Mar 29, 2013, 11:12 AM EDT
Gus Triandos was famously slow ballplayer. There’s a difference between been a regular old slow ballplayer and a famously slow one. The first might go somewhat unnoticed, especially if he tries hard enough. Raul Ibanez is very slow, he will be the first one to tell you that. But he always runs it out and so people don’t notice it much.
But the famously slow ballplayer — he has nowhere to hide. And that was Gus Triandos.
Triandos could hit with power. Man, could he hit with power. At 17, he hit .323 with 18 homers in just 92 games for Class C Twin Falls. The Yankees were generally unimpressed and put him right back in Class C the next year. He hit .435 with 10 homers in 28 games. You would think that might catch their attention. It really didn’t. After a brief move up, they put him BACK in Class C, where he hit .363 with 11 homers in in 74 games. It was as if the Yankees couldn’t believe someone that heavy-footed could hit baseballs that hard. Bill James has written that if Triandos had been established as a big league catcher at a young age, he might have hit 400 or 500 homers.
The Yankees never did believe — they traded Triandos to Baltimore in a 17-player dump that netted the Yankees Don Larsen and Bob Turley. The Orioles got Gus Triandos and, well, they got Gus Triandos. He immediately became one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. He was a regular in Baltimore for seven or so years, and he posted a 111 OPS+ in that time. He hit as many as 30 home runs (only Rudy York among American League catchers had ever hit more) and he also had seasons of 25 and 21 homers. He played in three straight All-Star games, starting two of them.
In Baltimore, he was beloved. He was a self-effacing man, good natured, who understood his place in the world. Outside of Baltimore, yeah, he was known as a famously slow ballplayer. This was especially apparent in 1959, when (as memorialized in the classic NSFW “Which man would you have sex with so you could sleep with the Olsen twins” scene in “The Wire”) the Orioles decided to make knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm a starting pitcher. He started 27 games that year, 11 more the next, and that was it for him as a starter … he started four more games the rest of his career.
So that was fortune of Gus Triandos: To be the starting catcher the year and a half when Hoyt Wilhelm was a starting pitcher. And, it’s quite possible that Wilhelm threw the nastiest knuckleballs in baseball history during that time. He led the American League in 1959 with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 13 complete games. Wilhelm’s second start that year was April 21, 1959 in Fenway Park. Wilhelm and the Orioles won 5-2. Triandos hit two homers.* He also had three passed balls.
*Triandos killed the ball at Fenway Park. He was a classic pull-hitter, who smashed the ball to left field. In his career, he hit 17 homers in 73 games at Fenway.
Five days later, on April 26, Wilhelm threw a complete game at Yankee Stadium. Triandos had four passed balls.
On August 30 of that year, Wilhelm started against the Red Sox. Triandos had four passed balls in the first two innings. He had 28 passed balls total in 1959 (backup catcher Joe Ginsberg had 21 more). Up to that point, passed balls had not been a particular problem for Triandos. He was a big and solid catcher. But after Wilhelm, passed balls haunted him. He led the American League in passed balls three times — one of those years in Detroit after he had left Wilhelm behind.
And really, few things in baseball are more humiliating than a passed ball. It should be the most basic of all things. The snapshot of Triandos was not of the massive home runs he hit, that big wide stance of his, the wicked cut he would take at the ball. Instead it was the image of this big, slow and proud man watching a ball flip of his glove and then lumbering after it as fast as he could. Triandos took it all in stride. He once said that heaven is a place where no one throws knuckleballs.
On this day — the day after Gus Triandos died at the age of 82 — it is worth remembering a different moment, the moment Gus Triandos hit an inside-the-park home run. It happened toward the end of the season in 1957 at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. That Orioles team was perfectly mediocre — 76-76, scored nine more runs than they allowed — and actually had TWO Hall of Fame third baseman (George Kell exiting the stage and Brooks Robinson entering).
It was the fifth inning, a scoreless game, and Triandos smashed a vicious line drive to right field — that was classic Triandos. When he hit the ball hard, he hit the ball HARD. He actually was on the old “Home Run Derby” show once — facing Dick Stuart — and I remember it because he ripped three or four line drives that hit the top of the fence and bounced back in. This line drive also whacked off the left field wall, but he hit it so hard that it caromed off shot right past the left fielder, who was completely overwhelmed by the bounce. The left fielder then began chasing after the ball. The left fielder that day was Ted Williams.
While Williams tried to run down the ball, which had rolled a 100 feet away, Triandos chugged around the bases. The ball was hit so hard and rolled so far away from Williams, that Triandos saw the third base coach waving him in.
And that’s a good way to remember Gus Triandos, an Orioles star when there were no Orioles stars. That very same day, the Orioles pitcher was Hal Smith, who, yes, was a knuckleball pitcher. In the ninth inning, Hal Smith threw a knuckleball to Ted Williams and, yes, it got by Gus Triandos. A passed ball. But on that great day it didn’t matter at all. While Ted Williams ran after the ball, Triandos rounded third, headed for home. He scored standing up.
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