DETROIT — Two generations have passed since somebody last won baseball’s Triple Crown.
That 45-year absence since Carl Yastrzemski captured it with a long-shot champion Red Sox team has heightened the anticipation as Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera chases it.
Yastrzemski clinched it on the same sunny Fenway Park afternoon in 1967 that his team beat the Twins to win the American League pennant — although Yaz and his teammates had to wait at the ballpark after their triumph to see if the Tigers could force a one-game playoff by winning the second game of a doubleheader with the Angels.
The Red Sox popped the champagne corks after hearing that Tigers second baseman Dick McAuliffe hit into a season-ending double play.
As for the Triple Crown celebration, Yaz — speaking at an All-Fenway Team celebration last week — said that his personal title received so little attention that nobody asked him about it on the final day of the season.
“The one thing that’s going to help (Cabrera) is, he’s in a pennant race,” Yastrzemski said. “Plus, there’s so much more publicity nowadays with people following him and everything else. I mean, you get a report every day and so forth.
“But in ’67, the Triple Crown wasn’t even mentioned once. We were so involved in the pennant race, I didn’t know I won the Triple Crown until the next day when we read it in the paper.”
Yaz, also a brilliant left fielder, easily won the batting title in ’67, hitting .326 to runner-up Frank Robinson’s .311. Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline finished third at .308.
Yaz’s 121 RBI provided plenty of breathing room between him and the rest of the league, too. Twins first baseman Harmon Killebrew finished second with 113.
The close race was in the home run category, where he finished tied at 44 with Killebrew.
Cabrera’s quest will also likely come down to the homers — or as Tigers TV analyst Rod Allen refers to them, “the big flies.”
Cabrera crushed No. 44 on Monday, helping the Tigers clinch the AL Central with a 6-3 victory at Kansas City and putting him one homer in front of Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton with two games left.
Cabrera’s 137 RBI are well ahead of Hamilton’s 127, and Cabrera’s .329 average gives him the edge over Angels center fielder Mike Trout, who is second at .325.
When asked what he knew about Yaz on the recent home stand, Cabrera smiled and said, “A lot.”
He offered no nuggets of wisdom in that regard, but if Cabrera follows all the reporting this week, he’ll learn much about the man whose feat he’s trying to duplicate.
I’ve spoken with Yaz twice in the past 45 years, and both were memorable experiences.
In the final weeks of that ’67 pennant race, we went to Metro Airport to pick up a family member arriving on a flight from Boston. Word spread around the gate area that the Red Sox were aboard, and as a young baseball fan, I was thrilled.
I didn’t have anything to write on, but took the liberty of grabbing a Pan Am airline timetable for my autograph pursuits.
First, I got Jim Lonborg, the Cy Young Award winner that year, to sign. He smiled while making small talk about the Tigers.
Yaz came off right behind him, a leather bag slung over one shoulder. I told him that we shared a Polish heritage. He seemed to like that, but didn’t smile much and wasn’t as talkative as Lonborg. Yaz is stoic by nature.
We met again in 1991, on Ted Williams Day at Fenway.
I went into Boston manager Joe Morgan’s office when the clubhouse opened and was surprised to find Yaz sitting on the couch to the left. The “Splendid Splinter” himself was on the couch to the right. I sat on the same couch as Yaz, trying not to act completely flabbergasted by my great fortune.
They allowed me to enter into their conversation about the game, and Yaz didn’t say much again. We all enjoyed Williams, a great storyteller, spinning his yarns about hitting and more hitting.
Williams dropped his chin and peered at me over his glasses after a few minutes, saying, “You a reporter? You are, huh. Well, these are great stories. I’m even being nice to reporters today.”
Yaz, Morgan and Williams laughed, and I hesitated before joining in. What a “Field of Dreams” cornfield moment that was.
One of the reasons Yaz’s Triple Crown didn’t bring much fanfare was because the Orioles’ Robinson had won it the year before. Yaz won the crown for the fifth time in a 25-year period, also joining Mickey Mantle (1956) and Williams (1942 and 1947).
“I thought somebody would have won it a long time ago,” Yastrzemski said last week. “And the surprising thing about it is, when Mantle won it and Williams and Frank, you had a higher mound.
“You know, I’d like to see what some of the pitchers would throw today, with their speeds if they came off the higher mound. I could see (Justin) Verlander probably throwing 100 miles an hour or more on every pitch. So, like I said, I’m surprised it’s lasted this long.”
Mounds were lowered after the 1968 season, when Denny McLain won 31 games, Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA and pitchers were dominating.
“Well,” Yastrzemski said, “somebody’s gonna do it. Whether it’s Cabrera this year or whether it’s gonna be next year.
“I’m surprised that it’s gone this long, to be perfectly honest. And when (Pete) Rose broke (Ty) Cobb’s hit record, I never thought that would happen. And then when (Cal) Ripken broke (Lou) Gehrig’s consecutive game record, I never thought that would happen either. So it’s gonna happen.”
Yaz, Robinson and Mantle — the last three Triple Crown winners — also led their teams to the World Series.
Cabrera will tell you that getting there is what he plays for, not some glorious string of statistics.
But only 13 men have claimed the crown. Coronations like that are special.
It would likely stamp Cabrera as the best hitter of his generation.