The triple play is an almost mythological occurrence for people playing the game. A triple play is a relatively rare occurrence in baseball with only 720 being recorded since 1876. The unassisted triple play is the unicorn of Major League Baseball, the rarest of all baseball plays with only 15 being recorded since 1900. In over fifty years of watching baseball, I’ve never witnessed a triple play in the big leagues, either in person or on TV. I’ve also never seen a no-hitter in its entirety, so take that for what it’s worth.
In all the years I’ve played baseball and beer league softball, I’ve only been involved in one triple play and I remember it as if it happened yesterday, even though it was at least ten years ago. Our softball team, no longer in existence due to advancing age, was a group of friends who liked to play and if we won, great. If not, we’d repair to the parking lot, have a few beers, recap the game and give it another shot next week
Most triple plays happen by accident. The majority happen with runners on first and second. Bases loaded triple plays are the second most frequent situation. The majority are triggered by a combination of a terrific fielding play and bad base running.
The Royals have been involved in 12 triple plays -six that they turned over and six that they were on the receiving end of. I couldn’t find which team has been involved in the most triple plays in baseball history, though it seemed like the Minnesota Twins were among the leaders. The Twins, since their 1961 inception, have been involved in 22 triple plays, turning over 14 and getting victimized 8 times. Bill Wambsganss turned the only unassisted triple play in World Series history for the Cleveland Indians in Game Five of the 1920 World Series against the Brooklyn Robins. What a name! Wambsganss. Can you imagine Bob Uecker in his best Harry Doyle voice trying to pronounce that on the radio?
In my triple play game, I was playing first. I was a little bit like Whit Merrifield, playing all over: second, short, catcher, outfield. Martin, our regular first baseman was gone, so I gladly took that spot since it’s a short walk from first to our dugout.
The scenario was this: We were the visiting team and down by eight runs going into our last at bat. We put together a terrific rally, scoring nine to go up by one. Keep the line moving, right? I felt pretty good about our chances.
Former Royal Jeff Francoeur was the last batter to hit into an unassisted triple play, which took place on August 23, 2009 with Frenchy playing for the New York Mets. The fielder on that play was a young man named Eric Bruntlett, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies. Bruntlett had a seven-year career with two teams, but only played 12 more games after his milestone.
The great Brooks Robinson is the only player in major league history to hit into four triple plays. Brooks was also on the defensive side of the first triple play in Royals history, a 5-4-3 triple play on August 6, 1969 in a game at Baltimore. In the top of the fourth, Lou Piniella stroked a lead off triple off Mike Cuellar. Pitching to Ed Kirkpatrick, Cuellar balked Piniella home to give the Royals a 1-0 lead. Kirkpatrick then drew a walk and Joe Foy followed with a single to right, putting the runners at first and second. Catcher Ellie Rodriguez then hit a sharp grounder to Robinson, who stepped on third, rifled a throw to Davey Johnson at second (yes, the manager Dave Johnson) who relayed to Boog Powell at first for the inning ending triple play. The Orioles went on to win that game by a score of 2-1. This triple play was #517 in history. The home plate umpire in this game? Don Denkinger, who always seemed to be in the middle of Royals history.
Kirkpatrick, also known affectionately as “Spanky”, also played a large role in the first defensive triple play in Royals history. This occurred on August 13th, 1972 in a game against the Texas Rangers. Only 5,598 fans were on hand at Arlington Stadium to witness triple play #533. With Dick Drago on the mound, pitcher Dick Bosman led off the bottom of the third with a double. Drago then walked Elliott Maddox. The next batter, Toby Harrah, tried to lay down a bunt.
Now I’m going to interrupt this triple play thread to rant a little. Why in the hell would any manager with half a brain order a bunt in this situation? You’ve got two men on and nobody out, it’s only the THIRD inning and Harrah was an excellent hitter. His 17-year career slash was only .264/.365/.395, but like a lot of hitters, his early and late years were his worst. Harrah stroked 1,954 career hits, 195 home runs and drew 1,153 walks. He led the league in walks in 1977 with 109 and drew over 80 walks in 8 different seasons. He was a four-time All-Star and was good for 51 WAR over his career. The guy had a good eye and he could hit, and he had some power. Even more confounding is that the Rangers manager at the time was Ted Williams, arguably one of the greatest hitters of all time. Why would Ted get conservative with one of his best bats at the plate? Yeah, I’ve heard all the arguments about moving the runners over and bunting to avoid the double play. Yada yada yada. Esteemed writer Joe Posnanski is the president of the anti-bunt club and I’m the vice-president. In my opinion, the bunt is a surefire inning killer and over the years it would drive me absolutely batty when Ned would bunt the Royals out of any possible scoring opportunity.
In a turn of poetic justice, Harrah laid down a bunt that coughed and died right in front of the plate. Harrah, uncertain if the ball was fair, hesitated in the box while Kirkpatrick jumped on that bunt like I attack a donut. He tagged Harrah out then whipped a throw to third baseman Paul Schaal to retire Bosman. The swift Maddox, running on the pitch, got hung up between second and third. Schaal fired a throw to Cookie Rojas at second who returned it to Schaal for the tag and a sweet 2-5-4-5 rally killer. The triple play was #533 in history. In the end, it didn’t matter as the Rangers prevailed, 13-4.
The Royals didn’t turn another triple play until May 3rd, 1985 facing New York in a game at Yankee Stadium. In the bottom of the sixth, with the Yankees leading 6-1 and Mike LaCoss on the mound, Mike Pagliarulo drew a lead off walk. Pags went to third on a single by Billy Sample, and scored when George Brett booted a ball hit by Bob Meacham. The next batter, Rickey Henderson, smoked a line drive that Frank White pulled in. White flipped the ball to Steve Balboni to get Meacham for the second out. Balboni then threw to shortstop Onix Concepcion to get Sample diving back to the bag. A very nice and clean 4-3-6 snuff out for triple play #585. Once again, it didn’t matter, as the Royals dropped the game by a score of 7-1 despite turning three double plays and the triple play.
In their last at bat, our opponents drew a lead off walk (why do they allow walks in slow pitch softball?) and the next batter singled, putting runners at the corners with no outs. I figured best case we have a tie game and go to extra innings. Worse case, we lose. The next batter hit a sharp ground ball to Jeff, our shortstop, who looks a bit like Mickey Mantle. He gobbled it up, stepped on second and rifled a strong throw to me for the second out.
On July 4, 1988, Kansas City pulled off a Royals Hall of Fame triple play against the Red Sox with a slick 8-4-3 eraser. Jim Rice drilled a line drive to center field that looked impossible to catch. The speedy Willie Wilson ran the ball down, made the catch then fired a throw to Frank White to double off Mike Greenwell. White then threw to George Brett, playing first base, to get Ellis Burks. Thus, triple play #585 became only the third triple play executed on Independence Day and the first on that day since 1929.
The Royals pulled off another triple play, #623, on May 14, 1994 against the Oakland A’s, going 5-4-3, Gary Gaetti to Terry Shumpert to Wally Joyner.
They turned a three killing against the Orioles on April 3rd, 1996 with a 5-4-3-2 number for #628: Joe Randa to Bip Roberts to Bob Hamelin to Sal Fasano.
Their last triple play for the Royals occurred on June 11th, 2006 in a game at the K against Tampa. In the top of the second, Johnny Gomes tagged Scott Elarton for a lead-off home run to put Tampa up 1-0. Elarton walked the next batter, Aubrey Huff, then gave up a single to Rocco Baldelli which put runners at the corners. Russell Branyan chipped a dying quail into centerfield which sent both runners moving. David DeJesus made a great play to catch the ball. His throw to the infield was cut off by Elarton who relayed to Angel Berroa to get Baldelli. Berroa then fired a throw to Mark Teahen at third to get the retreating Huff to complete triple play #666. The Royals also lost this game, 8-2.
Inexplicably, the runner at third then decided to break for home. No Lucas Duda in me. I wheeled and threw a perfect strike to my buddy Bryan who easily tagged out the runner at home for the game ending triple play. We were elated, coming from eight down in our last at bat AND closing the game on a triple play! The other team was so angry, they wouldn’t even shake hands after the game. The beer that evening tasted better than it ever had, before or since.
The last time the Royals were victimized by a triple play? April 20, 2012 in a game at the K against Kyle Drabek and the Toronto Blue Jays. Alex Gordon led off the bottom of the third with a double to deep right field. Fan favorite Yuniesky Betancourt drew a walk. That brought Eric Hosmer to the plate. Hos smoked a line drive right at first baseman Eric Lind, who stepped on the bag to double up Yuni before throwing to Yunel Escobar to get the diving Gordon. A slick 3-3-6 inning snuffer for #689. The weird thing about this triple play? That’s right. Yuni taking a walk. How rare was that? Over 4,278 plate appearances, Yuni only walked 143 times. If my math is correct, that’s a 3% walk rate, which borders on the unbelievable.
The Royals haven’t fared well in their games in which a triple play occurred, only winning two while losing ten. The great 1977 team, winners of 102 games, had two triple plays pulled on them. The first on April 22nd against Seattle and the next on June 3rd against Baltimore, numbers 542 and 544 respectively. The Royals predecessors, the Kansas City Athletics didn’t fare much better, going one win and three losses in games in which a triple play occurred.
The last triple play against the Athletics occurred on July 23, 1960 in a game against the Washington Senators in what might have been the first all-Spanish triple play: a 1-3-6, Pedro Ramos to Julio Becquer to Jose Valdivielso, #475 in triple play history.
The first and only triple play the Athletics pulled on defense happened on September 4th, 1966 in the second game of a double header against the Boston Red Sox at Municipal Stadium. In the top of the first, Rico Petrocelli led off with a single off Athletic pitcher Gil Blanco. Future Royal Joe Foy drew a walk. The third batter, Don Demeter also walked, loading the bases. Such was the life of the Athletics in those days.
This brought up the ill-fated Tony Conigliaro. Conigliaro had made his debut in 1964 as a 19-year-old and slugged 104 home runs in his first three and a half seasons before a horrific beaning in 1967 nearly killed him, but in the summer of ’66 Conigliaro was in his youthful prime. This triple play, #498 all-time, was almost identical to my beer league triple play. Conigliaro hit a sharp grounder to shortstop Bert Campaneris who flipped to Dick Green at second to force Demeter. Green fired the ball to first baseman Tim Talton for the second out. Petrocelli, breaking late from third was tagged out by catcher Phil Roof on a slick 6-4-3-2 play. This appears to have been the only triple play recorded in Municipal Stadium history and was #498 in major league history. The Athletics won this game by a score of 7-2.