BRETT MAY DO IT YET

The nation is tuned in as Kansas City's George Brett makes the most serious run at batting .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941
August 31, 1980

There were two outs and no one on when Kansas City's George Brett came to bat in the sixth inning of last Saturday night's game between the Royals and the Cleveland Indians. Brett assumed his lefthanded stance: feet spread and body bent at the waist, left leg bent and right leg extended toward the mound. While resting his bat on his left shoulder, he peeked at the pitcher over his right shoulder. Pitching for Cleveland was Wayne Garland, who finally seems to be making a successful comeback from the shoulder injury that has perennially jeopardized his once-promising career.

Before the game, Garland had described what a pitcher must do to thwart a hitter of Brett's incalculable skills. "You have to try to keep him off-balance," he said. "You have to change speeds on him, maintain supreme concentration. Of course, that is easier said than done. A bad night for him is 2 for 5." Still, Garland had got Brett to fly out and pop up in two previous at bats, and now, pitching cautiously, he induced him to hit a three-balls-no-strikes breaking ball to the right side of the infield, where First Baseman Mike Hargrove fielded it and tossed to Garland, covering first, for the out.

An unusual thing happened after that: the near-capacity crowd of 40,192 at Royals Stadium emitted, as one person, a long, loud, anguished groan. Why the great sorrow? The situation was far from hopeless. The Royals were only trailing 2-1, and they would, in fact, eventually win the game 3-2. No, the fans were in mourning because Brett, a .400 hitter before that time at bat, had just become a .399 hitter. And of all the magic numbers in baseball's statistical pantheon—30 wins, 300 strikeouts, 60 homers—the .400 batting average has become the least attainable. The last man to hit for that celestial average was Ted Williams in 1941, and though his career abounds with magnificent achievements, that long-ago .406 average survives as his most memorable claim to everlasting fame.

Brett, the effusive Kansas City third baseman, has revived .400 fever across the land. In his own city, BRETT FOR PRESIDENT bumper stickers are appearing, and KMBZ, the radio station that broadcasts Royals games, is advertising itself as "The Home of George Brett Excitement." The Royals' front office receives upwards of 40 telephone calls a day requesting information on Brett's progress or for audiences with the great man. The nation at large has not experienced one of these .400 epidemics since 1977, when Rod Carew, then of the Minnesota Twins, kept his average in range over the last two months of the season. But Carew's highest average from Aug. 20 to the last day of that season was the one he finished with—.388. Brett is a much more likely candidate for inclusion in the .400 circle. After going 1-for-4 on Sunday, he was at .397 with 38 games to go.

Until Garland did him in he had been a .400 hitter for six days, climbing as high as Williams' .406 last Wednesday. For that matter, he has been a .452 hitter since May 21, when his average was a disreputable .247. In those amazing three months he has hit in all but five of 62 games, while slugging 14 homers and driving in 74 runs. From the All-Star break through last Sunday, he had an average of .455 and had hit in 41 of 44 games. And from July 18 through Aug. 18, he hit in 30 consecutive games. His average for the streak was .467 (57 for 122). Although he has missed 35 games this season because of injuries, Brett is in the American League Top 10 in nine offensive categories and is the leader in batting, on-base percentage and slugging. Through Sunday he had 91 runs-batted-in in 89 games, figures that put him within reach of another unusual accomplishment. Boston's Walt Dropo was the last hitter to finish a season with more RBIs (100 minimum) than games played—144 to 136 in 1950. Brett is having what might be called a big season.

"I have seen people hit the way he has for 10 to 15 games at a time," says his manager, Jim Frey, "but never have I seen anyone do it night after night, time after time, against all kinds of pitching. It's incredible. Hit .400? Hell, he might hit .420."

The odds against anyone hitting .400 today are astronomical. With the disclaimer that there is no way to measure those odds scientifically because of the unreliability of the human factor, the Elias Sports Bureau of New York estimates that before a season starts the chances of a career .300 hitter reaching .400 in 600 times at bat is one in 1,919,940,000,000,000. Long odds, to be sure. Brett's own chances at the start of the season, based on his career average of .310, were one in 87,629 for 500 at bats and one in 590,927 for 600. Interestingly, when the season ends, Brett should have almost exactly 500 at bats compared with the 645 he had last year, when he hit .329. So by missing so many games he has probably helped his chances. Now, given the way he has been going and with only a little more than a month of the season remaining, he has, by Elias' computations, a 70% chance of making it.

Brett is no shrinking violet, but he advises caution in assessing his chances, arguing that "it's only August" and "there's a long way to go." This is not to say that he doesn't entertain the thought, envisioning himself taking his place alongside the eight hitters who have reached .400 13 times since 1900. Men like Williams, Hornsby, Heilmann, Sisler and Cobb. "It would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said. "I'd like to do it. I'm just going to try to stay up there as long as I can and hope I'm still there at the end of the season. The thing is, I just don't want to fold completely and go down to .320 or something." This remark prompted teammate Clint Hurdle into calculating that if Brett did fold completely and go zero for the rest of 1980, he would "still be hitting around .280."

But Brett is fighting to stave off such a dry spell. "The main thing I have to do," he says, "is be patient and not swing at first pitches or changeups or chase bad pitches. I would be putting added pressure on myself if I tried to do things differently just to hit .400. I'm not going to count on doing it. How would it be if I ended up at .370 and was mad because I missed .400? I'm just going to enjoy myself running around those bases."

Brett's opponents have been continually amazed at his composure. "He's showing a lot of discipline at the plate," says Cleveland Catcher Gary Alexander. "He's taking pitches he knows he can't handle."

"He has such sound fundamentals, a good swing and all that confidence," says the Indians' pitching coach, Dave Duncan. "The thing you have to do is get him to go after that first pitch. If you try to pitch him too fine, you'll wind up with a 3-and-1 count, and then you've got to come in with the ball. The biggest thing is not to be afraid to throw the ball over the plate."

When a hitter is as hot as Brett, a pitcher might be forgiven for looking ahead with apprehension to his spot in the batting order. The sight of Brett in the on-deck circle can be disconcerting. "If you've got a guy on second and Brett on deck, you just have to get the hitter in front of him [usually Hal McRae] out," says Garland. "You have to bear down on that hitter, try for a strikeout or a popup. You can't lose your concentration."

The Indians' Len Barker held Brett to one single in three times at bat during his seven innings on the mound last Friday and came away from the confrontation feeling he had acquitted himself with honor. "You've got to go after him," Barker says. "I threw him fastballs away and curveballs in on his hands. Twice I got him out on curves. But he can adjust to anything. He pulled a high fastball away for his hit. I didn't expect that."

Brett isn't seeing as many good pitches as he did earlier in the year. Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver recently ordered him walked intentionally with runners already on first and second and the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth. With the bases now loaded, the next Kansas City hitter, Amos Otis, was unintentionally walked, forcing in the winning run. Brett will take the walks, but he doesn't like them. He walked only 51 times in 154 games last year. Already this season he has walked 42 times, which has contributed measurably to his extraordinary on-base percentage of .519. He rarely strikes out, averaging only one in every 24 plate appearances, and he has hit safely in 84% of the games he has started.

"The best defense against this kind of hitter," says Cleveland Manager Dave Garcia, "is to place your fielders in the right spots and then have your pitchers force him to hit line drives right at them."

Brett had one more opportunity on Saturday to get his average back over .400, but, as the big crowd booed, Indian reliever Victor Cruz walked him intentionally with one out and Willie Wilson on second base. Brett established once more his credentials as an all-round player by breaking up a certain double play on Willie Aikens' grounder with a diving slide into second base. The fans gave him a standing ovation as he jogged off the field—he now receives standing ovations in Kansas City for adjusting his cap—but he was still batting only .399 and a new three-game hitting streak had been terminated.

"I'm tired of starting new hitting streaks every other day," Brett joked in the clubhouse. And he didn't appear as discouraged as his zealous followers had been about the sorry decline of his batting average. After all, hanging in his dressing cubicle is a decoupage with a poem entitled That Man Is A Success. "Who knows, I might get five hits tomorrow," that man said confidently. And, as American League pitchers have come to realize, he wasn't exaggerating.

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PHOTORONALD C. MODRA PHOTORONALD C. MODRABesieged by fans and media but still very accommodating, Brett finds time for a gaggle of gigglers. CHART

HITTING .400 HAS ITS UPS AND DOWNS

May

June

July

August

September

Final

1

15

1

15

1

15

1

15

24

1

15

TED WILLIAMS 1941

.390

.335

.430

.410

.400

.390

.410

.410

.415

.410

.410

.406

ROD CAREW 1977

.355

.360

.365

.375

.415

.385

.370

.365

.360

.365

.370

.388

GEORGE BRETT 1980

.260

.270

.300

.340

.340

.360

.390

.390

.397

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)