Late in the first month of the season, with his Kansas City Royals off to a far from encouraging 1-16 start, George Brett stopped by the office of his old friend, manager Hal McRae, before a game in Toronto. Brett, the premier hitter of his generation, a certain Hall of Famer, was batting .164 and, for one of the few times in his baseball life, was not getting any fun out of the game. "He was disgusted and embarrassed." McRae recalled last week as Brett approached another career milestone. "He felt he was letting the team down and the fans down. He told me he didn't think he could make it through the season. He was thinking about quitting."
McRae laughs now at the recollections. "I told him, 'George, you don't have that option available to you. Everybody out there—the fans, your teammates, the media, the front office, me—wants to see you get that 3,000th hit. No one will accept anything less from you. The reason you've worked yourself into the position you're in now is because you're so good. Don't you understand, you can't quit until you get that hit. Now, just go out there and get it done.' "
Brett, sure enough, is getting it done. By Sunday, he had 2,996 hits with seven games remaining on the Royals' schedule. The expectation is that the blessed 3,000th will fall any day now, for, as the veteran Kansas City broadcaster Fred White says, "I've never known George Brett to make up his mind to do something, and not do it." Brett is hardly the holy terror at the plate he once was, but he's hitting a respectable .277 and playing with the same old gusto, running out ground balls as hard, if not as fast, as ever and even stealing the occasional base—he has stolen eight this season—on legs that might qualify him for handicapped parking privileges. With something approaching awe, younger players watch him hurl his 39-year-old body into the fray.
"He picks us all up," says Kansas City catcher Mike Macfarlane. "In a season that has been abysmal at best, it's still fun coming mil to the park to sec him busting his butt out there, even on routine ground balls. He's salvaging a season for us." And that's no mean feat for a team mired in fifth place, 23½ games out of first in the American League West.
Despite the obvious pressure he's under to gel that hit before the season ends, Brett is having a good time again, as only one who understands the virtues of the fast lane can. "I am not too serious about anything," he says, not too seriously. "I believe you have to enjoy yourself to get the most out of your ability. I can take the criticism with the accolades. Neither affects me. I'm not sure how people in Kansas City perceive me, but I do know that in my first few years here they at least knew where they could find me, until all the bars closed. The guys [his old teammates] and I were out every night after a game having a ball, but they're all gone now, and lately I can't stay awake long enough to watch Rush Limbaugh on TV. And I go straight home from the ballpark."
Yes, indeed; the onetime Bachelor King is a married man. His confirmed bachelorhood was terminated last Feb. 15 when, after a year-and-a-half courtship, he wed a 27-year-old University of Kansas graduate named Leslie Davenport in the Manhattan Beach, Calif., home of his brother Bobby. And in March he will become a father—a development, he says, "that leaves me absolutely speechless."
This, in fact, has been a pivotal year for Brett in more ways than can be tabulated on a stat sheet. The marriage certainly changed his life. Fatherhood will change it more. And in December he and Leslie will move into an English-style stone and brick mansion they are renovating in Mission Hills, where many of Kansas City's old-money families reside. The man-about-town of only a few years ago would not have been caught dead in such hidebound circumstances. Leslie's father, Richard (Herky) Davenport, a Wichita designer, is restructuring the interior of the future home to Lady Brett's specifications. She, meanwhile, is scouring the nation for antiques. "You bought what?" George exclaimed in mock horror on a recent tour of the estate. "An 18th-century armoire! Oh my god! What's next?"
Brett also suffered a grievous and emotionally complicated loss on May 24 when his father, John H. (Jack) Brett, died of cancer at age 68. George was the youngest of Jack's four sons and, curiously enough, the one who, at El Segundo (Calif.) High School, demonstrated the least athletic prowess. The second oldest, Ken, who was a 33-3 pitcher and .484 hitter in high school and who preceded baby George by six years in the big leagues, was the one Jack ticketed for stardom. But Ken, an announcer now for the California Angels, never won more than 13 games in any of his 12 seasons with 10 different teams. George, on the other hand, will recline with the immortals when his day is done. Jack apparently had trouble comprehending this unexpected turn of events.
"My father cared a lot about me, but he never gave me the satisfaction of really knowing it," says George. "Hitting .390 [as Brett did in 1980] wasn't enough for him. Nothing seemed to be. He was not trying to be mean. He was just seeing to it that I never got self-satisfied, that I worked hard to get the most out of what I had." The death of such a man docs not necessarily sever the connection.
The games played during the week of his father's funeral were the only ones Brett has missed, aside from occasional McRae-ordered breathers, in this (for him) extraordinarily healthy season. There is scarcely a section of his anatomy, front and rear, that has not been afflicted at one time or another during his career. Over the years, he has had injuries to the heel, toe, ankle, knees, ribs, back, hand, wrist and shoulder. And this accounting discreetly skirts the hemorrhoid operation he endured during the 1980 World Series. ("The pain is all behind me," Brett quite accurately declared after that successful surgery.) He has made 10 appearances on the disabled list in his baseball lifetime and has missed 401 games since 1977 with injuries, the equivalent of two and a half seasons. In only seven of his 19 full major league seasons has he played in more than 140 games. It is no wonder, then, that he will reach the 3,000-hit plateau after the younger (37) and certainly healthier Robin Yount, who is also playing in his 19th season but got his 3,000th a month ago. But unlike Yount, a career .286 hitter, Brett will achieve the milestone—the 18th player in history to do so—with a lifetime average comfortably above .300 (it was .307 as of Sunday).
Brett gets hurt so often because he plays with such reckless disregard for his well-being, and on artificial turf, at that. "He's a blue-collar player," says Royal vice-president Dean Vogelaar. Actually, he looks, even at 39, more like one of those kids you used to find playing in vacant lots, cap tilted back over crew-cut hair, dirt-stained pants, cocky bearing. Brett is a full-blown anachronism in a game that has grown increasingly mannered. He doesn't wear batting gloves (except in batting practice) and, in fact, deplores them. "I just can't get a feel of the bat with them," he says, "and yet you see kids come up to the plate now with gloves on both hands and two more in the back pocket." He chews tobacco. "The boss [Leslie] wants me to stop, and I will," he says, "after the season." He has never filed for free agency, content, despite occasional contract disputes, to remain with one team for the length of his career. And he shames younger men by running to first as if fleeing a holdup. An audible groan escaped from Royals Stadium patrons last week when after watching Brett all these years, they saw Seattle star Ken Griffey Jr. move down the line as if he were window shopping. They had been conditioned to expect better.
It is not without reason then that Brett is the most popular player in Kansas City baseball history and one of the most popular anywhere these past 20 years. He pretty much is Kansas City baseball, for that matter. "George, right now, is the only game in town," says McRae. When Brett comes to the plate, he is treated to a thunderous ovation. And when he bats for the last time in a game, the show is over and the fans head home. The crowd of 17,915 that turned out for the Sept. 24 game against the Mariners quickly became 915 when Brett, up for the last time, lined out leading off the eighth inning. Then again, there probably wouldn't have been 17,915 there in the first place if it hadn't been for Brett and his quest for 3,000 hits.
"He's made the end of the season seem not so drab and dreary," says manager McRae's son, Brian, the Royals' centerfielder, who finds it "weird" playing with a man who once baby-sat him. "When George gets to 3,000, we'll all be a part of it. I know I plan to tell my grandchildren about it."
Brett has been pretty much an offensive specialist the last several years. He switched from third base to first during the 1987 season, then, because of his recurring injuries, gradually devolved into a designated hitter. He has played only 18 games in the field this year. "Old third basemen become first basemen," he explains, "and old first basemen become designated hitters." Brett never did boast much of his fielding prowess. He joked a few years ago that he might become the first player ever to get 3,000 hits and make 1,000 errors. Actually, he has made only 292 errors, and, playing DH, he's not likely to make many more.
The fact is, for all of his disclaimers, he did develop into an excellent third baseman, a Gold Glove winner in 1985. Not that anybody noticed his glove in a year when he hit .335 with 108 runs scored, 112 batted in, 30 homers and 103 walks. It would consume the remaining pages of this publication to recount Brett's achievements at bat. Let it suffice, then, to say that he is the only man to win batting titles in three different decades (1976, 1980, 1990); that he has led the American League in one season or another in average, hits, total bases, doubles, triples, on-base percentage and slugging; and that only Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig have excelled in so many categories; that in averaging .390 in '80, he came closest to being baseball's first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941; and that by hitting .340 in 27 league playoff" games and .373 in 13 World Series games he confirmed McRae's contention that "he's the most dangerous clutch hitter in the game."
Because he plays home games in such a spacious ballpark, he hits comparatively few homers, but he makes most of them count—witness the mighty upper-deck shot off Goose Gossage in Yankee Stadium in the deciding game of the 1980 playoffs, the three off Catfish Hunter in the '78 playoffs and the two he hit in the pivotal third game of the 1985 playoffs against Toronto, which led to the Royals' only World Series title. His last home run, and the 298th of his career, was typically dramatic, an inside-the-park thriller against Chicago in Royals Stadium on Sept. 6.
Two more homers, of course, and he will have 300, and six more stolen bases will give him 200. Will he stay around long enough—another season, maybe—to round off those numbers? Brett is not yet saying. "After the season, I'm going to talk to some people about it. My wife. My brothers. Johnny Bench, who quit on top. Dan Quisenberry, who quit only two years ago. Some of my friends on the old Royals—Jamie Quirk, Bud Black. My good friend here in the clubhouse for the past nine years, [attendant] Joe Caronia. The ultimate decision will be mine, but I want to be sure of it. This has been an interesting year for me, with all that's happened. I've had a lot to think about."
It's not that he's unwanted. "You just don't replace a George Brett," says general manager Herk Robinson.
"I'd love to see him back," says catcher Macfarlane. "The guy inspires me every day."
The fans obviously still adore him. And the media will sorely regret the retirement of one of the most gracious and intelligent interviewees in all of sports. Before the Sept. 24 game at Royals Stadium, a television sportscaster was reviewing Brett's long career with him, reliving heroic moments of the past. In time, the recitation began to sound suspiciously like a eulogy. This was not lost on Brett.
Finally, after several more minutes of sentimental commentary, the TV man said in a voice exuding sincerity, "George, I just want to thank you for all the thrills you've given me over the years."
"And I," said George, turning the tables without skipping a beat, "just want to thank you for all the thrills you've given me over the years."
You just don't bury George Brett before he's ready.