Three's Company

Let's be clear. We're not saying we want Andres Galarraga to drive that big green Mercedes of his off a cliff or come down with a case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever that lasts until precisely the 28th of September. Not at all. We're not hoping the Big Cat gets in a brawl with the entire San Francisco Giants pitching staff and finds himself suspended until the Dawn of Radical Realignment. Or that he takes leave of his senses and decides to play power forward for the Nuggets. We wish the man no such misfortune.

But if Galarraga suddenly chooses to run for the presidency of Venezuela or enter a monastery, that will be just fine with us.

Aside from watching Todd Helton and Neifi Perez get their baptisms of fire in the big leagues, this is a year when there's precious little to get excited about over at Coors Field. The club's 2-16 start in July took care of that. So Rockies fans clearly want Larry Walker to become the league's Most Valuable Player and maybe, just maybe, win the Triple Crown. The problem is, Andres Galarraga and his 113 runs batted in happen to be in the way. If the Big Cat has any feeling for his teammate, he'll break all his Louisville Sluggers into kindling and spend the rest of the season marlin fishing in Mazatlan.

San Diego's peerless Tony Gwynn and Houston's Jeff Bagwell also stand in the path of Walker's feat, but we've already got plans for them: They're the guys who're gonna help Joe Sakic carry the Hope Diamond home from the jewelry store.

The workmanlike and ever-modest Mr. Walker has been protesting for some weeks now that--aw, shucks--he's nothing more than a .285 hitter who happens to be having an especially good year and that the fortunes of the team far outweigh individual achievements. Well, fine. Now that the fortunes of the team have hit the cellar floor because, until Monday's Eric-Young-for-Pedro-Astacio deal, general manager Bob Gebhard couldn't unload a veteran or two in exchange for some real, live pitching, it's high time that Rockies fans turned all their attention toward Walker's extraordinary season.

Going into Tuesday's game at Cincinnati, the 30-year-old right fielder had already tied his personal bests in home runs (36, in 1995) and runs batted in (101, same year) and was batting .380--58 points higher than his previous season best (.322 in 1994) and 95 points better than his career average. It's quite a contrast to his ill-fated 1996 season, when he ran into the Coors Field fence in early June, missed 60 games with a broken left clavicle and wound up hitting .276.

This year, he's the best hitter in baseball despite a pair of 0-15 slumps and an 0-16 drought only last week in home games against lowly Philadelphia and modest Pittsburgh. If pressure hadn't shown before, it erupted then. Just take a look at the water cooler in the tunnel to the Rockies clubhouse. Hitless in a game last week, Walker went five-for-five against the cooler.

Slumps don't last with this guy, though. Not this year. Breaking out of it versus the visiting New York Mets last Friday and Saturday, he strung together a homer, a double, a single, a walk and a triple, then went one-for-three with an RBI in the third game of a Rockies sweep.

With nearly 40 games left to play in a season when the Rockies suddenly find themselves aging, infirm and (in the pitching sense) unarmed, most of the Walker-watch has centered on the man's quest to become the first .400 hitter since the great Ted Williams--who managed it three months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Gwynn, the seven-time National League batting champ, has flirted with that magic number three or four times in his career, and in 1980 Kansas City's George Brett hit .390. For much of the first half of this season, Walker was over .400, but the rigors of a 162-game season have taken their toll. Recently, Walker has even been skipping batting practice to conserve his strength.

Otherwise, it will be tough for any hitter to match up to Teddy Ballgame again: In the Nineties, tiring starting pitchers give way to fresh middle-relief specialists, who then hand the ball to hard-throwing closers, diminishing the chances of great hitters to fatten their averages in the late innings of ballgames. Not so in Ted's time.

(This nouveau pitching scenario, by the way, is the way things get done on most teams; alas, the Rox are not usually one of them).

In any event, hardened baseball fans would probably be even happier to see Larry Walker win the Triple Crown than to hit .400. Most of them might agree that's it's an even more impressive achievement--the ultimate blend of power, timeliness and consistency that distinguishes great hitters from good ones.

No major leaguer has led his league in home runs, RBIs and batting average since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967 (44 homers, 121 RBI and .326), and no National Leaguer has managed it since the Cardinals' Ducky Medwick way back in 1937 (31, 154 and .374). As recently as 1995, the Rockies' own Dante Bichette and then-Cleveland Indian Albert Belle each led his league in homers and RBI, but because sluggers usually strike out so much, it's extraordinary for a player to be tops in both home runs and batting average: Only Johnny Mize (the original "Big Cat") and the aforementioned Mr. Williams have done it.

The Triple Crown is rarer yet, of course: In the entire history of the game, only fourteen men have managed it, and only two--Williams and Rogers Hornsby--did it twice.

How close is our Mr. Walker? Well, on Tuesday morning he led Gwynn (.379) by exactly one point in batting average; the third-place man, L.A. Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, was 30 points back. League-leading home run hitter Walker had three more dingers than Houston's Bagwell and five more than teammate Galarraga. Now here's the rub: Walker trails the Big Cat by an even dozen in the RBI race and Bagwell by just four. The irony is obvious: Because clean-up man Galarraga bats behind No. 3 hitter Walker in Don Baylor's lineup, he gets more opportunities for runs batted in. In the Triple Crown wars, Walker could turn out to be his own worst enemy, standing at first or second base waiting to be scored by Galarraga.

That's life, he reasons--the life of a career .285 hitter. Short of convincing the Big Cat to join the pro bowlers' tour for the remainder of the baseball season, the RBI gap is likely to remain constant, if not widen.

On the other hand, if skipper Baylor, seeking to shake things up for a team that was nine games out of first place on Tuesday morning, were to juggle a couple of things on his lineup card . . .

Don't count on it. If Larry Walker is destined this year to join the pantheon of Triple Crown winners--Williams, Hornsby, Medwick, Yaz, Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and a couple of guys most fans have never heard of--he's likely going to do it hitting in his familiar three spot.

On second (or third) thought, that's not so bad. For the Rockies' No. 33, after all, the very number "three" has always carried a magical significance veering into sheer superstition. With that in mind, dare we point out that it's been an even three decades since Ted Williams won the Triple Crown, and that the last National League winner, Medwick, did it precisely three decades before that? Or that the thing itself is called "Triple"?

Whatever happens, it's a pleasure to watch Larry Walker this season. As the big guy settles into a wide stance in the left-handed batter's box, you notice that straight, fully-extended right leg pointed out there toward the future, toe first. His weight now is wound back over the left leg. After a couple of low, loose-wristed bat waggles--timing and balance devices--he draws the red-stained bat back and up, sets himself stock still and, if the pitch is the one he wants, uncoils his 6-3, 225-pound bulk into a swing as fluid and powerful as any swing in baseball. The musical collision of cowhide and ash comes a scant tenth of a second later and, almost four times out of ten (phenomenal in this game), the ball evades all fielders, quite often everything in the playing field.

This is a beautiful thing to watch, Larry Walker at bat, the alleged .285 hitter at bat, and the beauty deepens with each day of the season. Your Colorado Rockies may be tied for last place and worried to death about the future, but Walker is a pure work of art up there. The National League MVP award looks like a cinch, but should he somehow manage to hit .400, or--only a little more likely--win the Triple Crown, this will be a Rockies season more memorable than 1995, when the club made its only playoff appearance, or 1993, when it first took the field.

No one can ask the Big Cat to curl up for a nap or Baylor to switch his number three and four Bombers, or Messrs. Gwynn and Bagwell to pack it in. Wouldn't it be nice if No. 33 overcame them all on his own? Wouldn't that be something to see? Hey, we could all chip in and get that water cooler fixed.

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