The greatest player in Royals history was always at his greatest in the biggest moments. Study after study shows the idea of a baseball player rising to the moment is mostly a myth, hyperbole, but George Brett may be the exception.
You remember the home run off Goose Gossage in the 1980 playoffs that silenced Yankee Stadium, and sent George Steinbrenner cursing out of his seat? You remember the .373 average in two World Series?
The best night of his career — one of the best one-man shows in baseball history — came in game three of the 1985 American League Championship Series. Two home runs, a double, four runs scored, three driven in and perhaps the best defensive play of his life. If Brett was merely great instead of transcendent, the Royals would not have won. If the Royals would not have won that night, they would not have won the ALCS or the World Series, and the entire shape of the organization, and baseball history itself, would be changed.
This is not a reputation built on only a few moments, either. The numbers show Brett to be better in the playoffs than the regular season, better with runners in scoring position than nobody on, and better when the game is on the line.
It is one of the cruel juxtapositions of baseball, then, that one of the sport’s greatest clutch performers is the face of a franchise that has spent recent years running under a stone of failure at the first sign of pressure. If indeed Brett had the skill of performing through expectations and pressure, he would teach it to the only organization he’s ever known.
Ask him how to do that.
“I don’t know,” Brett says. “I really don’t know.”
The first time the high-speed Internet era Royals crumbled under expectations was in 2003. They won a preposterous 16 of their first 19 games, then caught another hot stretch in June. They led the division by seven games at the All-Star break, which history tells you is a near-lock for the playoffs.
manager Tony Peña kept saying.
“We believe,” Royals fans kept saying back.
The fairy tale was fun until the final pages, when a team that signed José Lima out of an independent league sight unseen to join a pennant race seemed to wake up and realize it didn’t belong. The Royals were tied for first place on Aug. 29, and then lost 10 of 14.
With clear minds, we can all see that team as smoke and mirrors, sort of a fun-house mirror trick played on the American League Central for about five months.
It is also something like the beginning of the modern Royals’ pattern of turning into a pumpkin every time they face even a modicum of expectation.
You know, unless you count literal fireworks, the single loudest moment at Kauffman Stadium in the last decade happened on April 5, 2004. If you are a Royals fan over the age of 25 or so, you probably remember this as the Mendy Lopez moment.
But nobody knew any of that on April 5, 2004.
They only knew that a season after something like magic brought them into September with a chance, here they were on opening day, in front of a full crowd, scoring six in the bottom of the ninth to beat the White Sox. Carlos Beltran won it with a home run into the fountains that felt almost preordained after Lopez tied it with a home run over the left-field wall.
“I’ve never hit a ball that far in my life,” Lopez said.
“This is a game I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” Beltran said.
The Royals lost 20 of their next 27, and 104 on the season.
The 2009 team was supposed to be a break from the traditional failure.
The Royals spent (for them) a lot of money on free agents, a heavily renovated Kauffman Stadium was finally ready for the runway, Alex Gordon was showing signs of being that cornerstone third baseman, and Zack Greinke, who once was so turned off by the Royals that he said he’d rather play at Class AA Wichita, signed a four-year extension.
“Each year we’ve improved and it looks like we’re going to continue to,” Greinke said.
Everything was going so well, too, with the Royals 18-11 and up three games in the division into May. Greinke came of age that year, winning the Cy Young with one of the great seasons for a starting pitcher in recent baseball history.
But by the end of the season, Gordon was a broken prospect in the minor leagues learning a different position, manager Trey Hillman was losing control of the clubhouse, and the Royals lost 97 games in what several around the team called the most disappointing season in franchise history.
A year later, Greinke admitted to giving less than his best for the Royals and demanded a trade to a contender.
“I kind of had to play the bad guy,” Greinke said.
The future was supposed to have arrived in 2012.
The year before, the Royals finally looked to be on solid ground. All the talk about infrastructure and farm systems and The Process finally showed up in the big leagues. That’s the year Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, and Greg Holland were among 16 rookies to play for the Royals.
With the future in Kansas City, they played .500 over the last third of the season. They scored more runs over that time than Tampa Bay, and allowed fewer than the Yankees. Four of their nine regulars hit more than 40 doubles.
This was a team on the rise going into 2012, the first time longtime baseball men started talking about the Royals in the present tense more than the future.
“This club has enough talent that we’re going to go to the World Series soon,” manager Ned Yost said.
That team was booed 16 minutes into their home opener, and lost all but three of its first 17 games.
So, fine. The 2003 team overachieved and nobody should’ve been foolish enough to believe in 2004.
The 2009 team didn’t have enough after Greinke and was rushed together to look good for the renovated stadium. In 2012, those young kids hadn’t been through the big-league grinder yet.
But 2013, yeah. Maybe 2013 would be the year. James Shields brought reliability and accountability in a blockbuster offseason trade. Hosmer and Moustakas and Sal Perez were ready to be counted on. Gordon and Billy Butler were established. The pitching was in place. Good. Finally. A winner. Let’s roll.
“That’s what we’re capable of, man,” Moustakas said when the Royals were in first place in early May.
You remember what happened next. Nineteen losses in 23 games, Brett dragged back into the dugout officially as a hitting coach but realistically as a swag coach. The Royals worked their way back to .500, and eventually over it, but lost five in a row before the All-Star break and seven in a row in August that kept an 86-win season from being something more.
“If you take away that one month ” Brett says, knowing as well as anyone that’s not how it works.
So now the Royals are about to enter a season with their highest expectations since the strike. This is the best team they’ve had in at least two decades, at least on paper, and there is a certain swagger with this group.
Mike Moustakas dropped some fat and added some muscle and tattoos. Eric Hosmer carries himself like a high-level talent in the midst of a breakout. Greg Holland is one of the best closers in baseball, Sal Perez is perhaps the game’s most valuable asset, and Yordano Ventura is hearing a Pedro Martinez comparison after every start.
“In the world of baseball, people in the game, media, there are more expectations on us than we’ve ever had,” Butler says. “But I don’t think that’s changed here, with any of us. No matter what expectations people have outside this room, we always expect more.”
That’s fine enough. Butler’s sentiment is echoed around the clubhouse, and that’s how the men in this room should feel. But for the rest of us, haven’t we been through this before? Haven’t the Royals built themselves up, and heard themselves built up, only to fall flat on their metaphorical face enough times that the burden of proof is on them?
Brett was around this group for the entire spring training. Between that and his time as hitting coach last year, there probably isn’t a team he’s known this well since he retired. He is optimistic, and talks about a better focus and talent than he’s seen in years past. But he also knows that might be the old ballplayer in him.
More than anything else, the success or failure of a critical Royals season will be measured by whether these guys grow or shrink in the face of real expectations. One of the great clutch performers in baseball history doesn’t know how to teach that skill. If he did, he’d have done it by now.
But Brett does wonder if there is a lesson in here somewhere, specifically when he thinks back to that home run off Gossage. Even just talking about this, Brett feels goose bumps on his arm. Every once in a while, he’ll watch the video clip and he gets the same feeling he had running around the bases.
He won’t forget that feeling, not ever, and thinks, if anything, this is where he can help the only franchise he’s ever known climb over this last obstacle and, finally, perform well when expected to perform well.
The magic, Brett says, is in throwing out the failure and living off the success. He can’t remember the 110 outs he made in the playoffs, but he can tell you all about the 56 hits.
“The only way you do it is to do it,” he says. “The more successful you are in crunch time, the more you believe you’re going to be successful. I don’t know what comes first, the success or the confidence. It’s like the chicken and the egg.
“But I do know that nobody ever came through without thinking they could, and I do know that these guys performed pretty well down the stretch last year.”