I’ve written a billion jillion shmillion stories about George Brett. If you want to read about the summer he almost hit. .400, there’s this. Also this. Stuff about George carrying the team, you can read this. I write about how much George hated the Yankees — that’s online somewhere. There are many, many, many more — about his father, about his fear, about his clutch-hitting, about his duels with Gossage, about … For this, let me just write a personal story.
Some years ago, I played in the Kansas City Royals fantasy camp. It was a birthday present from my wife — Lord, now that I think of it, that might have been for my 40th birthday. Could it have been that long ago? I don’t want to look it up.*
*I looked it up. It was even long ago than I remembered — it was 2004. I was 37. I’m going to cry.
That camp remains one of my favorite experiences. I carry dozens of memories with me. I think of what it was like to be coached on defense by Frank White. I remember Paul Splittorff watching me throw one pitch — just one pitch — and saying, “You will throw your arm out and be in a lot of pain by the end of camp.” (I did and was). I think of Kevin Seitzer coaching me as a hitter and being as excited as I was when I rifled a single off Mark Gubicza.
I remember Mike Boddicker asking me if I could throw strikes. “I can’t pitch,” I told him. He said, “I know that. I asked if you could throw strikes.” Bod then told the story about how Rod Carew once said to reporters that his wife took out better garbage than Boddicker threw. Bod said another time he threw a pitch and heard Kirby Puckett shout mid-swing: “THROW IT LIKE A MAN!” None of it kept Boddicker from winning 134 big league games, leading the league in ERA one year and shutouts another.
I remember a beautiful exchange between longtime utility man Greg Pryor and longtime pitcher Al Fitzmorris. Pryor was handing out the camp award for best pitcher, and he began by saying, “This is hard for me because I’ve always hated pitchers.”
To which Fitz replied: “That’s funny. Pitchers have always loved you.”
I remember Bret Saberhagen pitching. I managed a hit off Saberhagen too, but it was a cheapie, and anyway he was obviously trying lay one in there. Anyway, that’s not my favorite Saberhagen memory. He was probably 39 years old when he pitched in that camp. There were still some competitive juices flowing. I know this because someone on our team dug in against him. The hitter was a charmer named Larry. In the few days we were together, we learned: Larry liked to live enthusiastically. On Saberhagen’s first pitch, Larry fouled it back and then angrily hit the bat the way Bryce Harper might when he JUST misses.
On the next pitch, he was caught looking and he turned and complained loudly to the umpire.
Now, to this day Sabes would probably deny it — but I’m pretty sure he got ticked off. Like I say, however, he was just 39 then and, with a couple of health breaks, he would have still be pitching in the big leagues. He was a two-time Cy Young winner laying pitches in to a bunch of police officers and people in construction and factory workers and a sportswriter. He really didn’t need to deal with some guy showing him up. And so, he unleashed one. We would discuss for days after how fast he threw that pitch — it was probably mid-80s, but it could have been high 80s, it could have broken 90, hell, to us it looked to be 200 mph.
It was beautiful. There were really only two problems. One was that the catcher was a retired electrician and not Bob Boone. So while he would claim later to have seen the ball just fine, he didn’t actually lift up his arms to catch it and the ball zoomed straight into the umpire’s shoulder, making exactly the sort of sound you are imagining now.
The second problem was that not too long after the umpire shouted “OW!” Larry finally swung the bat. Why was that a problem?
“I was on it!” Larry shouted on the way back to the dugout, and he meant it.
More than anything, I remember what it was like being around George Brett. I have obviously spent a lot of time around George through the years, but nothing was quite like that time in fantasy camp. It’s strange, if you think about it. Obviously, we were not ballplayers. But it seems the mere act of putting on a uniform in the clubhouse, playing ball, getting hurt (we all got hurt), drinking with the players after the game made us ballplayers, or at least close enough that George dropped the slight guard that is up around reporters. We were, for a moment, teammates.
And George was always one hell of a teammates. He was funny, crass, competitive as hell. He told some of the greatest baseball stories I’ve ever heard about fights and near fights and pitchers he owned, pitchers who owned him. In my life, I’ve had five laughing fits that separate from the pack, the sort of breathless fits where you want to stop and don’t want to stop all at once. One was the Stonehenge scene in Spinal Tap. One was at summer camp with a the non-stop repeating of the “Ping pong balls? I thought you said …” joke. One was at a Jerry Seinfeld concert. There might be more than five. But I can tell you one was just listening to George Brett tell the story of the Royals-Rangers fight.
He did more than joke, though. He talked about his fears. He broke down hitting philosophy in ways I never heard before or since (“You have to clear your mind entirely”). He talked about his father, and the love and fury that mixed.
Mostly, though, I remember the time he came over to scout me. I had this one moment of glory at camp. We were playing against Big John Mayberry’s team, and Big John was riding me pretty hard. Big John is, in his own way, even funnier than Brett. “Big Joe!” he kept shouting. “What do you say there Big Joe? Bring in the outfield, it’s just Big Joe! Come on, let’s see what you got there Big Joe!”
I’m realizing that might not look that funny in text, but the joke was Big John’s booming voice — Big Joe! — and how that sounded. It was like a cannonball going off. I was trying hard not to laugh in the box, and then then pitcher threw a hanging something or other — just about all fantasy camp pitches hang; you pay your money you get your hanging pitches — and I actually turned on it. I’m not going to tell you it bounced over the fence. I’m not going to tell you it one hopped the fence or two hopped it or barely rolled to the warning track — I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I crushed it well enough that I got my standup double when I heard two of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard — Big John, with newfound respect, shouting: BIG JOE!”
So, the next time that I came up, that’s when George came to scout me. He walked all the way over from another field. “Hey,” he shouted as I stepped in. “I heard there’s some sort of hitter over here. Gotta check him out.”
I was a 37-year-old man at the time, a father of one with a second daughter on the way. I was a pretty successful sportswriter who had covered a dozen World Series and about as many Super Bowls and Masters, a few Olympics. I had written about just about all of the great American athletes of my time. I had paid (well, my wife had paid) a substantial fortune so that I could be here playing ball. Point is, I was an adult.
And yet, in that moment, with Brett behind me watching, I was 13 again. I was nervous in a way that I had not been since those younger days. George Brett was more than a baseball player. He was a bit of my childhood. If you’re as old as me, you will remember … Skylab jokes. Remember? Atari football. Remember? Gnip Gnop and the Three’s Company theme song and Roger Staubach and those little reinforcements you put around the holes in notebook paper and Evel Knievel action figures and Farrah posters and Conjunction Junction and, yes, George Brett. In that one moment, as I stood in the box, I didn’t see him as the subject of my stories or the semi-friend I had gotten to know or even the baseball player I watched give a speech in Cooperstown the day of his Hall of Fame induction. Instead, I saw the titanic figure of my childhood, the guy who homered off Goose, the man who leaped up to fight Nettles, the king who stood at second base with his arms in the air as his batting average topped .400.
I don’t remember the first few pitches of the at-bat, other than the nerves. I do remember the last pitch. It was a curveball. It was five feet outside. It might have been 10 feet outside. I took the pitch. The umpire called it strike three. I turned around and saw George Brett. “Really?” he asked. “That’s why I came over here?” And then he smiled, and as he jogged back to his own field I heard him yell, “Harder than it looks, ain’t it?”