Remember the Royals? They finished first in the AL West by 14 games two years ago and embarrassed the Yankees in the championship series, only to fall to the Phillies in the World Series. Last year they struggled, finishing 50-53 and losing three straight to Oakland in the intradivision.
Remember George Brett? He flirted with .400 in 1980 and played host to America, only to settle at .390. Last year he struggled, finishing at a mere .314 and throwing some terrible tantrums.
The Royals and Brett are both back, professing to be changed. "We have something to prove because we played so bad last year," says Brett. "What I have to prove is that I can be a mature adult."
The other day John Wathan left a pair of crutches in Brett's locker, a reference to the night he swung a crutch at a photographer. One arm pad was inscribed GEORGE BRETT and the other FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS ONLY. Brett swung the crutches at his locker in mock anger. He also swung the bat well in spring training. When Brett hits and drives in runs, Kansas City wins—it's that simple.
The Royals are virtually unchanged from last season. Dick Howser, who managed them to a 20-13 record in relief of Jim Frey, is back for a full season, and Jerry Martin, a decent outfielder acquired from the Giants, replaces Clint Hurdle in right. The one change the Royals feel they need to make is behind the plate. Wathan is a good handler of pitchers, but he isn't a good thrower; he is much better suited to be a utility player. Kansas City is hoping that Don Slaught will do the bulk of the catching.
The rest of the cast is intact, with Willie Wilson in left, Amos Otis in center, Willie Aikens at first, Frank White at second, U.L. Washington at short, Brett at third and the disgruntled Hal McRae as DH.
Until the Royals obtained Vida Blue from San Francisco last week, the starting pitching could be summed up by the old saying, "Leonard and Gura and Pray for Frost." With 120 wins in seven seasons, Dennis Leonard may be the best pitcher never to make the All-Star team. Larry Gura was 7-3 with a 1.25 ERA in the second half of '81 and Blue was 8-6 with a 2.45 ERA last year with the Giants. The Royals are counting on Dave Frost to recover the form (16-10 record) he showed with the Angels in '79, before bone chips in his elbow stopped him. Sorely missed is Mike Jones, a big lefthander hurt in an auto accident in the off-season. Dan Quisenberry will get help in the bullpen from the ageless Grant Jackson and the wild Scott Brown.
Howser has yet to finish below first in one and a quarter seasons as a major league manager, and he likes his chances at another pennant. "When you don't score runs and you don't pitch well and you're not winning, it's natural for people to start pointing to the attitude on a club," he says. "There's nothing wrong with this team. I'm not saying we're going to run away with the division this season, but we're better than people think we are." Remember the Royals.
With 89 career triples at age 28, George Brett already ranks fourth among active players; Pete Rose, who is first with 122, is 12 years older than Brett, but with Brett averaging 9.9 three-baggers a year, Rose is, in effect, just over three seasons ahead of him. K.C.'s Willie Aikens has never hit a triple in 1,362 at bats. No other every-day player has gone that far into his career without at least one.