George Brett doesn’t know if this will work. He might be terrible. Might be wasting his time. Might be making a bad situation for the franchise he adores even worse. That part freaks him out. Scares him to the bones. In an honest moment, he’ll tell you he’s not sure how to do this new job.
Brett has never failed at anything. Not in baseball, anyway. He was a high school star. Rushed through the minor leagues in two years. Led the league in hits his second year, won an MVP at 27, a World Series at 32, his third batting title at 37 and retired as a certain Hall of Famer at 40. He kissed home plate after his last game and thought he’d only put a jersey back on for old-timers games.
That’s how it seemed, anyway. Brett might’ve lived a better life in retirement than he did while playing. He’d go to Hawaii and choose between golf and swimming with dolphins. He usually golfed because, you know, you can only swim with dolphins so many times. Once, a friend had courtside seats for the Lakers and texted a picture to make Brett jealous. But you don’t play this game with Brett. He happened to be in Italy that day, and sent back a picture of Michelangelo’s statue of David.
Now, he finds himself as the hitting coach for one of baseball’s most punchless group of hitters.
“My life was pretty good,” Brett says. “I had a pretty good life there for a while.”
Brett quickly adds that his life is still good, but the point is made. This new job scares him, sure, because what if he fails? But it’s also a change for a 60-year-old man who didn’t need change.
Hitting coaches have tough jobs. Those are long hours. Someone always wants extra swings, another run through that video, one more round of soft toss. The Royals have 13 position players, so that’s 13 guys with 13 different swings — 14, if you count switch-hitter Elliot Johnson twice — that need constant upkeep and management and study. Besides, all that work and a hitting coach’s impact is so limited.
The players swing the bats, literally and figuratively. Maybe that’s part of what’s kept Brett away all these years. He’s been offered a million jobs a million times, you know. General manager Dayton Moore tried to move Brett from the front office to a more direct leadership position most every year. The Rockies wanted him to manage once. There have been other jobs.
But Brett was particular about the kind of life he wanted. He waited to be married and to start a family. He wanted to enjoy those things when he was done playing — and when he was done playing, well, he wanted to enjoy those things. You can’t spend your summers in Bora Bora when the Twins are in town for a three-game homestand.
But his kids are older now. His youngest is a high school senior. So Brett agreed to take the job, but only for a month. Easier to walk away at that point, and everyone inside the organization agrees it will be Brett’s decision about whether to continue.
“If I do not do a good job,” he says, “I think it would be better if I retired than get fired.”
Brett is one of the better hitters in baseball history. Only 12 have ever had more hits. Only 14 have had more extra-base hits. Few have ever hit better than Brett. But as a hitting coach?
He has ideas, nearly all of which are taken from his beloved hitting coach Charley Lau about weight shifts and using all fields and never swinging too hard. He’ll hold players accountable in a way they haven’t quite yet seen, particularly Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. He has the resume and nature to do that, which is an enormous part of why management thinks he’s the right guy at the moment.
But Brett isn’t sure how to coach it. He’s quick to point out that Ted Williams (maybe the greatest hitter of all-time) was a rotten hitting coach, and Lau (a career .255 hitter) was a great one.
One of the first things Brett told the team after taking the job was the exact opposite of the old phraseeasier said than done
— for Brett, hitting has always been easier to do than talk about. He won batting titles at 23 and 37, his third season and his 18th, an unproven kid and again when his manager was a guy he won a World Series with.
Brett worked hard, but baseball was never reallywork
for him. He can’t explain how he did it. He just did it. Sports history is full of great players who became rotten coaches. If Brett turns out to be good at this, he will be the exception to that rule.
“I don’t know,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t try.”
That’s all Brett has promised to do, and only for a month, even as the image of the franchise’s only Hall of Fame player back in uniform changes the conversation about his team. Brett might stink at this. That thought scares the bejesus out of him.
You know, it’s the same fear that drove him as a player.