Taking everything into consideration, his great abilities plus the intangibles, Brett is probably the best player in the game today.
I think I could find a place for him in our lineup. Every day. Every inning.
He's the best hitter in the American League right now, and maybe in all baseball.
If God had him no balls and two strikes, he'd still get a hit.
American League umpire
He hits better than any white man I've ever seen. As a matter of fact, he hits so good he hits like a black man.
One day this June, George Brett was not at his accustomed position, third base for the Kansas City Royals, but in a hospital ward full of women, recovering from a torn ligament in his right ankle. Brett can talk to women, that's for sure, and on this day, Isabel (Izzy) Barrios, a pert, businesslike young physical therapist, is lightheartedly nagging him about putting more oomph into his exercises. "You're not trying, George.... George, you look like you're sleeping...."
"Ooooh," moans George, working his ankle against the pressure of the Cybex machine that measures the strength of the ankle. "You're killing me. Am I ever going to have a lawsuit." Listening sympathetically to these lamentations is a woman named Dorothy, who is about 75. She sits, slightly reclining, in a wheelchair that has her name printed on the back. George, perspiring and grimacing, watches Dorothy watch him suffer and then includes her in the banter.
"What're you in for, Dorothy?"
"I had a stroke and I fell and broke my hip."
"It could be worse. You could have a torn ligament in your ankle."
"Is playing ball worth it?"
"It is on paydays."
"You're a fidgety young man, aren't you? Do you smoke?"
"Only when I'm on fire. No, I chew."
"I chewed when I was in high school once. But I take Valium now."
"Better watch that."
"Oh, I know, they say you can get hooked on it. Well, I've been taking it for nearly 20 years and I'm not hooked yet. Say, how can you move your ankle when it's all taped up like that?"
"Look, that's how I can move it. After this, they're going to make me run."
"Isn't that the way it always is? They just don't give you any rest around here."
Brett injured his ankle stealing a base in a game against Cleveland on June 10. "I saw their shortstop...what's his name, [Jerry] Dybzinski?...coming across the base," he recalls, "and I was distracted, so I slid late, hit the bag and bounced back. I heard a big pop." Says Kansas City Manager Jim Frey, "I wish he had one less stolen base." There is nothing particularly surprising about Brett being injured. Anyone who plays baseball with his reckless zeal is going to come a cropper from time to time. "George gets hurt a lot because he's so aggressive," says Royal General Manager Joe Burke, "but then he wouldn't be as good as he is if he weren't so aggressive, so what can you do?"
You can play without him, which the Royals do, but not nearly as successfully as they do with him. In the 39 games Brett has not started at third this season—before he injured his ankle he had been out for four games with a badly bruised heel—his teammates played at only a .487 clip. With their star third baseman rooting in the infield dust for ground balls and rifling scorching line drives, the Royals are .672. In the three weeks before injuring his ankle, Brett had been on one of his characteristic batting tears. He'd hit safely in 16 of his last 18 games, had driven in 24 runs, had five doubles, a triple and six homers and batted .440. Then, pop!
But he has come back. He always does. He played much of the 1978 season with a painfully bruised left shoulder and bone chips in the thumb of his throwing hand. He had surgery on the thumb in the off-season, missed all of spring training in 1979 and had to wear a protective device on the thumb while batting for most of the rest of the season. With these impediments, he started slowly, making some injury-induced bad throws from third and hitting barely .240 through the middle of May. But you might say he surmounted the handicap later on. For the season, he hit .329 with 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 homers, 119 runs and 107 RBIs. He led the league in triples and in hits with 212, and he stole 17 bases. If there remained any doubts about Brett's qualifications for superstardom they were dispelled by this performance.
His teammates, managers and opponents have never questioned his ability. Whitey Herzog, who's the Cardinals' skipper now but was Brett's manager at Kansas City for five years, considers him the best player in the American League. "You don't have to manage him," Herzog says. "You just let him play." Brett's teammate, Hal McRae, places him among "the top three players in the game."
Frey, who spent 10 years as a Baltimore coach before coming to Kansas City, says Brett "is as valuable as one of the great hitters in the league can be. But what impresses everybody is the way he goes about playing. He plays hard. He breaks up the double play, he takes the extra base, he dives for balls. Like Brooks Robinson, he just loves being a ballplayer. Brooks couldn't do all the things George can do on the bases, because he didn't have the speed, but he had that same enthusiasm."
By the same token, Brett is no Robinson afield, but Frey thinks Brett's defensive prowess is underrated. "His hands are good, his range is good and he's improved his throwing in the last two years," Frey says. "The guy people are talking about when they say he isn't a good fielder is the guy who played three or four years ago, the guy who might backhand a ball and then throw it away. George does a helluva job defensively now. He's one of the best."
Brett makes light of his own defensive lapses, saying, "If I can stay healthy long enough, I've got a chance to become the first player to get 3,000 hits and 1,000 errors." But a teammate, Pitcher Paul Splittorff, considers such jocularity a protective cover. "He's sensitive about his defense," says Splittorff. "It's the only thing he's ever been criticized for, and I think he takes it personally. Everybody looks for a weakness in people, and George doesn't have many. His fielding is really pretty good, but it doesn't measure up to his hitting. What could? He's just an amazing clutch player. The Palmers and the Guidrys will say he's the toughest they've ever faced in those situations. That's high praise. George seems to have a higher gear he slips into, and he just takes over."
Brett took over almost single-handedly in the Royals' three futile tries against the Yankees in the American League playoffs of 1976, '77 and '78. In '76, his three-run homer tied the fifth game, which the Yankees ultimately won on Chris Chambliss' dramatic ninth-inning shot, and in the third game in '78, he set a playoff record by hitting three homers off Catfish Hunter. His average for 14 playoff games is a rousing .375.
Brett also rose to the occasion on the last day of the '76 season, getting three hits against Minnesota to edge McRae by a percentage point and Rod Carew by two points for the league batting championship. Alas, the last of those hits, a fly ball that the Twins' Steve Brye apparently misjudged, was suspect. The bitterly disappointed McRae, a black, accused Brye of misplaying the ball deliberately so a white could win the title. Brett, who admires McRae enormously and considers him something of a role model, was crushed by the accusation. "It took a lot of fun out of winning the title," he says. "I respect Hal so much. But a week later we were kidding about it. 'You know you won it because you're white,' he'd say to me. And when I got the silver bat at the start of the next season in a ceremony before the opener on national TV, McRae said to me when I got back to the dugout, 'O.K., let's cut it in half.' " Still, there are members of the Royals' organization who say McRae has not yet recovered from his disappointment. McRae denies this. "I've forgotten all about it," he says. "Anyway, it caused no damage to my relationship with George."
Brett, who is among the most likable of professional athletes, is a hard man to hold a grudge against. His enthusiasm on the field—coupled with his great skill—has won him unrivaled popularity with Kansas City fans. "George certainly has charisma," says Burke, understating the situation. Off the field, Brett is the perennial youngster, whose insouciance entertains men and, according to reliable reports, devastates womanhood. "Everything you've heard about him is true," says Splittorff. "I don't know of anyone who has more fun off the field and on. They say he'll be 40 before he's 30.1 don't know, but he's sure a piece of work."
Jamie Quirk, who plays behind Brett at third and does some catching for the Royals, has known George since they played in the instructional league together. "He's my closest friend," says Quirk. "He's the same guy who was making $500 a month when I first met him. He knows that he's a public figure, that he can't be too outrageous. But he still enjoys going out. I'm just a run-of-the-mill player and he's a superstar, but he has never let that come between us. Wherever we go, he's recognized, but he'll always make sure that I'm introduced to everybody. He's always been one of the guys, not the sort of superstar who'll walk in five minutes before the game."
His therapy is finished, and Brett can bid his lady friends at St. Luke's adieu. Dorothy is working a jigsaw puzzle. George watches her for a time and then remarks drily, "I wish I could go through that kind of rehabilitation, Dorothy." Being injured has given him a chance to get his day-to-day affairs in order, and he has set a busy schedule for himself on a day that has become a true Kansas City scorcher. The first stop is at the Home Savings and Loan Association, which employs him as a sort of roving public relations man. "Actually," says Brett, driving downtown in his new Ford Bronco, "I do nothing."
He pops into the office of Ray Gifford, Home Savings' president. Brett is unshaven and unshowered from his ordeal with Izzy and is wearing a dark blue T shirt, light-blue jeans and royal-blue running shoes, hardly proper attire for a young banker. At 27, he is what is customarily described as ruggedly handsome—a larger, much younger Steve McQueen, say. He has pale blue eyes, a strong, invariably stubbly chin and sandy hair that remains steadfastly tousled. A gap between his front teeth that once gave a certain antic charm to his smile has been closed by dental wizardry so that now his uppers are as bright and orderly as the incumbent President's. Brett is six feet tall and about 200 pounds, the weight distributed like a running back's—broad shoulders, low center of gravity, thick, strong legs.
Gifford, an affable, pink-faced man in a rumpled seersucker suit, is happy to see Brett. "I wanted you here to meet a woman who was going to make a $200,000 deposit," he says. "She said she'd put the money in only if she could meet George Brett. But what if she's some kind of nut? What if she pulls out a gun and shoots you right here in this office? What a mess that would be—George Brett lying down there bleeding all over this expensive new carpet. We can't have that. Anyway, she never called back. But as long as you're here, how about saying hello to the girls behind the windows?"
Brett allows as to how there are few things he enjoys more than chatting with pretty bank tellers. Dennis Spivak, whose agency handles Home Savings' advertising, opens the door and peeks in. Spivak, an avid Royal fan, is almost as casually dressed as George, in open-necked shirt and slacks. Brett, who is rarely still, jumps up to greet him. "I think the word for George in Yiddish is shpilkes, which means he's got ants in his pants," Spivak says, laughing. "Anyway, I always say he has shpilkes' disease. Now he's telling everybody he's got it." George holds up a hand in protest. "No," he says, "the truth is my P.R. man told me I was losing popularity in the Jewish community so I've started using a few Yiddish words to get myself back in."
There are more errands. He talks to the tellers, he deposits a diamond he has just bought in his safe-deposit box, he buys himself a new tin of chewing tobacco, he has lunch with Gifford and Spivak at a chic little restaurant called Stanford & Sons, and he sees a man about buying a used Mercedes 450 SL. And later there is more therapy at St. Luke's. By four in the afternoon, Brett is ready to drive to his house on the shores of Lake Quivira, Kans., about 25 miles west of Kansas City. He is stopped on the way for running a stop sign. The officer, recognizing the offender, lets him off with a warning, but Brett is distressed nonetheless. "We're losing valuable sun time," he complains, gazing longingly into a cloudless sky.
In 1977, Brett signed a five-year, $1.5 million contract that, in the light of recent developments in baseball economics, seems barely above the subsistence level. Brett employed no agent in negotiating that agreement, but he did some research on the wages paid players of his stature and he asked the Royals to take this information to heart. But contract hassles between Brett and his team seem an unlikely occurrence. Burke says he envisions a long career in Kansas City for George. For his part, Brett says he is happy where he is and is not looking for greener pastures.
"George knows what big city life is like," says Quirk. "He was raised in L.A. He doesn't need any more of it. Kansas City has been good to him, and he's been good to Kansas City." And despite his own protestations—"I haven't had any action since my eighth grade picnic"—he is the city's Bachelor King, reigning benevolently over beauty queens, swinging singles and lonely divorcees.
With it all, Brett lives modestly. His wardrobe of T shirts and jeans might embarrass a high school boy, and he prefers hunting and fishing to nightclubs and the theater. His house, which looks like a mountain chalet, may be his only extravagance, and at a cost of $225,000, it is, in his opinion, "a steal." But it does have four bedrooms and two sundecks, a large bar and a pool table. And it overlooks the lake.
Brett parks the Bronco in the garage, snatches a few beers from the cooler and climbs into his golf cart for a short trip downhill to a friend's dock, where he will rest his injured leg in style. It is late afternoon now, but the sun is still bright. It shimmers in reflection in the dark waters of the little lake. Sailboats, motor launches and water skiers pass in review as Brett slumps into a chaise longue, beer at the ready. He has assumed this position many times before, but mostly on the beaches of Southern California, far from the pastoral Midwest.
"It's not as hectic here," he says, eyes half closed to the sun. "It was good for me to get away from home at a young age. Everybody but me seemed to be maturing. I grew up in El Segundo, out near the L.A. airport, not far from Manhattan Beach. Every day in the summer we'd go to the beach from 10 in the morning till four in the afternoon. Then I'd help clean up the house a little bit, put on my uniform and play ball the rest of the night. Every day it was the same thing. It was really livin'."
Brett was the youngest of four sons, all of whom played professional baseball. But only Ken, 31, a lefthanded pitcher who was released this spring by the Dodgers, and George made it to the big leagues. John, 33, is in the construction business, and Bob, 29, is in real estate. All three older brothers preceded George as star athletes at El Segundo High. "I was always being compared to one of them," George says. "When my brothers got to playing, it was sort of mandatory that I do it. My father—he's a director of finance for Datsun—backed us all the way. We got the best $40 gloves, although mine were hand-me-downs from Bobby and John. We were middle class. My father said we didn't have to get jobs in the summer. That was the time to enjoy yourself, he told us. I don't recall ever getting an allowance, but if I needed something, I got it. There was no stereo or TV in my room, but if I wanted $3 to go to the movies, I'd get it."
Ken—or "Kenner," as George calls him—was the family's first star. "He was the best thing ever to come out of my hometown," says George. "He was better than anyone in everything in high school—baseball, football, you name it. Hey, he pitched in the World Series for the Red Sox when he was 19. I saw him in Busch Stadium. I was only 14. What a thrill! At that time, he could really blow the ball. He'd come home, driving a GTO and pulling out a roll of $10 bills—there might have been only three or four, but it looked like a roll. I'd say, 'Look, he's got it made.' That's when I decided if there was anything I wanted to be, it was a ballplayer."
George was drafted by the Royals out of high school in 1971 as a shortstop, but he was switched to third base in his first season, at Billings, Mont. In 2½ years in the minors, he never hit .300. "I was strictly a pull hitter then," he says. "I went for the long ball. What else? In my high school it was 320 feet in the power alleys." In 1974, both he and McRae fell under the influence of the man who was to become their Svengali, Royal hitting instructor Charley Lau. Lau taught them patience at the plate. He taught them to go to the opposite field and to concentrate on hitting the ball where it was pitched. In time, Brett, the lefthand hitter, and McRae, the righty, became mirror images of each other at the plate. "We had the same stance," says Brett. "We did everything alike." In that year, McRae's average improved from .234 to .310 and by 1975 Brett had become a .300 hitter, finishing at .308. McRae had three successive .300-plus seasons, and Brett, whose career average is now .310, has dipped below .300 only once since '75—in the injury-riddled 1978 season when he hit .294.
There are those, notably Herzog, who contend that Lau's influence on Brett has not been entirely beneficial, that had Brett not concentrated so much on hitting the ball to the opposite field, he could have become a big home-run hitter. The 23 he had last year is his highest total, but Brett has not appreciably changed his batting style since Lau's departure to the Yankees two years ago. In Frey's opinion, Brett is simply getting stronger and the homers will come with ever-increasing frequency. It is not a pretty prospect for American League pitchers.
Brett learned something else in that pivotal 1974 season from watching McRae: "I could see him stretching singles into doubles, and I'd say, 'Hey, I can do that.' I'd never played that way in the minor leagues. I was lackadaisical. Now I don't think I can play any other way but all out. Baseball's no fun if you don't go out there and be...well...berserk, if that's the word. I enjoy the game so much because I'm putting so much into it. It makes you feel great inside when you're standing on second or third base knowing you've just stretched a hit. I'll bet if you took all the players in this game and had a race, you'd find I have just a little more than average speed. But I've led the league in triples three times and in doubles once. Seven or eight of my triples last year were really just doubles. I stretched them."
Frey has said that when Brett is incapacitated he tries not to think about his absence. And yet..."when we lose a one-run game, I find I have a tendency to say to myself that if George had been there we probably would have scratched out another run or two that would have meant the ball game," Frey says. "I might try to convince myself that maybe George would have had a bad two weeks if he'd been with us instead of being hurt. But I know that's not very darn likely, because this is a man who consistently gives his best day in and day out. There are no alibis and no excuses from him. There are some fellows who are outstanding players who go out and work at the game. They grind it out. George is like some kid in a schoolyard."
Stretched beneath a dying sun on the dock, Brett does not look like a human dynamo, a stretcher of doubles, a slugger of clutch homers, a wooer of Midwestern beauties. He looks like a Southern California kid bagging some rays. Actually, he is thinking about the cattle ranch he wants to own someday.
"Remember Mike Battle?" he inquires dreamily. "Used to play for the Jets. He's from El Segundo. Hung out with my brother, John. He's got a big ranch now in the Texas Panhandle. I go down there a lot. You can't even see the house of his closest neighbor. He got me interested in ranching. And Tony Adams? Used to play quarterback for the Chiefs. He's got a beautiful ranch with Dave Owen in Kansas. He's a professional calf roper. I go down to his place and help him out. I enjoy that kind of hard work. Now, the way it is, I ask myself what I've accomplished over the winter and I have to say, nothing. What did I do? I played some golf with my brothers in California and I went hunting. I need something more." He smiles. "Trouble is, I'd need a wife to help me run a ranch." He frowns. "But I don't see how you can love someone if you don't love yourself."
What's that? George Brett doesn't love himself? "Some days I hate myself," he says, rising from the chaise. "Like when I go 0 for 4." He pulls himself upright and limps off to the golf cart. The sun is setting. The evening, with all its promise, is ahead. And soon, very soon, there will be ball games to be played.
He is back in the Bronco again, rolling toward a restaurant in the Plaza section of Kansas City called the Granfalloon. This is one of those spots frequented by the city's singles crowd, of which George is virtually a charter member. Kansas City's singles seem appreciably younger than the nocturnal carnivores of, say, New York or San Francisco, where silver threads among the gold are not uncommon. It is likely that in K.C. no one stays single or swinging for very long. Brett is known by everyone in the Granfalloon. His arrival is cause for a sort of celebration. They are honored by his presence. He is tying into some chicken wings, a bacon-pineapple Swissburger and a succession of beers when a very young-looking woman disengages herself from the bar and approaches him.
"You're George Brett, aren't you?" she inquires.
"Right. Who're you?"
"I'm Judy. I wonder if you'd sign an autograph for my kids."
"Your kids? You look like a kid yourself. What'd you do, get married at 12?"
"I was older than that. I'm divorced now. Actually, I'm 27."
"You are? So am I. It's great, isn't it? Being 27."
"I've never had such a good time."
"Well, sit down then. Have some chicken wings."
On the television set behind the bar, the Royals are playing the Twins in Minnesota. Brett would give anything to be there with his team, but when you are 27, a bachelor and George Brett, there are compensations.
Brett returned to the lineup on July 10 and had two hits. The next day he had three. Then one, three, two, two and four. And so on. His batting average has rocketed from .350 to .385, the best in baseball. Since he has been back the Royals have won 17 of 24. Two weeks later, they signed him to a five-year contract at $1 million a year and added $250,000 to each of the two remaining years on his current contract. All things considered, they got a bargain.
RONALD C. MODRA