BECOMING GEORGE BRETT

Why did George Brett remain a Royal forever? ‘Why not?’

Updated: 2013-08-02T17:08:22Z

By BLAIR KERKHOFF

The Kansas City Star

The idea seems preposterous these days.

A player builds a Hall of Fame career — and never leaves his original, small-market team.

In other words, a George Brett career.

When Brett stepped down as the Royals’ interim hitting coach last week, he addressed the notion of longevity and loyalty to a franchise with a question.

“Where was I going to go?” he said.

Where, indeed.

To Boston? Why? Through most of Brett’s career, the Royals were a better team than the Red Sox.

Home to California? In 21 years, the Angels finished with a better record than the Royals five times.

To ( gulp) New York and sport the hated pinstripes?

Well, if the Yankees backed up a Brinks truck…

“Back then, if the Royals were going to offer me $10 million and the Yankees were going to offer me $30 million, what do you think I would have done?” Brett said. “I probably would have left.”

Instead, the Royals were the ones offering top dollar. And Brett not only made Kansas City his home, he authored some of the franchise’s most joyous moments against the Yanks, like his titanic home run off Goose Gossage that clinched the 1980 American League championship.

Brett said he never felt trapped in Kansas City because — as difficult as it is to fathom after nearly two decades of franchise malaise — the Royals provided Brett with all he wanted in a baseball career. Specifically a great competitive environment and plenty of cash. Today, the pay scale has mushroomed thanks to free agency, but those reasons for one-team, long-term service have’t changed.

Why stay with the Royals?

“Why not?” Brett said.


The one-team investment is a two-way street. The team must believe the player can continue to contribute.

Last year’s All-Star Game in Kansas City was part of a farewell tour for Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who said he was proud to have spent his entire 18-year career in Atlanta.

“This is where I wanted to play,” Jones said. “I’m very proud of the fact I stuck with one club.”

Jones said he probably could have scratched out another year or two from his career, but that might have put pressure on the Braves to make a move, and Jones wanted to retire an Atlanta Brave.

The longest-tenured one-uniform players today remain productive. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is battling ankle and quadriceps injuries this year but last year led baseball with 216 hits.

Teammate Mariano Rivera, who has announced his retirement at the end of this year, appears as unhittable today as any point of his career with 34 saves.

The long-standing Yankees made their major-league debuts within five days of each other in 1995, and they moved to the top of the one-team wonder list when Jones retired.

Next is the Rockies’ Todd Helton, who also debuted in 1995 and signed a nine-year extension in 2001.

Ascending the chart are clusters of homegrown veterans: the Twins’ Justin Morneau (11 years) and Joe Mauer (10) and the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins (14), Chase Utley (12) and Ryan Howard (10).

The Royals’ title teams of the 1970s and 1980s were developed in similar fashion. Brett and Frank White debuted in 1973 and remained teammates until White’s retirement after the 1990 season.

Only the Tigers’ double-play combination of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker played more games as teammates than Brett and White.

Willie Wilson played with both for 15 years. Hal McRae also played with Brett and White for 15 seasons.

That group provided the core for the franchise’s greatest run — seven postseason appearances in 10 years, starting in 1976, which was unmatched in baseball.

“I liked playing in October,” Brett said.


During the Royals’ playoff run, Brett signed three contracts, including a “lifetime contract” in 1984 that took him to 1991 with two one-year options.

Over Brett’s final eight years, as free agency grew and the game’s financial structure changed, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman spent big bucks trying to recapture the earlier success.

Brett’s salary climbed to $1 million in 1982, $2 million in 1987 and $3 million in 1991. At each juncture, he ranked among the game’s highest-paid players.

And the Royals were high-rollers. In 1990, they owned baseball’s richest team payroll, followed by the Angels, Dodgers, Mets, Giants, Yankees, Cardinals and Red Sox.

After the 1992 season, David Cone signed as a free agent for an astounding $18 million over three years, with Kauffman writing a $9 million check as a signing bonus.

But history tells us the Royals’ identity was changed by events of 1993 and 1994.

Brett, after collecting his 3,000th hit at the end of 1992, hung up his cleats after 1993 and awaited his Hall of Fame call.

Two months before the season ended, Kauffman died, and when baseball closed for business in 1994, it reopened the next year without the Royals as a financial competitor.

From 1985 through 1994, the Royals had never resided in the bottom half of major-league team payroll, and they were often near the top.

Since 1995, the Royals have never ranked higher than 20th. This year, with the team owning its best record this late in the season since 2003, the Royals opened with an estimated payroll ranked 21st.

Over the past two decades, players the Royals decided not to invest in were stars they drafted and developed — Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Zack Grienke. The most loyal Royal over the past two decades, Mike Sweeney, bounced to three different teams after his 12-year Royals tenure ended in 2007.

But is the trend changing? This year’s opening-day payroll of roughly $79 million was the richest in Royals history. Billy Butler is signed through 2014, Alex Gordon through 2015 and Salvador Perez through 2016.

Eric Hosmer could qualify for salary arbitration after this year, and he and Mike Moustakas will be eligible after the 2014 season.

Brett, who has served as vice president of baseball operations since retiring, would like to see these Royals shape the franchise as he and his teammates once did, with a solid foundation.

“I’d love to see Mike Moustakas play a 15-, 20-year career in Kansas City,” Brett said.

And Gordon and Butler and Hosmer and Perez.

“I love the nucleus of this team to stay together because I believe in them,” Brett said. “I really do.”

Who better to endorse the concept than the player who defined it?

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.

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