By George, He Almost Did It

Brett, here singling off Cleveland's Bob Owchinko, hit nearly .400, humbled the Yankees and was his league's MVP in 1980. Can he top that? Wait 'til next season
February 12, 1981

George Brett, imaginary placekicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, stares at the ball teed up on the 20-yard line of the Los Angeles Coliseum field and sizes up the situation. "Ten seconds left in the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs trail by two."

Thus primed, Brett begins his approach, remembering to keep his head down and to follow through (thank you, Charley Lau), and boom—or, really, pfft—"It's up! it's good! The Chiefs win the Super Bowl!" Brett does a small victory jig.

Unfortunately, only one spectator is in the stands to witness the Chiefs' triumphant moment, and he's a member of the grounds crew. He doesn't think the kick is any good at all. "Hey, get off the field," he shouts, not bothering to ask what a guy in a Kansas City Royals uniform is doing kicking field goals in the Coliseum on a Thursday morning in November. How was he supposed to know that the man down there had won the American League Most valuable Player award only two days before. All the groundskeeper knew was that the fool was trying to tear up the turf with only two days to go until the USC-UCLA game.

Fun time wasn't over, though. It never is for Brett. He had been brought by limo to the Coliseum so that he could pose for an upcoming soft-drink promotion, and he had transformed the photo session into a laugher by turning the tripod around and taking the photographer's picture. Yes, life imitates commercials. Now that the photo session and the Super Bowl are over, Brett gathers up the advertising people and says, "Let's go next door to the hockey movie."

Next door at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, a crew is filming the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team for an ABC-TV film. The day before, Brett had been on the set with his buddy, Steve Obradovich, who plays a bartender in the movie, and had struck up a friendship with Mike Eruzione, the hockey team's captain and a technical adviser for the film. The following day Brett wangles himself a part in the movie. "I'm going to be a Russian," he says delightedly. When asked if he can speak the language, he replies, "Yeah, Smirnoff and Popov." The movie people tell him to come back after lunch. After eating at Julie's, the Obradovich family restaurant, Brett returns to find that because shooting is behind schedule, he's to play a Finnish hockey player instead. He goes into the locker room as George Brett and comes out as No. 15, a fellow named Leinonen. Brett can skate O.K. for a barefoot boy from Hermosa Beach, and he has a grand time scoring at will from every conceivable angle—into an empty net—and riding other players into the boards. And though he makes $1 million a year playing for the Royals, he's excited about the actor's scale of $250 a day. "For contact, I get $350," he says. He even teaches the movie's star, Andrew Stevens, how to put a pinch between his cheek and gum.

Finally, the time arrives for Brett's scene. He's to lose a face-off in the corner. After three takes of about five seconds each, his acting career is over. He won't win an Emmy, and the movie won't be billed as "George Brett in Miracle on ice," but he has left the arena a happier place.

In the next 48 hours or so, Brett attends a night in his honor at Hollywood Park racetrack, plays golf at the Riviera Country Club and goes to a Los Angeles Laker game as the guest of the owner, Jerry Buss.

That has been his pace ever since the World series. Between Oct. 14 and Nov. 22 Brett personally showed his Morgan in a Kansas City horse show (finishing fifth in a field of nine), served as one of the commissioners of the Nine Ball world Pro Am tournament in Las Vegas, filmed a TV pilot with comedian Arte Johnson—a sort of Laugh-In with athletes, Brett describes it—played lots of golf, ate lots of banquet chicken, accepted umpteen awards and met one of his idols, Ernest Borgnine ("I've seen every McHale's Navy"). All this while bouncing between his playhouses in Lake Quivira, Kans. and Rancho Mirage, Calif. and living up to his responsibilities as a bachelor. Perhaps the highlight of that period was joining brother Ken and teammate Jamie Quirk as they helped their old friend, former USC and New York Jet Defensive Back Mike Battle, round up 160 head of cattle on Battle's ranch near Amarillo, Texas. "Rode 10 miles in one day, and that's when I found out my hemorrhoids were cured," says Brett. in the meantime, Kansas City Manager Jim Frey has been biting his nails. "Every time I pick up the dambed paper, there's George on top of a horse or on ice skates," says Frey. "Jeeeez!" If Brett's off-season seems like a fantasy, well, it's no more improbable than the baseball season he had preceding it. Had Jeane Dixon told Brett back in May, when he was hitting .247, that he'd come within five hits of batting .400 he'd have let out one of those funny little bird laughs of his. But he did just that, evoking memories of Ted Williams, John J. McGraw and Walt Dropo in the process. He also brought a rather painful condition out of the closet and singlehandedly cost the Yankee manager his job while reducing Rich Gossage, the 6'3", 217-pound New York reliever, to tears.

But before reliving that episode, let's savor Brett's regular-season statistics one more time. His .390 average was the best in the majors since Williams hit .406 in 1941 and nearly the equal of any third baseman's in history, McGraw having hit .391 in 1899 for the Baltimore Orioles, then of the National League. And with just a touch more luck, Brett would've batted .400. on May 10, for instance, against the Red Sox, he hit three screamers into the gloves of Shortstop Rick Burleson, First Baseman Tony Perez and Rightfielder Dwight Evans. Combine those with an extraordinary catch that A's Centerfielder Dwayne Murphy made against the wall in Kansas City on Sept. 21 and a lined shot that Ken Landreaux, the Minnesota centerfielder, caught on Oct. 3, and Brett would have hit .401.

He drove in 118 runs in 117 games, making him the first player since Dropo, who had 144 RBIs in 136 games for the' 50 Red Sox, to average at least one RBI a game. Brett's slugging percentage of .664 was the highest in the majors since Mickey Mantle's .687 in 1961. His on-base percentage of .461 led both leagues. He hit a career-high 24 home runs and struck out just 22 times, only three more than Baltimore's Rich Dauer, who had the league's fewest strikeouts.

At the All-star break, Brett was hitting .337. Then he got hot. For the rest of the season he batted .421, putting together a 30-game hitting streak from July 18 to Aug. 18 that pushed his average to more than .400 on Aug. 17. On Aug. 26 in Milwaukee, he went 5 for 5 to raise his average to a season high of .407. As late as Sept. 19 he was above .400. Although he fell off thereafter, nothing's wrong with .390—it's the highest average brought into a World Series since Al Simmons' .390 with the Philadelphia A's in 1931.

Brett missed 44 games because of injuries, which may have helped his average, or hurt it—who knows? He lost nine games with a bruised heel early in the season, 26 with torn ligaments in his right ankle from June 11 until the All-star break and nine in September because of a tender right hand. When he was out of the lineup, the Royals, a .599 club for the year, were 22-22. As a team, Kansas City hit .286, the highest in the majors since Dropo's 1950 Red Sox, but without Brett the Royals batted .277, which would have been good for only fourth in the league in 1980.

One could spout these figures ad nauseam. in fact, Brett was beginning to feel ad nauseam himself at the height of his drive for .400 because of all the attention he was getting. Notebooks and microphones and mini-cams began showing up from all over the country. A George Brett for President campaign began picking up steam just as the real President rather baldly used Brett to attract votes at a town meeting in independence, Mo. Chuck Barris was sending telegrams offering Brett best wishes. But the fun, and that's all Brett's after, was being gonged out of the game. Brett has been known to show up at the park at 2 p.m. in 96° heat before a night game to throw batting practice left-handed, shag fly balls, take extra grounders, play third base righthanded and first base lefthanded, all before taking his regular batting-practice swings. By late August the baloney was beginning to get to him. worse, it was interfering with his hearts game in the clubhouse ("You Gotta Have Hearts" is his slogan).

Then the Kansas City publicity department stepped in and started limiting interviews with Brett to one pregame press conference. He began to relax again. The Royals also called up older brother Ken, then 31, on Aug. 29, so the Bretts were united for the first time in their careers. "They called me up to help George with his hitting," said Ken, a pitcher best known for his bat. So, what happened in September?

On the night of Sept. 6 in Cleveland, during his second at bat of the game, Brett chased a Len Barker fastball, low and away. "It was a real funky swing," he says. "My hands were trying to pull the ball, and the bat wanted to go to left." Although Brett felt a twinge, he thought nothing of it at the time. But when he awoke the next morning he was in pain, and the Royals decided to rest him until the team got to the west Coast. Cleveland isn't Brett's favorite city—it was there that he'd injured his ankle in June. Examinations by Dr. Lewis Yocum in Los Angeles revealed no breaks, but he did spot tendinitis in his right wrist extensors. Whatever it was, it hurt, and Brett was idle through the next two series, against California and Oakland, stuck at .396. "I just sat there in the dugout, going over the pitchers, imagining myself at the plate," he says. "I was hitting .600 on the bench."

For a while it was feared that Brett might not get the 502 plate appearances he needed to qualify for the batting title—or to have his possible .400 recognized as the average of a full-time player. But on Sept. 17, before a twi-night doubleheader with California, he took batting practice for the first time in 11 days. He convinced Frey and K.C. General Manager Joe Burke that he could swing without pain. In the first game the Royals routinely clinched the American League west title without Brett in the lineup; then for the second game, Frey penned in a surprise starter at third. Brett was still a little wary. "Don't expect too much," he said before the game.

Don't expect too much? That was easy for Brett to say, but the press, all of baseball, the nation were eagerly awaiting the first .400 hitter in 39 years.

Don't expect too much? in his first at bat in 10 games, against rookie righthander Bob Ferris, Brett lined an inside fastball over the second baseman's head. Holding him on first was none other than Rod Carew, the last man with a shot at .400 when he hit .388 in 1977. "I told George something like, 'Way to hit,' " Carew later said. Brett didn't stop to chat; he stole second. Next time up against Ferris, Brett golfed a low slider between first and second to raise his average to .39949. This time when he got to first, Brett asked Carew if he'd taken a bad swing. Carew nodded. Brett went hitless the rest of the game, but 2 for 5 hadn't hurt his average at all.

The next evening Brett was recovering from what he called "champagne-itis," contracted at the post-game celebration of the division title the previous night. Brett has a habit of coming back strong after injuries—it was right after sitting out the 26 games with the ankle injury that he began his 30-game hitting streak—so, naturally, he sent Freddie Martinez' second pitch, a fastball down the middle, back through the box for a first-inning hit. The next time up he was walked on four pitches—booo!—but on his third appearance at the plate he hit an inside fastball from Don Aase over the first baseman's head. He flied out his last time up, but that set up the delicious possibility of re-attaining .400 on precisely his 400th official at bat. That was if he got a hit his next time up.

The next night, against Brian Kingman of Oakland, Brett hit a sacrifice fly in the first inning—neither a hit nor an at bat. Then in the third he hit a Kingman curveball into right for the natural: .400 after 400 at bats. Don't expect too much?

Optimists interpreted this as an indication that destiny was keeping a guiding hand on Brett's bat, but, in fact, .400 after 400 turned out to be the signal that the quest was over. Brett got one more hit in three at bats that night and the next day went 0 for 4, dropping his average to .396. On Sept. 21 he homered his first time up against Mike Norris and then grounded out in his next two at bats. In the eighth inning he hit a long fly ball to center, but Murphy leaped high and caught it. Even then, people realized that Murphy had robbed Brett of more than just a hit. "That was the first time in my life I found myself rooting for someone to get a hit against me," said A's Manager Billy Martin.

Brett started getting impatient, chasing bad pitches. In his next five games, he went 3 for 19 and his average dropped to .384. At the same time the Royals were in the midst of a losing streak that ran to eight games. Frey kept Brett out of the starting lineup in a game against Minnesota on Sept. 28, but sent him up to pinch-hit with the bases loaded in the sixth. Brett homered, and even though the Royals eventually lost that game 8-7, the grand slam seemed to rouse both them and Brett. They closed out the season by winning five of six; during that stretch Brett went 10 for 19 to raise his final average to .390.

Bring on the Yankees. Kansas City won the first game of the playoffs 7-2 and didn't really need Brett's solo homer and double. The Royals didn't need his bat in Game 2—he went hitless in four at bats—but his arm came in handy. Brett likes to make fun of his fielding—one of his ambitions, he says, is to reach 3,000 hits before he makes 3,000 errors—but he's a fine gloveman nevertheless. In the eighth inning with two outs, the Yankees behind 3-2 and New York's Willie Randolph on first, Bob Watson hit a line drive to left. Willie Wilson played the carom off the wall, wheeled and fired over the head of the Royal cutoff man, Shortstop U.L. Washington. Brett, though, was behind Washington as the trailer cutoff man: it's a designed play that the Royals practice but that the Yankees knew nothing about. Brett took the throw and fired a perfect strike to Catcher Darrell Porter, who tagged out Randolph. Not only did Brett nail the tying run, but he also set off a chain of events that resulted in George Steinbrenner "resigning" Dick Howser. we'll spare you the details.

That brings us to Came 3 and Brett's finest moment of the season. The scene: top of the seventh, Royals down by one, two on, two out, Gossage vs. Brett. On the Goose's first pitch, Brett hits a 450-foot surprise into the upper deck in rightfield. He simply took one of Gossage's monster fastballs and slew it. Later that night the Goose would tearfully rue having thrown the ball over the middle of the plate, but where you throw the ball to Brett hardly matters anymore. Says Charley Lau, Brett's tutor before he became the Yankee's batting coach, "Anytime George comes into Yankee stadium, he's looking to put it in the porch. I don't care if Gossage were throwing 180 miles an hour, he'd still hit it."

That was the Royals' championship, beating the Yankees after losing playoffs to them in 1976, '77 and '78. The world Series was bound to be a letdown, and it was. The Royals also made the mistake of staying in New York and waiting to see whom they would play—the Phillies or Astros who were locked in a five-game duel in the National League playoffs—rather than flying back to K.C. For one thing, that prolonged their road trip. For another, Brett may have eaten the fatal meal, the one that aggravated his hemorrhoids, in an Italian restaurant in New York.

The World Series wasn't Brett's, but you can't have everything. He made a mental error in the first game that allowed a run to score in the Phillies' 7-6 victory. In Game 2 the pain got to be too much, so he left after getting two singles and a walk in six innings, and the Phillies won again 6-4. Pete Rose went to pat Brett on the rear after his first-inning single, and Brett just said, "Oh, nooo!"

Following surgery in Kansas City on Thursday, Brett was ready to play in Game 3, and proved it with a first-inning homer off Dick Ruthven that started the Royals on their way to a 4-3 victory. The next day Brett was the target of a Dickie Noles fastball as the Royals evened the series 5-3. With K.C. ahead 4-1 in the fourth, two outs and an 0-2 count on Brett, Noles threw one at Brett's chin. Brett went down, and Frey got justifiably hysterical. Brett laughed it off. "If he wasn't trying to hit me, no big deal, and if he was, well, he's 0 for 1," he said.

The lasting image from the fifth game of the Series is also of Brett hitting the dirt, this time diving after a ball Mike Schmidt hit in the ninth inning. With the Royals leading 3-2, Brett was playing shallower than usual on Schmidt, who twice had bunted down the third-base line during the Series. Schmidt hit a shot to Brett's left that Brett might have gotten had he been playing at normal depth. The next batter, Del Unser, hit a ground double just past First Baseman Willie Aikens to score Schmidt. After Unser was advanced to third, Manny Trillo hit sharply back to the box. The ball deflected off Pitcher Dan Quisenberry to Brett, whose throw was too late to get Trillo as Unser scored the winning run.

There was just nothing that Brett could do to get the Royals over the hump in the Series. In the sixth and final game his two hits went for naught, and the evening belonged to Philadelphia and the guard dogs. For the Series, Brett hit .375, a little under his regular-season average.

As respected and acclaimed as Brett was coming into the 1980 season, it was still something of a mystery how he came to tickle the toes of .400. In seven seasons he had never batted higher than .333, so his finishing at .390 was a bit like a .270 hitter suddenly jumping to .333. Brett certainly doesn't have any answers, except to say that he was seeing the ball. The person to ask would be Lau, the special hitting instructor of the Royals from 1971 to 1978; his only answer: "Lack of tension."

Before anyone says "Huh?" he should read Lau's recently published batting bible, The Art of Hitting .300, a rather modest title, considering that the model for the book's instructional photos is one George Brett. Because Lau created a near .400 hitter out of a bad Carl Yastrzemski imitation, his role in Brett's success can't be underestimated. His influence can still be seen in the stance of almost every Kansas City player, and it's no accident that the three teams on which he has left his mark, the Orioles, Royals and Yankees, all are among baseball's biggest winners.

In his book, Lau lists his 10 absolutes of good hitting. They are: thou shalt 1) have a balanced, workable stance, 2) make good use of rhythm and movement, 3) shift thy weight from a firm backside to a firm front-side, 4) stride with thy front toe closed, 5) have thy bat in launching position when thy front foot touches down, 6) make a positive, aggressive motion back toward the pitcher, 7) free thy swing of tension, 8) keep thy head down, 9) honor the whole field and 10) hit through the ball.

There's a little more to batting than that, but those are the basics, and Brett goes over them in a private litany before every turn at bat. "I run over 'em in my mind—'Stay on the balls of your feet, keep your head down, see the ball, top hand off,' " he says. "I don't know why it works, but I know it works. I can't tell people how I do something, just that I do it."

Lau says many of the mechanics of a good golf swing apply to a good baseball swing, things such as the rhythm, the weight shift, keeping the head down. It may not be a mere coincidence that Brett began playing a lot of golf last year. But most of all his baseball swing recalls yet another sport—tennis, specifically Bjorn Borg's two-handed backhand. Both Borg and Brett release the "top hand" as soon as it is of no more use to their swings. Since the days of Bonehead Merkle, baseball players have been taught to roll the top hand over on the swing. But Lau contends that a batter can't get full extension of his arms if he does that. Says Hal McRae, the Royals' designated hitting philosopher, "Before Charley, most batting coaches would just say, 'See the ball, be aggressive, top hand.' Hell, you could get that advice sitting around the checkerboard or standing on the corner."

The great variable in batting, according to Lau, is tension. The Royals' Rance Mulliniks, for example, has almost a carbon copy of Brett's stance, but he hit .259. Tension can come from a variety of sources: fear, doubt, trouble at home. Even Brett isn't immune, as he showed both early and late in the season. Back in May, he says, "I was too anxious. My hands were too far in front. I wasn't waiting on the ball. I wanted to hit the first pitch so that nobody would notice the batting average being flashed on the scoreboard."

The flip side of tension is concentration. "We all come here with talent," says McRae. "But the stars are the ones who don't have to work at concentrating. The superstars are the ones who are unconscious. They're in a trance. That's what George was in. I've been there, too, but not for as long. You can actually visualize the line drive jumping off your bat when you're still kneeling in the on-deck circle."

Brett doesn't want this generally known, lest he be sent down to the funny-farm system, but he talks to himself when he's at bat: "Sometimes I think the catcher can hear me, but I try not to let him. I'll say, 'I'm hot,' or Tm really swinging the bat good,' or Tm going to hit this pitcher.' But, hey, that's where it ends. It's not like I'm always having conversations with myself. I mean, I don't go back to my hotel room and say, 'What do you want to watch on TV, George? Oh, I don't know. Johnny Carson looks pretty good tonight' "

Two other things to know about Brett for the softball league are that he uses a Louisville Slugger T85 (unvarnished, 32 ounces, 34½ inches), a model originally designed for Marv Throneberry, of all people, and that he doesn't wear a batting glove. Almost every player in baseball wears a batting glove, which is a little odd, because Brett's batting average is 125 points higher than that of baseball as a whole.

Had it happened, .400 couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. But then, in these days of media hysteria, it couldn't have happened to anyone who wasn't as nice as Brett. His temperament was right for handling the pressure, though his goodwill did become a bit frayed for a few weeks. Andy Hassler of the Angels, a friend and former teammate who gives Brett as much trouble as any pitcher in the league, says, "George loves the game, it's that simple. He's out there to have fun. That alleviates a lot of the pressure. The best thing about him is that he doesn't take himself too seriously, not like a lot of superstars."

Take the matter of hemorrhoids at the world Series. Five years ago, one year ago maybe, the club would've said that the player in question had a groin pull or something like that, for fear of embarrassment. indeed, some writers could scarcely contain their sixth-grade glee ("Preparation H" and "the anals of baseball" were standard phrases in sports copy in October). Brett, too, tried to laugh it off, even though he was in extreme pain. Anyone who saw him writhing on a rubber doughnut in the Royals' dugout during Game 2 knows that. "It hurt," he says. "At one point in the second game I was standing on first, and Hal McRae was up. He kept fouling off pitches. I hurt so bad, I wanted to see him strike out. I actually wanted to see him strike out so I wouldn't have to run anywhere." But after the operation, Brett met the press and said, "My problems are all behind me now."

What's ahead for Brett? Lau says, "You realize, of course, he's only going to get better." Enraptured baseball people are already calling him the best third baseman ever to play the game. How silly! George Brett is only 27 years old.

Obradovich is watching his friend skate around in the uniform of Finland. They've known each other since high school, when Brett was kicking field goals for El Segundo High. Obradovich went on to USC, played wide receiver there, and is now one of the best doubles volleyball players in the world. His friend went on to become the best third baseman in the history of baseball. "You know," says Obradovich, perched on the boards, "he hasn't changed a bit since when I first knew him. All that he's done, and it hasn't affected him at all." As if to prove the point, Brett skates by and flicks the puck between Obradovich's outstretched legs. "You son of a bitch," says Obradovich, and they laugh. Look back on the season that Brett had, and think of the seasons he's going to have, and laugh.

THREE PHOTOS PHOTOIt was Brett's arm, not his bat that dashed Yankee hopes in Game 2 of the American League championship series. PHOTOThere's nothing shy about Brett, but on the topic of hitting, he clams up. PHOTOBrett, who now makes about $1 million a year playing for K.C., has two playhouses: this one on take Quivira, Kans., another in Rancho Mirage, Calif. PHOTOThe would-be kicker and cowhand is also a putative photographer.

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)