning this afternoon gave him 43 home runs tying him with Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton for the home run lead.  Cabrera also leads the AL in batting average (.327) and RBI (136).

Things are more complicated now than they were for a four year old boy or any fan in 1967.  Many fans today are much more analytical about baseball now than their counterparts five decades earlier. The triple crown stats are no longer universally accepted as the best statistics for evaluating players. Some modern fans go so far as to speak of them in disdain.

Instead of a community of Tigers fans simply being in awe of Cabrera's potential accomplishment as Red Sox rooters were of Yaz in 1967, internet fans argue about the importance of the triple crown.  They debate endlessly whether Cabrera is a better player than Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout who trails Cabrera in the triple crown numbers, but excels in areas less recognized by traditional numbers.  These debates can get quite heated and some fans have grown to dislike them.  While there is a lot of stubbornness on both sides, I personally think these discussions are healthy and good for the game. 

As a fan who grew up before sabermetrics, the internet and satellite TV and radio broadcasting every game though, I think the triple crown chase is also great for the game.  The analyst in me will not focus on the triple crown numbers in any serious evaluation of players, but the old-time sentimental fan in me understands the tradition and symbolism of the crown.  I won't let it influence my MVP vote (not that I have one!), but I'm enjoying Cabrera's quest in the same way the Puffer Street gang enjoyed Yaz's feat in the Summer of 1967.

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