He is George Brett to most of us, but to family and friends and teammates, he is Lou. "It comes from Looney Tunes," Brett was saying a few hours before his final game in Kansas City, on Sept. 29. "I loved to watch cartoons when I was a kid, and my oldest brother, J.B., started calling me Looney Tunes, which was shortened to Looney, which my mother still calls me, and then to Lou."
For the last 21 years George Brett has been like the best of the Looney Tunes, irrepressible and irreverent and iridescent. He was magnificent on the field—perhaps the best hitter of his generation, and certainly the best clutch hitter—yet he always had a madcap, "Nyah, what's up, Doc?" air about him. Two weeks ago he caught a lot of people by surprise when he announced he was retiring after the end of the '93 season, even though he was in the process of leading the Royals in RBIs for the sixth time in his career. But that, too, was typical of Brett, who didn't want a long, drawn-out farewell tour.
A George Brett press conference is always a treat, and the one before his last home game was no exception. He recalled his first major league at bat, in 1973—"against Stan Bahnsen, when the White Sox had that artificial turf infield and grass outfield and Dick Allen scaring me to death"—and said that he expected his last at bat to be a grounder to second base "for the 5,000th time in my career." Brett also got to the heart of why he was retiring: "The game had become a job for me, and I thought baseball deserved better than that."
The Royals are saving a more formal George Brett Night for next May, when he will be the club's fledgling vice-president for baseball operations, but they put together a very nice send-off for him last week. In a pregame ceremony a message from President Clinton was flashed on the scoreboard, followed by a video tribute to Brett, which pitching coach Guy Hansen had helped produce. Then the Royals came out, all of them wearing their pant legs high, a la Brett, with the number 5 on all their socks. Pitcher Mark Gubicza, speaking for the team, said what a great honor it was just to have played with George, then presented him with some gifts: a jersey signed by all the Royals, apiece of artificial turf to remind him of what he was missing, and his-and-her Jet Skis for George and his wife, Leslie.
The man can still hit, and the man can still talk. In fact, Brett's first words of thanks to the standing, sellout crowd were almost as resonant and touching as Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech. (Brett is very active in raising funds in the search for a cure for ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.) Said this Lou, "If you only knew how good you made me feel."
After thanking teammates and club officials, he looked into the visiting dugout for the Cleveland Indians' centerfielder, who had robbed him of a few hits the last two years, and said, "Where's Kenny Lofton?" Almost as if he were talking about some "wascally wabbit," Brett shouted, "I hate you. [Pause] I really hate you."
Brett did have one final thought. "Goobie," he said to Gubicza, who has been struggling this year, "that was a tremendous speech, and I will do whatever I can to get you back next year."
Up in one of the broadcast booths, J.B., Ken and Bobby Brett all chuckled at their brother's offer. "Now Goobie can sue the Royals for breach of oral contract if they don't sign him," said Bobby. Later, the Brett brothers passed around a sheet listing all the pitchers off whom George had gotten a hit. "How many did he get off you, Kemmer?" J.B. asked Ken, who pitched 14 years in the big leagues. "Six," said Ken, "but I gave him five of those 'cause he was slumping at the time."
Brothers have a way of deflating one another's accomplishments, and the Bretts are better at that than most. When George, facing the somewhat erratic Jose Mesa in the first inning, took two futile swings, J.B. said, "Now I know he made the right decision." Indeed, George flied out twice and grounded into a double play in his first three at bats. But then in the eighth, George came up against reliever Jeremy Hernandez with two outs and the tying run on second, and the brothers were on their feet. When George's ground ball up the middle skipped past diving second baseman Jeff Treadway, there weren't three happier people in the ballpark than J.B., Ken and Bobby. And there weren't three angrier people when manager Hal McRae took George out for a pinch runner, thus depriving him of another potential at bat.
It didn't matter, though, because the Royals won the game 3-2 on a ninth-inning single by rookie Kevin Koslofski, who picked the wrong night to knock in the biggest run of his career. It was Brett's night, after all, and at the conclusion of the game, fireworks lit up the sky while a blazing 5 illuminated the hillside beyond the outfield fence. George rode around the stadium in a golf cart and thanked the fans, and when he came full circle, he jumped off the cart, ran over to home, knelt down and kissed the plate.
If he only knew how good he made us feel.