All America Is Rooting for a New Mighty K.C. at the Bat: George Brett Could Hit .400
09/15/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Like youngsters going back to school, summer gives way grudgingly to autumn, and another baseball season slides into the final weeks. It has been a lively year—with Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin making good on opposite coasts, Mark the Bird returning to roost in Detroit and three of the four division titles still undecided. Most of the excitement, though, is in the one division where the race is over, the American League West. There, in Kansas City, resides a free-spirited, sandy-haired third baseman named George Howard Brett. Affable and relaxed, a rare modern ballplayer who remembers it's just a game, Brett is happily assailing one of the national pastime's most unassailable barriers—a .400 batting average. That is a level of perfection reached only by such legends as Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby; and no one has done it since Ted Williams way back in 1941.
Brett's assault on .400 has made his life a carnival. BRETT FOR PRESIDENT bumper stickers are all over Kansas City. He has been forced to leave the Royals' stadium by secret exits. The media usurp his free time. Nevertheless—unlike Roger Maris, for instance, who turned sullen during his record 61-homer year in 1961—Brett seems to be enjoying the attention. "I like to have fun and be a little kid," he says. "I'm not uncomfortable being a celebrity."
Brett has been the Royals' runs-batted-in leader as well as top hitter; he's also played a more subtle role in his team's runaway drive toward its first American League pennant. "George is obviously an intense player who leads by example, not by mouth," says teammate Jamie Quirk. "He gives 200 percent—that means the rest of us should give 300 percent." In a game of egos, Brett stirs little resentment. "A lot of guys on this club deserve more publicity than they're getting," notes outfielder Clint Hurdle. "But our time will come. Our attitude is that this is George's time."
It once looked as if that time might never come. When he reached the major leagues at the end of the 1973 season, Brett hit only .125 in 13 games. The following year he was below .200 at the All-Star break in July. "I didn't think I was going to make it in the majors," remembers George. Batting instructor Charley Lau finally took him aside, changed his stance and drilled him on fundamentals. "Every time I tipped the ball," Brett recalls, "he hollered in a sarcastic way, 'Did you see the ball? You can't hit the ball if you don't watch it.' " Brett finished the season at .282 and has been improving ever since.
What's exceptional about Brett is not his size (6', 200 pounds) but his concentration from the moment he steps into the on-deck circle. "This guy can't get me out," he tells himself about the opposing pitcher. "As I walk up to the batter's box I suck up the applause. Then I concentrate on that little white ball and relax. You don't get hits by trying hard. You try easy." Brett's eyes follow the pitch to the instant of impact, and then "I burn my ass off to first base." A home run, he sighs, is "better than being with a beautiful woman."
The 27-year-old bachelor doesn't make such a comparison idly. For years he has been one of the kings of K.C.'s singles scene. He admits that a couple of serious relationships ended abruptly and wonders "whether women were interested in the athlete or George Brett the person." For any exploitation of his own, he has no apologies. "I did things anybody else in a similar situation would have done," he figures. "What the hell. It was part of growing up."
Brett did his earlier growing up in Hermosa Beach, Calif., where his father worked in the financing department of Datsun. He was the squirt of four squabbling, baseball-playing brothers in a highly competitive household. "I got treated like crap because I was the youngest," he says. "But I would do anything for them and they would do anything for me." Ken, four and a half years his senior, pitched for the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series at age 19 and for eight subsequent teams before signing with the Royals last month. As a teenager, George had trouble taking the game seriously, though. "I idolized Ken," he recalls, "but I was young and spent six hours at the beach and then had to go out and play a game that night. Sometimes that was tough." He did play shortstop in high school, studied briefly at El Camino Junior College in nearby Torrance and then signed with the Royals for $600 in 1971. In three minor league seasons, he never hit .300.
Brett is currently in the fourth year of a $1.5 million, five-year contract he signed without benefit of an agent. He did his own negotiating with Royals owner Ewing Kauffman in Palm Springs. "We played a round of golf, had some lunch and agreed on a fair price," relates George. "We shook on it and I drove back to L.A., drinking a bottle of champagne." The Royals have offered Brett $1 million a year starting in 1983, plus an additional $250,000 annually until then. He says he has accepted the terms but hasn't signed a contract.
He still recalls his dad's advice: "If you want something, wait two weeks; then, if you can't live without it, go ahead and buy it." Brett went ahead on just a few luxuries. He owns a four-bedroom, $225,000 house on Lake Quivira, west of Kansas City, and some California real estate. He's invested in diamonds and oil and gas operations. He drives a Mercedes and a Bronco.
An off-season hunter, golfer and hockey player, Brett says he's toning down his nightlife, and if he isn't seeking matrimony, he isn't shying away either: "It happens when it happens." Once he's married, Brett says, he'd like "a ranch with cattle, horses and all that. I like freedom, hard work and open space." Pressure aside, that approximates his situation now, which may explain his incredibly consistent good humor. "When your team is 14 or 15 games ahead and you are hitting .400," figures George, "it is tough not to have a good time."