Fourth in a series of short player profiles spotlighting the peculiar and the noteworthy
With Ryne Sandberg's recent hiring as interim manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, one achievement of his Hall of Fame career bears a closer look. Apart from his 1984 National League MVP, a home run title, two monster performances in the Chicago Cubs' only postseason appearances since 1945 and stellar defensive play that culminated in nine Gold Gloves and the highest career fielding percentage ever by a second baseman, Sandberg's 19 triples (tied with Juan Samuel) led the Majors in 1984, far outpacing such speedsters as Willie Wilson, Tim Raines and Willie McGee.
Spiking glaringly in Sandberg's statistical record, those 19 three-baggers stand as one of the more anomalous marks in baseball annals. Prior to 1984, Sandberg had never hit more than five triples, nor did he leg out more than eight after that career-defining season.
In contrast, Juan Samuel followed his 19 three-base hits in 1984 with three consecutive seasons of double-digit triples. Yet Sandberg—fleet enough to swipe 344 bases in his career—quickly reverted to his norm, averaging a mere six triples per season during his Major League tenure (in 1984, he slammed six in June alone).
Sandberg hit as many triples in 1984 as he did home runs—a curious statistic in itself for a quantity that large—made more odd when considering that Sandberg averaged 15 more home runs than triples per season throughout his career. Further taking into account that cozy Wrigley Field is no haven for triples (Sandberg is the only Cub since Ron Santo in 1964 to lead the league in that category and the first to triple as often since Vic Saier in 1913), his 13 three-baggers hit in 79 home games in 1984 suggest that Sandberg knew all the holes in Wrigley's ivy.
Perhaps most remarkable about Ryne Sandberg's triples explosion of 1984 is that, on five separate occasions, he smashed a three-base hit in consecutive contests, at one point logging four in a span of nine July games. Sandberg's surfeit of triples actually brought him within a single base of Dale Murphy—who out-homered him 36-19—for the National League lead in total bases.
Although triples play little role in attracting MVP votes, Sandberg's surprising output of three-base hits surely helped earn him the 1984 NL MVP.
Spearheading, along with mid-season acquisition and eventual Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe, Chicago's drive to its first postseason since the end of World War II, Sandberg peppered triples at clutch moments: two of them came in extra innings (one leading to a steal of home), five times he hammered a three-bagger with the game tied and nine times Sandberg crossed the plate after knocking a three-base hit—which, when considering that he led the NL in runs scored by eight, contributed mightily to that crucial honor.
There is no explanation for such a short-lived knack for hitting triples—but none is needed. Leading Chicago to a 25-win improvement over the previous season, Ryne Sandberg was, in 1984, what George Orwell might have called unreal.