Absolutely Nothing Beats a Triple


Carlos Gonzalez

Sports Saturday

Last Sunday was a very good day for Colorado Rockies player Carlos Gonzalez. He hit for the cycle (a single, a double, a triple and a home run), a feat that has occurred only 291 times in the history of baseball. Furthermore, the home run was of the walk-off variety, occurring in the bottom of the ninth inning and allowing his team to “walk off” the field with the victory when he touched home plate.  Suddenly a player who wasn’t even invited to the all-star game now is in the running for Most Valuable Player!

Hitting for the cycle may not be as rare as some other hitting feats, such as a player hitting four home runs in a game (which has occurred only 15 times in baseball history). But I have a particular fondness for it, maybe because it is so symmetrical. Also, I enjoy it because it requires a triple, which is more rare than a home run and generally means that the hitter must have speed as well as power. When a player comes up one short of hitting for the cycle, the triple is usually the hit missing.

I learned to appreciate triples when I read Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel the summer after I graduated from college. The situation is as follows:

Angela Whittling Trust, the owner of a baseball team in the 1940’s, has had five baseball lovers over the years, two of them being Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. But the one she loves the most is one Luke “the Loner” Gofannon, who is better than either Ruth or Cobb (or so we are told by the extremely unreliable narrator). Luke, in return, loves her better than anything in the world—with one exception.

When Angela asks Luke about his greatest love, it takes him all night to come up with an answer (he’s a bit slow) but he finally tells her:

“I don’t understand, darling.
What about home runs?”
Triples. Hittin’ triples. Don’t get me wrong, Angela, I ain’t bad-mouthin’ the home run and them what hits ’em, me included. But smack a home run and that’s it, it’s all over.”
“And a triple?” she asked.
“Luke, you must tell me. I have to know. What is it about the triple that makes you love it so much? Tell me, Luke, tell me!” There were tears in her eyes, the tears of jealous rage.
“You sure you up to it?” asked Luke, as astonished as it was in his nature to be.
“Looks like you might be getting’ a little cold.”
“You love the triple more than Horace Whittling’s daughter, more than Spenser Trust’s wife—tell me why!”
“Well,” he said in his slow way, “smackin’ it, first off.
Off the wall, up the alley, down the line, however it goes, it goes with that there crack. Then runnin’ like blazes. ’Round first and into second, and the coach down there cryin’ out to ya’, ‘Keep comin’.’ So ya’ make the turn at second, and ya’ know it is right on your tail. So ya’ slide. Two hunerd and seventy feel of runnin’ behind ya’, and with all that there momentum, ya’ hit it—whack, into the bag. Over he goes. Legs. Arms. Dust. Hell, ya’ might be in a tornado, Angela. Then ya’ hear the ump—‘Safe!’ And y’re in there . . . Only that ain’t all.”
“What then?
Tell me everything, Luke! What then?”
“Well, the best part, in a way.
Standin’ up. Dustin’ off y’r breeches and standin’ up, there on that bag. See, Angela, a home run, it’s great and all, they’re screamin’ and all, but then you come around those bases and you disappear down into the dugout and that’s it. But not with a triple . . . Ya’ get it, at all?”
“Yes, yes, I get it.”
“Yep,” he said, running the whole wonderful adventure through in his mind, his eyes closed, and his arms crossed behind him on the pillow beneath his head, “big crowd . . . sock a triple . . . nothin’ like it.”
“We’ll see about that, Mr. Loner,” whispered Angela Trust.

Poor little rich girl! How she tried! Did an inning go by during the two seasons of their affair, that she did not know his batting average to the fourth digit? You’re batting this much, you’re fielding that much, nobody goes back for them like you, my darling. Nobody swings like you, nobody runs like you, nobody is so beautiful just fielding an easy fly ball!
Was ever a man so admired and adored?
Was ever a man so worshipped? Did ever an aging woman struggle so to capture and keep her lover’s heart?
But each time she asked, no matter how circuitously (and prayerfully) she went about it, the disappointment was the same.
“Lukey,” she whispered in his ear, as he lay with his fingers interlaced beneath his head, “which do you love more now, my darling, a stolen base, or me?”
“Oh, darkling,” and she kissed him feverishly, “Which do you love more, a shoestring catch, or me?”
“Oh, you.”
“Oh, my all-star Adonis!
Which do you love more, dearest Luke, a fastball letter-high and a little tight, or me?”
“Well . . .”
“Well what?”
“Well, if I’m battin’ left-handed, and we’re at home—“
“But then a’ course, if I’m battin’ rightie, you, Angel.”
“Oh, my precious, Luke, what about—what about a home run!”
“You or a home run, you mean?”
“Well, now I really got to think . . . Why . . . why . . . why, I’ll be damned, I got to be honest.
Geez. I guess—you. Well, isn’t that somethin’.”
He who had topped Ruth’s record, loved her more than all his home runs put together!
“My darling,” and in her joy, the fading beauty offered to Gofannon what she had withheld even from Cobb [anal sex].
“And Luke,” she asked, when the act had left the two of them weak and dazed with pleasure, “Luke,” she asked, when she had him just where she wanted him, “what about . . .
your triples? Whom do you love more now, your triples, or your Angela Whittling Trust!”
While he thought that one through, she prayed.
It has to be me. I am flesh. I am blood. I need. I want. I age. Someday I will even die. Oh Luke, a triple isn’t even a person—it’s a thing!
But the thing it was.
“I can’t tell a lie, Angela,” said the Loner. “There just ain’t nothin’ like it.”

So there you have it.  Nothing beats a triple.  Absolutely nothing.

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  1. Blade Lawless
    Posted August 7, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Great passage, Robin, and a good follow-up to our little conversation about the topic of play in BIG! The Roth passage is a great illustration of the love and joy that can and should motivate an athlete. Where is the evidence of the love of the game in today’s pro–and even amateur!–sports, amongst all the screaming and raging and fist-pumping? “To love the game beyond the prize” was the old ideal, as expressed by Henry Newbolt. It makes me very sad to see the extent to which modern athletes have abandoned the old values that used to elevate their forerunners into something noble and admirable. Before the advent of technological warfare, hand-to-hand combat was approached as a sport, and the great heroes of ancient epic and saga were characterized by their “joy of battle.” In the AENEID, during the final confrontation between the hero Aeneas and the villain Turnus, Aeneas is described as “exultant, joyous, and tremendous.” In contrast, Turnus cries out, “let / me rage this madness out before I die” (Mandelbaum trans.). Where are the exultant and joyous players on today’s athletic fields? In watching sports today I see none of the old heroic attitude displayed, but I see Turnuses everywhere. The “intense competitor,” the raging chest-pounder, i.e., the villain, is now the norm; and, even worse, the attitude that used to be recognized as villainous is now admired and extolled. If you don’t “have the competitive fire” and “give 110%” you might as well not show up to play any more. It’s as though somewhere along the line the sports world adopted as its motto the saying of Satan in PARADISE LOST, “Evil, be thou my good.”

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted August 7, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Once again you have me scrambling back to works I haven’t visited for a while, Blade. I’m fascinated by this distinction between joy and rage as applied to athletic contests. But wasn’t there raging in old epics as well? I’m thinking of Odysseus as he goes after the suitors. I don’t have my copy with me at the while, but I seem to remember him being almost overcome with bloodlust. And Achilles also after Patroklus dies (culminating in what he does to Hektor). But I agree that we could do with less fist-pumping. I wonder when all that started. Somehow I find myself thinking back to Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali as athletes who started the trend you note. (Then again, I could see an argument being made that Ali was “exultant, joyous, and tremendous.) On the other hand, I can think of a number of athletes who, I’d argue, fit the older values you mention: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Donovan MacNab, for instance. Tim Duncan in basketball. But okay, people see Duncan as pretty boring, which would make your point. They prefer the big flashy egos.

  3. Blade Lawless
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Sure, a few athletes are still well-behaved and maybe even some of them enjoy playing the game for its own sake, but those athletes are exceptions to the rule. Then again, maybe the joyous, exultant, and tremendous heroes have always been a minority–to be considered a hero, one must be exceptional! The real problem with modern sports as I see it is that the values have changed. Even if the love and enjoyment of sport for its own sake was never much more than an ideal, at least that ideal used to be the aspiration of all the players. Today’s professional, win-at-all-costs attitude, which has infected all but the most dilettantish of sports participants, has rendered the old ideal of the “amateur” (in its original French sense) obsolete. Today’s athletes actually admire and try to cultivate the kind of simmering, angry intensity, the menos or wrath, of an Achilles. I think it’s a stretch, by the way, to call Achillies a hero. Homer presents Achilles’s wrath as a flaw to be avoided–look at what his intensity ends up doing to him. He disgraces himself on the battlefield, and in the underworld scene in the Odyssey he admits the fatuousness of his focus on glory and achievement while he was alive. As for Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors, I see that scene as another warning from Homer: even the true hero Odysseus, who in an earlier passage expresses his love and enjoyment of battle, is capable of verging towards the extreme of an Achilles-like hatred. We might also see the suitor slaughter as a debunking of the goal orientation that drives most athletes. When Odysseus finally reaches his objective of returning to Ithaka, things turn ugly. The voyage itself should be the real goal. “Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,” writes Cavafy. “She hasn’t anything else to give you.”

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    There’s a great quotation in Beowulf which I’ll retrieve next time I’m in my office–something about how Beowulf was NOT the kind of warrior to kill his fellow warriors in drunken brawls. Which isn’t exactly the kind of thing that one would put in a letter of recommendation but, in the context of the society, is getting at a problem of the time and then noting that Beowulf rose above it. We see it in Beowulf’s ability to not go off half cocked when he is baited by Unferth. So maybe that’s an early example of the ideal you are talking about Blade, even though it’s also true that Beowulf, as well as Odysseus and a number of the warriors in the Iliad, are constantly strutting their stuff. In Beowulf, I think it’s a way of instilling confidence in his men.

    I think it’s when Christianity interfused with warrior culture that we started having the notion that a leader should submerge his ego for the good of the society. Gawain is such a figure. And the win-at-all costs mentality, at least in sports, was definitely frowned upon in 19th century society, where it was better to be a gentleman and, if anything, not want to win too badly. And you are right, Blade, something has definitely changed in the past twenty years or so. Now, it seems, everyone is quoting the ancient Art of War and is in perpetual attack mode. It seems true of modern politics as well as modern sports.

    Your discussion of The Iliad reminds me of observations that it is one of the greatest pieces of anti-war literature ever written, even though it was taught to young men in 5th century BCE Athens so that they would become better warriors. Homer understood deeply the brutality and tragedy of war and we see it up close. Interestingly enough, the Odyssey almost ends with a second round of slaughter as the suitors’ families march out in revenge. And what I find to be the most unrealistic part of the whole epic is when Athena, working through Mentor, brings a halt to the hostilities and somehow gets people to swear a truce. It’s unrealistic because, in fact, Greece had a real problem with blood feuds that went on and on and on. Odysseus killing the suitors would not have solved anything, but Homer needed a happy ending if Zeus’s will was to be fulfilled.

    Speaking of blood feuds, 8th century Anglo-Saxon society also had a problem, which the Beowulf poet articulates through the figures of Grendel and Grendel’s mother (and through a number of the digressions). The idea that there was a higher moral code at stake in sports reached its heights in 19th century Britain and continued for a while into the 20th century (and is still embodied in the ritual of shaking hands after a match or game). But again, as you say Blade, it seems to have taken a hit in recent years.

    I want to qualify one thing you say about Achilles in the underworld scene in The Odyssey. While it is true that he questions the worth of glory in his conversation with Odysseus, asserting “Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations than lord it over all the exhausted dead,” he then becomes reconciled to his choice of a life of glory when he discovers that his son is proving a worthy heir. This is another way of saying that there is a kind of immortality through the fame one achieves on the battle field. I think this conversation (which I actually think of as an interior monologue) convinces Odysseus to leave a life of luxury with the island nymph Circe and return home. After all, he has a son himself. I write about the episode at http://www.betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/?p=4290.

  5. Blade Lawless
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for pointing me towards the earlier posting, Robin. I’m very sorry to hear about your friend Alan. How is he doing now?

    You’re right about the underworld scene in the Odyssey, of course. Homer is a deconstructionist’s dream, isn’t he? It’s almost impossible to formulate a didactic reading of his work without ignoring something. One of the most successful essays on the Odyssey, I think, (and my favorite) is G.E. Dimock’s “The Name of Odysseus.” Dimock’s treatment of the Kalypso episode reminds me of your discussion of Circe’s island. Dimock writes:

    Though she offered immortality, not death–an immortality of security and satisfaction in a charming cave–it is still an immortality of oblivion, of no kleos [“recognition”], of nonentity. Leaving Kalypso is very like leaving the perfect security and satisfaction of the womb; but, as the Cyclops reminds us, the womb is after all a deadly place. In the womb one has no identity, no existence worthy of a name. Nonentity and identity are in fact the poles between which the actors in the poem move.

    This concept of “identity,” I think, constitutes an important alternative to the idea of “fame” in the old epics. The insistence by the ancient heroes on the value of fame has always troubled me. Did they really build their lives around the pursuit of such a frail and frivolous thing as what we refer to by the term “fame”? Weren’t Sidney’s Arcadians much more sensible in “finding that the shining title of glory, so much affected by other nations, doth indeed help little to the happiness of life,” and in “thinking it a small reward for the wasting of their own lives in ravening that their posterity should long after say they had done so”?

    Tennyson’s repeated pairing of the terms “name and fame” to represent a single desideratum in the Idylls of the King suggests similarity if not synonimity between the two parts of the phrase. I like to think that the ancient heroes aspired not towards fame as widespread renown but towards name as identity, à la Dimock’s Odysseus. We create a certain name, or identity, for ourselves, by the deeds we do, whether that name becomes widespread amongst many people or familiar to only a few. Furthermore, the identity becomes an ineradicable part of the universe which no forgotten fame can ever alter. Would it not have meant more to the epic heroes to realize that their deeds, once done, could never be undone, than to realize that their renown will last for a generation or two after them, or that their names will endure on paper or in stone?

    There’s many a crown for who can reach.
    Ten lines, a statesman’s life in each!
    The flag stuck on a heap of bones,
    A soldier’s doing! what atones?
    They scratch his name on the Abbey-stones.
    My riding is better, by their leave.


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