ST. LOUIS — It was as if Hollywood had transported another comic book action hero to the big screen Thursday night when George Brett, clad again in his familiar No. 5 Royals uniform, strolled onto the field at Busch Stadium.
By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star
Look hard enough, Royals fans, and that “5” almost resembles an “S,” doesn’t it? The image and, perhaps, even the intent are unmistakable as he begins his new role as the club’s interim hitting coach.
“I know there’s going to be a new sense of energy in the clubhouse,” left fielder Alex Gordon said. “If you’re not doing your job, he’s going to get on you. It’s probably a good thing.
“Definitely when someone like him is talking, you’re always listening.”
Brett, now 60, was, is and remains the most celebrated and iconic figure in Kansas City sports history. The evolution of his Hall of Fame career coincides with the Royals’ greatest on-field success.
Nothing has been the same since he concluded a 21-year career in 1993. The Royals have played only two winning seasons since.
And now, here he is, donning that so-familiar uniform again, just when the Royals appear mired in their greatest crisis (which is saying something) in the 20 years since his departure. Entering Thursday, they’ve lost 19 of their last 23 games and have scored just 16 runs in their current eight-game losing streak.
“This thing has been offered to me before,” Brett said, “but my kids were young. I had three young boys. I retired from baseball. Right now, I have two kids in college, and one is a senior in high school.
“I’m not missing them growing up any more. It’s summer time, and it’s time for me to go to work.”
Brett accepted the job as hitting coach on an interim basis prior to Thursday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. He replaces Jack Maloof, who was reassigned within the minor-league system.
The Royals also promoted Pedro Grifol, a minor-league hitting coach to serve as Brett’s assistant with the designation of special assignment coach. Grifol replaces Andre David, who also was demoted to a minor-league job.
“Getting to know George Brett,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “I realized very early on why the Royals were so successful in the (1970s and) ’80s.
“They had good players, obviously. But the fierce competitiveness that George brought to that team is something I feel we need in our clubhouse.”
The Brett legacy is well-established in Kansas City and, really, throughout major-league baseball. He epitomized the youthful, gung-ho persona the Royals exhibited in rising to become one of the game’s powers in the 1970s.
It’s no coincidence that the first of Brett’s three batting titles came in 1976, when the Royals initiated a run of six division titles in a 10-year span.
Or that his best year — 1980, when he was picked as the American League’s Most Valuable Player after batting .390 — occurred in the same year when the club reached its first World Series.
Brett was 37 when he won his final batting title in 1990. He retired three years later with 3,154 career hits and remains the Royals’ career leader in virtually every major offensive category.
The Royals are hoping to tap into that.
“George never half-ran a ball to first base in his life,” manager Ned Yost said. “George was never the last one out of the dugout in his life.
“It’s a special mind-set that you have to be able to accomplish all he has. The reason is because he is a competitor and he loves to win. I’m just excited he’s here.”
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, a former teammate, wasn’t surprised at learning Brett is returning to field duty.
“I think there’s always been a part of George that wanted to get involved,” Hurdle said. “It had to make sense. I asked him a couple of times to get involved in Colorado. It wasn’t the right time.
“He’s there (in Kansas City). He’s iconic. He has a good feel for the game and for hitting. To me, it’s the right guy at the right time, and hopefully he can add something that they need.”
Even Brett admits he doesn’t know whether he can be a good hitting coach. It is why he insisted on taking the job on an interim basis.
“I’m going to do the best I can,” he said. “If I’m not doing my job, I don’t want Dayton to feel he has to fire me. So we’re going to meet again in a month. We’ll meet two weeks after that, and we’ll just see.”
Detroit manager Jim Leyland said, “Well, he’s going to find out that it was a lot easier for him to hit than it is for him to teach it. I know George — he’s a good friend of mine. I love him. Great guy.”
The reaction among the current Royals was undeniably upbeat.
“We need to listen to what he says,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “He did it, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
Brett is already promising some tough love for an lineup loaded with youthful hitters.
“They have to pick stuff up on their (own),” he said. “These guys are 23, 24, 25 years old …
“Start being held accountable for some of the actions you do on the field. That’s what I’m going to try to tell them. I’ll be there for them. We’ll try to guide them in the right direction.
“But at the same time, you can’t tell them what to expect every pitch, every count in every situation. You can’t do that. That’s something they have to figure out on their own and learn from their mistakes.”
Brett said he hopes to serve as the hitting coach for an extended period. He accepted the offer out of “frustration” from watching the club’s current struggles and because he believes he can help.
“Look, everything I own in my life,” he said, “I owe to the Kansas City Royals. Everything. I signed with them in 1971. I’m still with them. I have never made a dime outside of the Kansas City Royals.
“My house, my cars, my kids’ cars, my sneakers, my golf clubs — well, they were free — but everything (else) I own, the Kansas City Royals have bought me.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be good at this. I’m scared to death. This might be something I just cannot stand to do. I don’t know. The players and I might not hit it off. I don’t know.”
He just knows he’s ready to try.