On the day he became eligible to collect his major league pension, George Brunet of Aguila de Veracruz pitched a three-hitter to defeat León 3-0. Brunet's manager, a fellow by the name of Willie Davis, gave him a 45th-birthday present by doubling in the first run and scoring the second. After the game the ball club threw a surprise party for El Viejo, the Old Man. Brunet, genuinely surprised, blew out the candles and, with a tear in his eye, said to his friends, "Muchas gracias. Nadie nunca a hecho esto para mi." Nobody had ever done that for him. After 28 years in professional baseball, 30 different uniforms and 4,719 innings, George Brunet was finally given a day, June 8, in Veracruz, Mexico.
Brunet's odyssey, surely the most arduous in the history of baseball, began in 1953 when he was a 17-year-old kid in Ahmeek, Mich. Brunet was signed by Schoolboy Rowe and Muddy Ruel of the Detroit Tigers. If those names don't date him, just consider that Carl Yastrzemski, the present-day patriarch of the majors, was in the ninth grade. "They gave me $500," Brunet recalls. "I bought a dining-room set for my parents, a coat for my mother and a night on the town."
Brunet first reported to Shelby, N.C. in the Class D Tar Heel League, but he had to pass through Alexandria, Va., Seminole, Okla., Hot Springs, Ark., Seminole again, Abilene, Kans., Crowley, La. and Columbia, Mo. before reaching Kansas City and the big leagues in 1956.
"I remember my debut," he says. "We were ahead 4-2 in the fourth, but the Red Sox had the bases loaded. Bobby Shantz would normally come in, but for some reason George Susce, the pitching coach, told me to go. I remember riding out of the bullpen in a brand-new pink Lincoln Continental. I had no idea who was up, and now that I think about it, Hal Smith, the catcher, knew better than to tell me. The guy swings at my first fastball and misses, then fouls off another one, and I'm ahead 0-2 when it dawns on me that I'm pitching to Ted Williams. This is my idol. My legs start shaking. Somehow I get the ball up to the plate, and he hits a sharp grounder that Vic Power at first base turns into a double play. When I got back to the dugout and sat down, I literally cried out of relief. The next day Williams comes over to me before the game and says, 'Kid, if you keep that fastball down, you've got a long career ahead of you.' "
There are two points to that story: 1) Guys that George Brunet once played with are now worth big money in vintage bubble-gum cards, and 2) Ted Williams knew what he was talking about.
In the next eight seasons the well-traveled Brunet went down to Little Rock, back up to Kansas City, down to Buffalo, down to Little Rock again, out to Portland, Ore., up to the Athletics once more, down to Louisville, up to Milwaukee, down to Vancouver, across to Hawaii, over to Oklahoma City, up to Houston, down to Oklahoma City again, up to Baltimore, down to Rochester, back to Oklahoma City and finally, in 1964, up to Los Angeles.
From 1965 through 1968, Brunet was one of the leading lefthanded pitchers in the league, averaging 226 innings a year with an ERA of 3.03. He began to bounce around again in 1969, when he was traded to the Seattle Pilots. In 1970 he pitched for the Washington Senators, managed by Ted Williams, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1971 the St. Louis Cardinals used him for only nine innings. He went back to Hawaii for the rest of 1971 and all of 1972. While in Hawaii, he got an offer to pitch in Japan, but held out, waiting for a call from the Minnesota Twins. The call hasn't come, and Brunet never made it back to the big time. He left with a career won-lost record of 69-93 and a 3.62 ERA. His pension time, according to Brunet, comes to "13 years, three months and 20 days."
In his peripatetic career Brunet has pitched for a lot of peripatetic teams. He belonged to the Philadelphia Athletics for a short time before they moved to Kansas City, and later to Oakland. He pitched for the Milwaukee Braves before they were shifted to Atlanta, the Houston Colt 45s before they became the Astros, the Los Angeles Angels before they adopted California, the Pilots before they turned into the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Senators before they were transformed into the Texas Rangers. Not only did these teams have identity crises, but they were also bad.
Brunet has survived because he has a great left arm. It is such a medical marvel, in fact, that he has had arm trouble just once. "That was back in 1958, a blood clot in my throwing arm," he says. "Kept me out for two weeks." Other pitchers have labored as long as Brunet, but almost all of them were relievers. Brunet has been a starter almost exclusively all this time. Performing in the Mexican League in the summer and the Mexican Pacific League in the winter, Brunet throws about 400 innings a year, although his statistics in the winter league aren't included in his official record. And he has made no concession to age. He is still a fastball and curveball pitcher, and he still challenges hitters, which is rare in the Mexican League, where nobody over six feet gets to see a fastball. When he pitched the three-hitter on his birthday, Brunet struck out Ivan Murrell, a former San Diego Padre and the Mexican League home-run leader, three times. "He still goes after you," says Murrell. "He's better than a lot of guys in the majors right now."
Before a strike cut short the season by two months, Brunet had eight shutouts, which is only two short of the league record. But even if the strike forestalled Brunet's pursuit of the record, it didn't stop him from pitching. He merely joined Coatzacoalcos, one of the six teams that stayed together to play a new schedule.
Over the course of his career, Brunet has struck out 3,631 batters, which easily surpasses Walter Johnson's major league lifetime record of 3,508. Even more amazing, Brunet has pitched all this time with nothing on under his uniform pants, which certainly makes him the greatest pitcher in baseball history never to wear a jockstrap and cup. "I just always felt more comfortable that way," he says. "Of course, getting out of the way of ground balls up the middle has cost me a few singles over the years."
His independent streak has always gotten Brunet in trouble. Perhaps the best measure of his arm is that it has persuaded so many teams to overlook the rest of him. "I was never a guy to hang around and kiss anyone's butt," he says. "I didn't have the right kind of personality for managers. If I didn't pitch as well as I did, I wouldn't have had any career at all."
Brunet mentions the spring of 1959, when he was going north with the A's as the fifth starter. A couple of nights before the A's broke camp, he and some of the boys were painting West Palm Beach, Fla. red. About 3 a.m. Brunet found himself directing traffic in front of the team's hotel. One of the cars he stopped contained Parke Carroll, the A's G.M., and Harry Craft, the manager. After Brunet showed up late for a team meeting the next day, George Selkirk, the farm director, called him in for a little chat. "George told me I really screwed up," Brunet recalls. "He said they were going to have to make an example of me and send me down." The A's did more than just send him down. Early the next season they traded him to the Braves.
In Milwaukee, Brunet found his role model, Pitcher Bob Buhl. "One time we were pulling into a city," he says, "and Charlie Dressen [the manager] gets up in the front of the bus and says that anybody not in their room by midnight will be fined $500. Well, Buhl marches right up to Dressen, peels $500 off his bankroll, hands it to him and walks off the bus. Now that's class."
Brunet even antagonized the one manager who gave him a chance, Bill Rigney. "I lost a lot of one-run games with the Angels," he says, "and Rigney used to say to me, 'I owe you a game,' every time he took me out. But one time I really got angry when he took me out, and we had words in the dugout. He knew enough to stop, but I just had to keep going. Finally, Rigney starts counting, '$100, $200, $300.' I didn't stop until he hit $700. Then I went in and tore the clubhouse apart. The next day I came in and wrote out a check for $700 to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Fund."
Brunet was never much for running, either, which annoyed his pitching coaches and helped build his considerable girth. Nowadays Brunet looks a little like Yastrzemski gone to seed. In 1973 Hawaii Manager Rocky Bridges gave him his walking papers because, he said, Brunet was out of shape. After a brief stop in Eugene, Ore. Brunet was out of baseball. "I spent part of the year coaching some kids in a Senior Division league in Anaheim," he says. "We weren't far from the Angels' ball park, so I could see the lights every night. One night I just looked at those lights and said, 'What the hell am I doing here?' "
So Brunet headed for Mexico, Poza Rica to be exact. He became one of the best pitchers in the league (62-55, 2.55 ERA) on one of the worst teams. In 1977—this should come as a chuckle to his former managers—Brunet even took over as the manager of Poza Rica. "It wasn't bad, but it got embarrassing losing every night," he says, explaining why he went back to pitching. On June 20 of that year, at the age of 42, he threw a no-hitter. He pitched in Poza Rica again in 1978, striking out 208 batters in 246 innings, and last year he was traded twice—to the expansion team in Coatzacoalcos and then to Mexico City. Overall, he won 14 games and had a 3.13 ERA. Before the start of this season he was again traded, this time to a new team in Veracruz. Before the strike began on July 2, he was 11-10 with a 2.61 ERA.
Brunet says he's devoted to his three children back home in Anaheim, but he only gives them the three or four weeks between seasons. He is sensitive to the hardships of the Mexican ballplayer, who earns as little as $400 a month, yet as soon as the strike (over the formation of a players' association) was called, he found himself another team.
Brunet has adapted well to Mexican life. Most ballplayers from the States don't last more than a year or two, but Brunet is now in his eighth season. Each established club is allowed only three imports, while expansion teams get four, and former major-leaguers like George Scott, Mike Kekich, Clarence Gaston, Mike Paul and Bart Johnson have found their way south of the border. The Mexican League is Class AAA in designation, but it seems closer to Double A in performance. An American can make good money—Brunet earns about $3,500 a month—and it's a way to keep a career alive. That is, if you call this living.
For one thing, there's the travel. A short bus trip is six hours. Gaston recalls going from León to Tabasco in 21 hours—approximately the time it takes to travel from Philadelphia to Miami. Players can pass the hours by counting the crosses at the side of the road on hairpin turns. If the buses don't get to the players, Montezuma's revenge will. Almost nobody escapes. And sometimes the illness can be much worse. One Veracruz relief pitcher went on the disabled list this year with food poisoning.
Playing in the league can also be a frightening experience. The local police sometimes like to hang out in the dugout, wielding M-16s as if they were Louisville Sluggers. Brunet says he's had a gun pulled on him five or six times. "No big deal," he says. Sometimes the local fauna can be just as scary. Ballplayers say there is nothing quite like the sight of fans pelting each other and the field with live snakes.
The high emotional pitch also takes some getting used to. "If it weren't against the law, they really would kill the umpire," says Brunet. In a game between Veracruz and León, an argument with the umpire not only brought the León manager to home plate, but also coaches, players, a dwarf bat boy known as Spider, reporters, photographers, radio announcers and interested spectators. As usually occurs in the States, too, the umpire prevailed.
As for life outside the ball park, well, sitting in front of an air conditioner is a major form of recreation. Mexico is, in the word of Veracruz Centerfielder Victor M. Felix, "ccchhhottt." Last year Felix played for Tabasco, which didn't have a sauce named after it for nothing. Another favorite pastime among Mexican Leaguers is lighting up the local brand of smoke. Outfield grass refers to what the players have during batting practice, not what lies beyond the infield. Brunet prefers the more traditional methods of intoxication. He's slowed down some since his days in the majors, though. His pet Chihuahua, Nurci, keeps him in line. "She won't come near me when I'm drunk," he says.
There are times when Brunet finds himself caught between two worlds. "I'm still an outsider down here. But it's not easy going back to the States, either," he says. "When I do go back, I don't know what they're talking about. It's like I just heard about the Lindbergh baby." But Brunet's position has made him a sort of unofficial ambassador in the Mexican League. Americans are always coming to him for advice, and he's always willing to tell them what not to eat, where to have a good time and whom to watch out for. "You've got to watch your glove at all times," he warns. "Even on the bench. You can never catch these kids. They just walk in, walk out and the glove is gone."
Some of the children may be thieves, but they are also a big part of what's special about Mexican baseball. They hang over the dugouts and even sit on the benches. They've especially taken to Davis, whom they call "Wee-lee," as in "Wee-lee, pelota, Wee-lee, pelota." Davis doesn't know Spanish, and the children don't know English, but they communicate. As one Veracruz coach says, "Bèisbol universal." Veracruz even has its own version of the San Diego Chicken, the Aguila, a plump old man swathed in red-cotton feathers.
Veracruz is Mexico's largest port and oldest city, a working town that relies more on shipping than on tourism. Veracruz also has a baseball history: Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin and Cool Papa Bell have played there. Several years ago the ball club was sold and moved to Aguascalientes, but this year the team returned with Bobby Avila as the principal owner. Avila, the 1954 American League batting champion with Cleveland, is the former mayor of Veracruz. The club had been averaging 4,000 fans per game before the strike, thanks in no small part to Brunet and Davis.
In their four months together, Brunet and the 40-year-old Davis made quite a team. Davis' philosophy of running a ball club can best be summed up by his belief that "if you step on people in this life, you're going to come back as a cockroach." Needless to say, he runs a loose ship, which suits Brunet just fine.
Davis brings special skills to the job. Twice during Brunet's birthday shutout he somehow conjured up double plays. He is so mesmerizing that he even has Brunet believing in reincarnation. George believes he can come back as a major league reliever. Very soon.
"I know I can pitch two or three innings at a time up there," he says. "I know I can pitch better than what's his name, Burgermeyer [Tom Burgmeier, who, unbeknownst to Brunet, is having a fine season]. But somebody would have to ask me, and those days are gone. People up there must think I'm a fat old man who can barely get the ball up to the plate. Guys come down here and say, 'George, is that you? I thought that was your son pitching down here.'
"Maybe I'll go home in September and ask Jim Fregosi if I can work out with the Angels. All I ask is for someone to give me 30 pitches on the side and I'll show them what I can do. If I can't do it, fine. They can say, 'What is this piece of dog doo doing out here?' "
But Brunet hasn't been toiling all this time just for another shot in the major leagues. "To be honest with you, it's the only thing I know," he says. "Nobody's going to take a 45-year-old man and train him for a new career. Besides, I can't think of anything that has made me happier than pitching. Still, I wish I had a dollar for every batter I ever faced." That, George, would come to more than $20,000.
If and when Brunet gives it up, he has a standing offer to be a fishing guide from Jerry Crider, a former White Sox pitcher who runs a hunting and fishing lodge on the coast of Mexico. Brunet would especially like that, because of what happened 30 years ago when the whole thing started.
"It was on my 15th birthday," he recalls. "I was going fishing when it began to rain, so I headed back. I wandered over to one of the games they played in Ahmeek. They needed a pitcher, so they asked me. Most of those guys were a lot older than I was, and I had on my fishing boots with the hobs on them. But damn if I didn't go out there and throw a no-hitter. Hell, this is easy, I thought. Little did I know."
After eight seasons in places like Poza Rica and Veracruz, Brunet has begun to look like a native.
The form is familiar, but the physique isn't.
Player Davis steps quickly around the bases, but Manager Davis is careful not to step on anybody.
San Diego has its Chicken, and Veracruz has its Aguila (Eagle).