I was present at Yankee Stadium on May 29, 2000 when Oakland A’s second baseman Randy Velarde performed the feat listed above, and I remember it well. I’ll describe my experience of it, and the reaction of the fans around me, as it was pretty interesting.
First, it’s worth noting that the game took place on a Memorial Day Monday, and before the game the fans had enjoyed witnessing the Yankees’ World Series ring ceremony. Yankee icon Yogi Berra handed out the rings commemorating the team’s 1999 World Series victory over the Atlanta Braves. I say it’s worth noting because Velarde spent 9 seasons as a Yankee before becoming a free agent and leaving after the 1995 season, thus just missing the Yankees’ eventual run of four World Series championships. So Velarde had to watch his former teammates receive World Series rings -- bittersweet, I would think. Incidentally, Velarde also homered in the ninth inning of that game, accounting for the Oakland A’s only run.
Fast forward to the bottom of the 6th inning where it’s 1-0 Yanks. A’s pitcher Omar Olivares walks Paul O’Neill to lead off the inning, and Bernie Williams follows with a triple off the wall in right, scoring O’Neill. Olivares then plunks Tino Martinez, bringing up Jorge Posada. Posada hits a double-play grounder to Velarde at second, but Velarde boots it! Williams scores, and now the Yanks have Posada on first, Martinez on second, and still nobody out. So you see, it’s Velarde’s own error that sets up his historic moment one batter later.
All right, picture the scene, if you will: You’re at Yankee Stadium enjoying a ballgame on a long holiday weekend. Maybe you’ve had a couple of beers, a couple of hot dogs. You’re taking it all in. It’s a tightly pitched game so far, but your team finally has a bit of a rally going, scoring two runs that inning, two more runners on base, and still nobody out. It seems a foregone conclusion that a big inning is about to unfold.
The next batter, Shane Spencer, works the count full. Yankees manager Joe Torre, looking to ignite the offense, and, ironically, perhaps avoid a double play, sends both runners. Spencer lines the ball sharply to Velarde who catches it (one out), tags Posada, who had been running all the way and was just a step or so away from second base (two outs) and then steps on the bag to triple off Martinez, who was practically at third base (three outs). All this takes place in literally about a second.
Now keep in mind that you’re at the game and maybe you don’t have the best seats in the world, so you’re a little far away from the action. There are no announcers, nobody doing play-by-play like when you’re watching a game on TV, so you’re on your own in terms of figuring out what’s going on. One minute you’ve got two men on and nobody out, then there’s a soft liner and some commotion around second base, and suddenly everyone’s trotting off the field! What just happened? You can hear the confusion among the fans, as if 40,000 people just uttered a collective “Huh?” Also keep in mind, there’s no instant replay, no nothing. I kind of had to re-visualize the play in my own memory to understand what had just happened, and once I figured it out, I was pretty pleased. An unassisted triple play. I knew it was rare, but just how rare, I didn’t know until later.
It’s actually one of the rarest events in baseball -- rarer than a perfect game, rarer than a four-homer game, rarer than an inside-the-park grand slam. As the writer above notes, the Hines play is disputed, and the Wambsganss play was in the World Series, so what I (and 40,000 others) witnessed that day had only happened nine times in regular-season history before that. The ball, and Velarde’s glove, are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Exciting stuff for a baseball geek like me.
(I should conclude by mentioning that Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte pitched a complete-game two-hitter for a 4-1 win that day. The Yankees would beat these same Oakland A’s in the divisional series later that season on their way to winning the 2000 World Series against the Mets -- the famed “Subway Series.”)