Cycles are cool again because they represent part of the game that's fading

Tim BrownMLB columnist

LOS ANGELES — The search for the proper place in baseball’s consciousness for the cycle brought me to Evan Longoria’s locker. It was not a long journey. He was in town.

Of the 327 cycles ever hit, his was No. 318.

The date was Aug. 1, 2017, in Houston. A commotion between a wall and a right fielder abetted the triple and a replay review with two out in the ninth confirmed the double, the sort of circumstances that seem fairly common among cycles and have contributed to their reputations as half-chance, half-history.

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But, it had occurred to me that cycles are cool again. Or cooler than they’ve ever been. They must have been cool. Otherwise, when George Hall hit for the first one in 1876 nobody would have bothered to write it down, and then it wouldn’t be disputed almost 150 years later, which, apparently, it is. Which is why there are 327 cycles and not 328.

The reason being today’s game, where singles are harder to come by, where home runs are the goal, sometimes the sole goal, and risk — any risk — is generally forbidden.

So, a single, a double, a triple and a home run across four or five or six at-bats, over one game, suggests a certain retro quality of batter’s box baseball. In no particular order, beat the shift, hit a gap, dare to take third and then, yeah, for today’s sake, back-leg a ball into the bleachers, and that sounds more special anyhow. When Jorge PolancoShohei Ohtani and Jake Bauers hit for cycles in the first three months of 2019, adding to the five in 2018, the seven in 2017, that is a spike in hitting for the cycle, leading to, I fear, a dip in appreciation for them. For, while there are more of them, I’d argue, unscientifically, they ought to be more difficult to attain.

The cycle’s image problem is in its comparison with no-hitters, of which there have been 300. No-hitters are remembered forever, in part because of how many things must go right in them, which is way more than four, and in part because they don’t happen very often. Cycles, which occur at about the same rate, don’t get near the same love, probably because of three hours of pitching counts — even with the assistance of eight other guys — for more than four swings of the bat. That said, not a single Hall of Fame plaque carries a mention of a cycle or two (26 players have hit two, including Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Cronin, Arky Vaughan, George Brett, Bobby Doerr, Mickey Cochrane and George Sisler, all Hall of Famers) or three (three players, of which Adrian Beltre presumably will be the first inducted.) The cycle is remembered until the next newspaper comes out, assuming nobody tweets something weird between now and then.

Also, while the no-hitter builds from, say, the fifth inning, with every pitch drawing the game deeper into the story, the cycle often arrives like a 2 a.m. phone call, some guy observing, “You know, a triple here …,” and then the ball is in the air with two outfielders closing a little too hard. Or something like that.

Former Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria hit for the cycle in 2017 against the Houston Astros. (Getty Images)
Former Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria hit for the cycle in 2017 against the Houston Astros. (Getty Images)

Still, after years — OK, decades — of not being sure where to put a cycle — Way behind a perfect game, behind a no-hitter, behind a four-homer game, but how far behind? — I am coming to appreciate them more. Not because the cycle has changed. The game has changed around it. Cycles represent a part of the game that is fading, maybe just for the moment, but fading nevertheless. Swings are changing. Offensive concepts are changing. As home runs and strikeouts soar, the art of the single, the lousy single, diminishes. Defenses leave less to chance. And then why test an outfield arm to reach third base when the next guy is paid to hit home runs?

So, Evan Longoria. On that Tuesday night two Augusts ago, he homered in the first inning, tripled between Josh Reddick’s leg and the side wall in right field in the third, popped out in the fifth, singled in the seventh and, after doing some math in the hopes of getting one more at-bat, doubled to left in the ninth.

“Well,” Longoria said, “if somebody asks you for your best moments, you definitely don’t think about it first. But, if somebody asks, ‘You ever hit for the cycle?’ It’s a no for most guys.”

That’s about right. Nobody ever put the date of his cycle on a pendant, probably. And, turns out, nobody ever put it on a Hall plaque, either. But, it’s there, the memory of needing one more hit late in a game, and not just a hit but a fourth hit, and then a particular kind of fourth hit, and actually getting it.

You may assume there’s some luck involved, given the something like 15,000 wannabe cycles that have died at the triple, and given the capriciousness of the triple. (On that topic, of the eight active career triples leaders, none has hit for the cycle. Charlie Blackmon, tied for ninth, hit No. 323. Mike Trout, tied for 13th, hit No. 302.)

“I mean,” Longoria said, “I think it kinda gets put on the back burner. But it’s definitely special. … Do I think it’s as tough as a no-hitter? No. But, if you’re a good enough hitter, you can have that day.”

Going on eight years ago, Pablo Sandoval hit for No. 297, in a season in which he hit three triples. If that sounds like a lightning strike, two players — Bill Salkeld and Eric Valent, if you need to know — each had two career triples and hit for a cycle. Salkeld was No. 130, two before Ted Williams. Valent was No. 265, four after Vladimir Guerrero.

“I do remember!” Sandoval said. “I hit a ball in Colorado. CarGo [Carlos Gonzalez] collided with the wall. When I saw that, I just put my head down, try to run like crazy to get to third base.”

He viewed his cycle as a reason to smile at such a memory, his perspective trapped in the moment he turned second, committed, and chugged for third.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s how you take it. For me, it’s a lucky thing, that day.”

Cody Bellinger is No. 317, 17 days before Longoria. That same season — 2017 — he was called up to the big leagues, got his first hit, his first home run, hit 38 more home runs, was an All-Star, was Rookie of the Year, played in the World Series, and pulled MVP votes. And, yeah, hit for the cycle one night in Miami — single in the first, home run in the third, double in the fourth and, of course, triple in the seventh, when Giancarlo Stanton took a too shallow route and had the ball glance off his glove and roll to the fence.

“I think it’s nice to check it off the list, but that’s not something I really remember,” Bellinger said. “I mean, I do remember it. It was cool. I mean, it’s hard enough to get four hits in a game.”

Consider this, then, in praise of the cycle. In a game that leaves less and less to chance, the cycle is worthy of our admiration, still a pretty good kick in the pants and maybe one day will be bronzed. That’s a good place for it.

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