Steve Cauthen was heading back home to Kentucky, reclining in an airplane seat and reading the newspaper, when he saw two words that always catch his eye:
The article described Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera's quest for baseball's rare feat -- finishing a regular season with league leads in batting average, home runs and RBIs -- for the first time since Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Boston Red Sox in 1967.
Heading into Wednesday's regular-season finale, Cabrera was leading the American League with a batting average of .331, with Mike Trout of the Angels second at .324. Cabrera led the AL in homers, with 44 to Josh Hamilton's 43. And Cabrera likely had the AL RBI title all sewn up, with 139 to Hamilton's 128.
Yes, it appears very possible that we'll see another Triple Crown.
Those two words brought to Cauthen's mind the amazing summer of his youth. It was 1978, and "The Kid," then 18 years old, rode into thoroughbred history by guiding the 3-year-old colt Affirmed to the other Triple Crown: victories in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
"I couldn't help but notice it," Cauthen said of the Cabrera article. "And I couldn't help but think about how he must be feeling, hearing everybody talk about it all the time."
Cauthen was in those irons once. It started when Affirmed, owned by Harbor View Farm and trained by Laz Barrera ("Rhymes with Cabrera," Cauthen said), stalked the leaders at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, made his move on the far turn of the old Louisville racetrack, and held off the betting favorite, Alydar, to prevail by 1 1/2 lengths.
Two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Cauthen urged Affirmed to the lead right out of the gate and Alydar made another run at him down the lane, but Affirmed held on by a neck.
Then the unavoidable hype began.
"The last three weeks," Cauthen said, "was a long three weeks."
Cauthen was hounded by media from all over the world, who were expecting another Triple Crown -- Seattle Slew had pulled the trick a year earlier and Secretariat had done it in 1973 -- and another fierce test from Affirmed's now-archrival, Alydar.
Cauthen said he could feel the glare like Cabrera surely does now.
"The bottom line, particularly in the Belmont -- which ended up being probably one of the greatest races of all time -- was that I couldn't afford to make one mistake," Cauthen said. "Like Cabrera. He can't make any mistakes. He isn't blowing away the competition in any category. He still has to get it done."
Cauthen didn't make any mistakes. He walked Affirmed through slow early fractions during the mile-and-a-half marathon, and when Alydar hooked him with six furlongs to go, the two horses engaged in a protracted neck-and-neck battle for the ages. Cauthen's use of the left-handed whip helped boot Affirmed home by a nose and into the annals of the sport.
"I knew that I did everything I needed to do, the horse gave it his all, and we beat a great rival after a great buildup," Cauthen said. "To me, the most satisfying way to win it was the way we won it."
Thirty-four years later, we still don't have another Triple Crown winner. Twelve horses have taken the Derby and Preakness before been taken down in the Belmont.
"I guess it's just like baseball," Cauthen said. "Same sort of thing. It takes obviously a great player, just like a great horse, and you need a few things to go your way. You can't have injuries or setbacks. It's darn near impossible to do otherwise."
But 45 years after Yaz and 34 years after Affirmed and "The Kid," it is possible. Very possible.
And the last man to pull it off in either sport is rooting for Cabrera to do it.
"I like what I've read about him," Cauthen said. "He's saying the right things, kind of downplaying it, and he's right: The focus should be trying to get to the World Series and win the World Series. And frankly, it doesn't make you any more relaxed when all you're doing is thinking about accomplishing something like [the Triple Crown].
"But I'd love to see him pull it off. Someday I'll hope to meet him and we can shake hands as Triple Crown winners."