The skinny teenager with the shaggy blond hair didnt like school much, but he sure loved baseball. Thats all he thought about, really. Baseball and girls, sometimes in that order. But it was all baseball on the day that would forever change his life.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
This was Southern California, June of 1971, and the Kiwanis club was honoring the El Segundo High School baseball team. The men there had a hunch, so one of them was in touch with the local paper about that days pro baseball draft. At some point, the man stepped behind the microphone and announced that El Segundos shortstop, George Brett, had been selected in the second round by the Kansas City Royals.
So much has changed since then, of course. Brett is walking his dogs on a recent summer morning as he talks through it all. About shipping off to the minor leagues in Montana a few days later, eventually getting a surprise call to the big leagues 40 years ago this week and the legendary career that followed.
He won an MVP award and World Series, got married, raised three kids here, was elected to the Hall of Fame, built a new home in Mission Hills, and this summer returned to the dugout 20 years after retiring to help out as the Royals hitting coach. So many memories are coming back to him. Most of them never left.
Like that June day back in 1971, when he just wanted to see a map.
Im going, Where the (hell) is Kansas City? he says. And Who the (hell) are the Kansas City Royals?
The walk with the dogs isnt a minute old when a woman wearing a Royals hat comes stepping in the opposite direction. She makes him out. Beams.
Love those Royals! she says. Thank you, George!
He nods. Smiles a little. The woman is talking about his recent decision to become the Royals hitting coach, but over the years, how many times do you think hes heard something like this? A story about a game someone saw as a kid, or a moment of joy he helped generate, or about that magical thing that happened in 1985.
His return to the Royals dugout this summer, a stint as hitting coach that ended late last week, makes this an especially poignant time to reflect on what hes meant to the franchise.
He is the only Hall of Famer to spend his entire career with the Royals, a reminder of better times for a passionate town with good baseball memories in its DNA. Brett is the most famous thing about the Royals, and his Pine Tar Game might be the second.
This has been The Summer of George in so many ways. He turned 60 in May. Returned to the dugout as hitting coach a few weeks after that. It has been exactly 20 years since his last game, and when he quit as hitting coach last week, he nearly broke down in tears just thinking about the rush he got from wearing a big-league uniform again.
But this week marks perhaps the most special anniversary of them all: On Friday, itll be exactly 40 years since Bretts first game with the Royals.
Brett was grilling burgers on the day he became a big-leaguer. He is 60 now, his hair graying, his career long done. He has a son older than he was back then. But he remembers like it happened this morning.
Then 20, Brett shared an apartment at 84th and Q in Omaha, Neb., with two minor-league teammates, Mark Littell and Buck Martinez. One day, their manager, an old middle infielder named Harry Mahlmberg, came knocking on the door. Martinez answered. Before any of them thought much of it, Mahlmberg made an announcement.
Congratulations! Youre going to the big leagues!
Martinez and Brett turned to Littell.
Littell was pitching really well that summer. Hed end up winning 16 games with a 2.51 ERA. The move made sense.
No, Mahlmberg said, pointing at Brett. You!
Paul Schaal, a veteran third baseman, had sprained his ankle the night before, and the Royals needed someone to join them in Chicago. Brett, who had never hit .300 or 10 home runs in a minor-league season, would do.
Me? Brett asked.
Yeah, you, Mahlmberg said. You need to get to the airport, but dont worry. Youre not playing tonight.
Given the best news of his life, Brett had about two hours to pack everything hed need and get on the airplane.
The first thing he did after hearing he was a big-leaguer was head to the minor-league stadium in Omaha. He needed to pack. Bats, gloves, spikes, everything. Packing at home wasnt any easier. He didnt know how long hed be gone could be two weeks, could be two months.
His first minor-league manager, back in Billings, Mont., had yelled at him when he showed up for his first day at the ballpark wearing shorts and flip-flops; what was the dress code in the bigs? George had so much to learn, but there wasnt even enough time to call his parents or brothers with the good news and seek advice. There was a flight to catch.
I was scared to death, Brett says. Oh, my gosh. I had no idea if I was any good. If I could be as good as my brothers. I was so scared.
He got off the plane in Chicago and took a cab to the ballpark. Batting practice was over by the time he walked through the gates, hauling a box of bats. He was late enough that fans were drinking beer, buying hot dogs. Oh, well. At least he wouldnt play, right?
Brett walked into the visitors clubhouse at old Comiskey Park. The first thing he found was his locker. He dropped his gear. The second thing he found was that nights lineup card.
He was hitting eighth.
Did Mahlmberg fib? Did the Royals tell him he wouldnt play so he wouldnt work himself into a worry? Or did plans just change?
I think they just didnt want me to freak out, Brett says. But I never asked. I was 20. What was I going to do, walk in there to the managers office and ask him?
Didnt matter either way. He got dressed, warmed up as best he could, and prepared for his first game as a major-leaguer. Bretts goal that night was simple:
Dont embarrass yourself.
Stan Bahnsen was the first pitcher Brett would face in the big leagues. The Bahnsen Burner was an Army vet known for his toughness. He won 21 games the year before; he would start a bench-clearing brawl with the Royals the next season.
Brett remembers seeing Chicagos Dick Allen on the other side of the field and, holy cow, that guy was huge. How could he not be scared? His first at-bat came in the second inning, none on and one out, and he remembers swinging at the first pitch. Hit it pretty good, too, right back at Bahnsens chest. The pitcher put his glove up just in time, and Brett jogged to the dugout: out.
Next time up, Brett got his first big-league hit, a single to left. He doesnt recall if he hit a fastball or a curveball, but he does remember breaking his bat on the swing and the relief he felt standing at first base.
There was a strikeout and a groundout after that, and he successfully handled all three of his defensive chances. A hit. No errors. The whole thing took less than 2½ hours.
I was ecstatic, Brett says. We won, and I was the happiest guy on the team. Didnt embarrass myself.
Brett didnt feel like a real big-leaguer, though. Not yet, anyway.
Six days later, after waking from his first nights sleep in Kansas City at the downtown Muehlebach Hotel, Brett hopped into his VW bus and headed toward Royals Stadium. He had to ask for directions along the way.
I was a California kid, he says. I liked to surf. I liked the beach. Kansas City was just so different for me. I had no idea.
This was a different time, before Baseball America and seven-figure signing bonuses for draft picks. But even if people had paid attention to minor-leaguers then, they probably wouldnt have thought much of this new guy. When Schaal was healthy, Brett would surely be back to making $800 a month in the minors.
Brett had shown some promise in the Royals farm system, but what did that mean? Some of the organizations coaches thought he would end up a utility infielder. Others talked of turning him into a catcher.
Brett didnt have the confidence to think they were wrong until two years later, when after hours and weeks and months with hitting coach Charley Lau he hit .308 in 1975. Thats when his older brother Ken, who played 14 seasons in the big leagues, told him something that would forever change his relationship with Kansas City.
Youll be there a long time, Ken said. Live there. Make friends. Get to know people outside of baseball.
George took the advice, moving from an apartment in Raytown to a small house in Blue Springs teammate Paul Splittorff served as his real-estate agent. Brett later sold that place and moved to Fairway after discovering Westport this is me; this is where I need to be, he remembers thinking then moved a few doors down from the mayor off Ward Parkway after signing his first big contract.
To this day, he still remembers every address hes had here.
Brett is sitting on the patio behind his house in Mission Hills, the fifth place hes lived in Kansas City, not counting the Muehlebach. All this talk about memories is making him nostalgic. He didnt realize it had been 40 years at first, but after you mention it, yeah, wow. Time flies.
Bretts oldest son, Jackson, walks by. He was born toward the end of Bretts career. Bretts youngest son, Robin, is inside drinking a Gatorade after a workout at Shawnee Mission East High. He was born shortly after his dad retired as a player.
Brett looks around. Its a good life hes made in Kansas City.
I love it here, Brett says. Why would I live anywhere else? The only thing I dont like is the weather (in the winter). But thats OK. Everything else, its great.
Brett has had his chances to leave. And if his career happened four decades later, he almost certainly wouldve. The game is so different now. Back in his day, the Royals spent as much as the Yankees on player salaries. Today, the Yankees would offer him a $200 million free-agent contract and hed be gone. Brett admits this. We can all do the math.
There are times Brett thinks about that alternate life. Born a decade or two later, and hed have been richer, wealthy beyond his wildest imagination.
But what then?
He wouldnt be part of a place, not like he is here. Brett took his brothers advice seriously. He became a Kansas Citian. California is what he used to be; he sold his house there decades ago.
In that way, Brett stands as the first and perhaps last of his kind in Kansas City. A baseball icon, one of the best to ever play his sport, the man who dragged the Royals to baseballs ultimate achievement and stuck around to enjoy it with his new friends.