Royals

Even for George Brett, passion has its limits

Updated: 2013-07-29T22:57:58Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

George Brett is about to cry. He is 60 years old now and the only worries in his life are the ones he chooses. Beautiful wife and family. Enough fame and wealth to spend Christmas on an island and play a few hundred rounds of golf with famous pros. His is the kind of life where if he doesn’t swim with dolphins, it’s because he has done it too many times already.

Brett earned this life with a legendary baseball career. His days are easy when he wants, sunny when he wants, luxurious always. That’s what made this experiment so interesting, the one where the man who worked himself into a king’s life as a baseball star chooses the grunt’s life as a hitting coach.

This is the conflict that Kansas City’s greatest sports icon worked through these last seven weeks, the conflict that ended with him fighting back tears while announcing he was done being the Royals hitting coach.

He is going back to being a king, but he will miss being a grunt.

“It’s been a tremendous, tremendous experience for me,” he says, his voice cracking, eyes reddening. “After being gone for 20 years in the game, to have an opportunity again to put on a uniform … it was special.”

Brett’s decision will be read a thousand different ways by a thousand different people with a thousand different agendas. Maybe he lost faith in the team. Beefed with manager Ned Yost. Felt like he wasn’t helping. Whatever.

The truth is Brett just didn’t have it in him anymore. The energy. The drive. The tingle in the nerves that every player and every coach talk about needing to tackle the big-league life.

The plan is for Brett to go back to “just” being a vice president, but with more involvement and less ceremony than before. If the Royals ask him to go visit Bubba Starling, Brett will get in the car. If they ask him to get some information about a free agent, he’ll pick up the phone.

But this is an announcement that the grind of baseball beat him down. It’s an entirely different thing when you’re playing or younger or both. When you’re playing, there is something to prove every day. You’re the one out there, failing or succeeding, your lifelong dream playing out in front of the world.

When you’re younger, you don’t mind waking up early to do extra work before another day game or flying into Cleveland or Minneapolis or some other town with a hotel and a stadium at 4 in the morning.

The big-league life sounds like a dream. And for most of us, it is. But when you’re 60, your plaque already in Cooperstown, your number already retired, your legacy already secure … well, all of that stuff gets you in a different way.

“It’s just hard to say,” Brett is saying, by now those tears choked down. “I don’t want to say I hate the travel. I don’t want to say it’s too much of a grind. It’s just a different lifestyle than I’m used to. I don’t know … if you ever traveled 162 games with a major league baseball team, you’d say, ‘This is the stupidest job in the world unless you’re a player.’”

Brett knows this isn’t true for everyone. He knows men his age or older who chew through the nine-month grind — six weeks of spring training, then 162 games in 181 days, then the playoffs if they’re lucky. Many of those men are Brett’s friends, including the manager and coaches sticking around this season.

Brett tried to be one of them, and from the beginning the thing was part favor, part dare. Moore said the franchise needed him, and Brett feels a genuine debt to the company he’s been with four decades. Also, he wanted to see if he could do it. If he wanted to do it.

Moore says he challenged Brett to “rescue us mentally,” and those words were basically about Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. It’s impossible to tell exactly what is cause and what is effect, but Moustakas raised his batting average 38 points. Hosmer is hitting .309 with 11 doubles and 10 home runs.

Brett feels good about that, even as he calls himself “not a good mechanical hitting coach.” He will walk away feeling like he’s helped, even if the overall offensive numbers are virtually unchanged.

But, honestly, Brett probably would’ve quit either way. Major-league baseball is one of the best jobs in the world if you can keep up. If you can’t, it will leave you exhausted — and Brett is exhausted.

He’ll spend the next few days on a ranch in Idaho, away from the grind, closer to the king’s life he had before. Next week, he’ll be back at Kauffman Stadium when the Royals start another homestand. He’ll be in uniform, throwing batting practice, giving advice where he can, sharing laughs.

When the game starts, that uniform will be in the wash. Brett will be in a polo shirt, sitting in a suite. That’s the pace he wants. Those are the worries he is choosing.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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