Jim Palmer, the premier Baltimore pitcher, stepped onto the mound last Thursday night and from this eminence observed the positioning of his outfielders before addressing himself to Kansas City's impertinent young batsman, George Brett. The great man's composure was obviously shaken when he spied the Orioles' rookie leftfielder, Andres Mora, playing shallow and well toward center as if Brett were the usual sort of left-handed pull hitter. Waving his arms like a Signal Corpsman, Palmer strode off the mound and toward the offending outfielder, directing Mora to a position closer to the foul line and considerably deeper. The poor kid obviously did not realize that Brett was an off-field hitter with power to left.
Now, with everyone in his proper place, Palmer returned to the business at hand. It was the first inning, the Royals' Tom Poquette was on third base, there was no score and one out. Palmer delivered a fast ball for strike one. Then, reasoning that Brett enjoyed crossing up the opposition by hitting inside pitches to left, he threw a hard slider in on the wrists. Brett pulled it neatly to right field, Poquette scored and the Royals moved into a lead they would not relinquish.
For all of his accumulated knowledge, Palmer had committed the blunder of trying to outsmart George Brett. Before his career has ended a decade or more from now, Brett, who is just 23, will have sent many such deep thinkers to the showers. Pitchers do not get rich matching wits with George Brett.
Brett led the American League in hits (195) and triples (13) in 1975 while batting .308. It was his second full season in the big leagues. He is a much better hitter this year. From May 8 through 13 he had six consecutive games in which he got three hits, possibly a major league record. The record is questionable because no listing for consecutive three-hit games could be located, a startling discovery in a game enslaved by statistics. From May 4 through 13 Brett averaged .605. His season's average has hovered around .350, a figure which, if he maintains it, could unseat Rod Carew as the league batting champion.
It could, that is, unless Brett's teammate Hal McRae keeps hitting .360. McRae himself concedes the advantage to Brett, however, and with some reason.
For a player so young and anxious, Brett is remarkably consistent. He has not gone more than two games in a row without a hit since May 1, 1975, and he hits all manner of pitches, from Nolan Ryan fastballs to Mike Cuellar slowballs. He has the speed (nine stolen bases) to beat out the slow rollers and to take the extra base, and the power to hit for distance: Normally he is content to "use the whole field," spraying hits indiscriminately to all corners and alleys. "George Brett does not have a definite weakness as a hitter," says his batting instructor and all-round guru, Charley Lau.
As a third baseman, however, Brett did have some weaknesses last year. He has never experienced any difficulty catching the ball. Like Brooks Robinson, he is ambidextrous, which Robinson believes is mainly responsible for his own fielding prowess. But Brett had a tendency last season to throw caught balls beyond their appointed destination at first base. He has applied himself sedulously to correcting that defect this year, so much so that Coach Chuck Hiller has felt obliged on occasion to advise him to ease up lest he wear himself down. The improvement in his fielding this year has been commensurate with the effort. Brett now has only half the errors he had at this point in 1975.
With his bat and his glove, Brett has been the driving force of a Kansas City team that has moved smartly into the lead in the American League West. The Royals top the league in most of the important offensive categories—team batting average, runs, hits, doubles, triples, sacrifice flies, total bases—except home runs. They are second in stolen bases.
First Baseman John Mayberry, who "gets hot when it gets hot," is expected to start moving at the summer solstice. He hinted at what the future will bring last week by cracking out three homers in two games against Detroit and Baltimore. In pitching, starters Doug Bird and Al Fitzmorris are, respectively, 7-1 and 7-2; Paul Splittorff emerged from an early-season slump with a shutout last Thursday; and Steve Busby, the staff ace, is only now regaining his form after a shoulder injury.
The eyes of Texas are upon them and the once dominant Oakland A's have yet to be heard from, but the Royals, in large measure on account of Brett, look to be the team to beat in their division.
Says Royals Manager Whitey Herzog, "George Brett may be the best all-round ballplayer in our league. And unless a bone is sticking out of him, he's ready to play every day." Lau says he sees no reason why Brett cannot hit consistently at the .330 level, and Shortstop Fred Patek is so impressed with the improvement in Brett's fielding that he dares mention him alongside the legendary Robinson. "I can see now where a Mark Belanger would appreciate a Brooks Robinson," says Patek. "When a third baseman can reach balls in the hole it takes a lot off a shortstop's arm."
The object of all this adulation is a muscular six-foot, 196-pound, sandy-haired youngster, who, unlike many of his relatively solemn contemporaries, regards playing major league baseball and its attendant rewards as an experience unparalleled in joy and excitement. He seems pleasantly surprised to be where he is, and he is lavish in his gratitude to those, notably Lau, who helped him get there. "I just wish there was some way to repay people like Charley for what they've done for me," says Brett, "but I guess a coach just considers it part of his job."
Brett first became Lau's pupil in his rookie year, 1974. "After the first two months of the season I was hitting about .200," he recalls. "Charley told me that once I got to .199, he'd step in. I saw what he was doing for Hal McRae [whose average improved from .234 in 1973 to .310 in 1974], Buck Martinez and some of the others. They were out there at three o'clock every day taking batting practice with Charley. In high school I tried to be a Yaz type of hitter—you know, bat held high and way back here—but I wasn't."
Lau, a slow-talking, merry-eyed man of 43 whose lifetime major league batting average is .255, is considered by a large number of players to be the game's outstanding hitting theoretician.
He got Brett to bring the bat back on his shoulder and to concentrate on hitting the ball over second base. "All of a sudden, I started to hit," says Brett. "Now, before every time at bat, I'll talk to Charley about what I can expect from the pitcher, whether I can pull him, go with the pitch or take him to the opposite field. I pre-program myself in the ondeck circle."
Brett's three older brothers were ballplayers when they were growing up in the Southern California community of Hermosa Beach, and naturally, as the baby of the family, it was George who shagged balls for the others. The best of the bunch was brother Ken, 4½ years older than George, who, at age 19, pitched in the 1967 World Series for Boston. "I hardly knew him before," says George. "He left home to play baseball when I was only 12. In the Series I realized just how good he really was and I started looking up to him. In fact, I idolized him."
The two brothers have grown increasingly close since George's ascendancy to the big time. Ken, who now pitches for the White Sox, is his brother's social arbiter and, when he is in Kansas City or George is in Chicago, his companion on the town. "Ken likes to have me call him 'the King'," says George. "He'll call me in the middle of the night and say, 'This is the King speaking.' Ken's the reason I haven't gotten married. I see the money he's saved and the fun he's had and I realize that I'm in the same business. We look alike, so the same girls who like him should like me, too."
It had been Ken's contention that he was the best hitter in the family. Had he not hit a record four home runs in four consecutive pitching starts for Philadelphia in 1973? George was given the opportunity to dispel this ill-conceived notion this past spring when Ken, then with the Yankees, faced him as a pitcher for the first time. George, determined to either "hit it out or fall on my face," swung mightily and hit a homer.
Even when George Brett is not getting his three hits a game, he is the spark of the Royals. Last Wednesday he had but one hit against Detroit, but he stole two bases, scored the first run of the game, cut off a throw from the outfield to toss out an advancing Tiger base runner and made two fine fielding plays at third. The following night he hit safely twice, scored twice, stole another base and ranged far to his left in the field to twice snatch ground balls Patek would normally have had to chase.
Assessing his performance over a cup of tea the next day, he was not entirely satisfied. He guessed wrong, he said, on one pitch, chiding Lau for giving him misinformation, and allowed a ground ball to roll under his glove. But all that was yesterday. He had a luncheon date, he said, "with some girl who called and said she was a friend of Ken's." He shook his head in admiration of the absent brother. "If she's a good friend of the King, that's good enough for me."
And he was off and running toward an uncertain but, in all probability, rosy future.