George Brett

July 26, 2013

The beach kid learns life lessons in Billings, Mont.

The flip-flops, cutoffs and T-shirt didn’t last long in Montana, young George Brett’s first stop in a professional baseball ascension from Southern California to Kansas City.

The Southern California kid brought a bit of beach sensibility with him to Billings, Mont.

George Brett, fresh out of El Segundo High, hoofed from his apartment in Billings, Mont., to the ballpark for his first professional baseball practice. He covered the few blocks in cutoff shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops, and Gary Blaylock, manager of the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League, thought this 18-year-old looked like a beach bum.

“We had a dress code for the organization,” Blaylock said. “No flip-flops.”

Blaylock pulled Brett aside, and the first fact of ballplayer life became a fashion statement. This is pro ball, kid, shoes required.

“They told me in a nice way,” Brett said.

There wouldn’t be many more mistakes for Brett throughout a professional career that started in one of the club’s three short-season rookie leagues.

The second-round selection in the 1971 draft lived up to the promise, and by summer’s end, Brett had emerged as one of the Royals’ top prospects and would be fast-tracked to the majors.

“Once you saw the tools and you gave him some direction, the player will tell you where he’ll wind up — not some manager or some scout,” Blaylock said. “You play yourself in or out of the game.”

At his first professional stop, in Big Sky country, Brett proved he was all in.

The Major League June amateur draft was in its seventh year, and the Royals owned the fifth selection.

With the No. 1 pick in 1971, the White Sox choose Danny Goodwin, a high school catcher from Peoria, Ill., who became the only overall top pick not to sign. He also became the only player selected first twice, when the Angels took him in 1975. But the player called “the next Johnny Bench” was a bust, hitting 13 home runs in seven seasons.

The Royals’ first pick in 1971 fared even worse. Hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Roy Branch from St. Louis was a can’t-miss prospect, the next Bob Gibson. But 96 mph fastballs and a steady diet of breaking pitches took their toll. When Branch reported to the Royals’ rookie league team in Kingsport, Tenn., he arrived with a bone chip in his elbow. Branch pitched in two major-league games for the Mariners in 1979, and that was it.

But Branch’s arm injury played a role in the Royals’ drafting of Brett.

When the Royals learned that Branch had walked off a mound with a sore arm at a workout for pro scouts in Busch Stadium, a scout was hustled to a game in Anaheim to see another hard-throwing right-hander. That team happened to be playing El Segundo High, which had a shortstop named George Brett.

The Royals knew all about Brett, but they had made pitching a first-round priority.

El Segundo won, and Brett once said he remembered going two for four. Scout Rosey Gilhousen, who knew the Brett family from scouting brothers Ken, Bobby and John, later recalled Brett getting four hits. Either way, Gilhousen was impressed and Brett zoomed up the Royals’ prospects chart.

After the Royals took Branch, the remainder of the first round passed with a few notables: Frank Tanana to the Angels, Jim Rice to the Red Sox, Rick Rhoden to the Dodgers.

With their second-round selection, the Royals selected Brett. One month after his 18th birthday, the club offered him an $11,000 signing bonus, and George’s father, Jack, said that wasn’t enough. Brett signed for $25,000 and the next day was on the plane to Billings.

Oh, and with the sixth selection of the second round, the Phillies took a shot on a college shortstop named Mike Schmidt.

The Mustangs opened the 1971 season with a pair of left-side infielders who would reach the majors. Brett was the shortstop. Joe Zdeb, the Royals’ fourth-round selection who was also straight out of high school, opened the season at third base.

“I met George three days after graduation, and I suppose I’ve known him as long as anybody in the organization,” Zdeb said.

The Mustangs were mostly college kids. Brett and Zdeb were two of the eight players among the 26 on the squad who were in their teens. They also were two of the four, including future Royals closer Mark Littell, who made it to the majors.

Long bus rides through Montana and Idaho, a few bucks a day for meal money, four to an apartment. Zdeb and his roommates pitched in to buy a $500 clunker.

“It was an adventure,” Zdeb said. “We were 18-year-old kids and didn’t know what to expect.”

Except to make the big leagues. For Brett, that wouldn’t be as a shortstop. Blaylock remembered Brett getting spiked early in the season and needing stitches to close a wound on his knee. The incident prompted discussions about the prospect’s future after the season.

“George had good speed, but not great speed,” Blaylock said. “He had a good arm, but not a great arm, so shortstop wasn’t going to be his future.”

In Billings, Brett played 47 games at short, 20 at third. The next year, at Class A San Jose, the move had been made. Brett played 104 games at third, hitting .274 and improving his power to 10 home runs.

Brett skipped Class AA and reported to Omaha to open 1973, and toward the end of summer, while working on a .284 season — and cooking burgers in his apartment with teammates Buck Martinez and Mark Littell — Brett got a knock on his door from a team official.

“One of you is getting called up,” Brett remembered hearing.

Brett and Martinez congratulated Littell, the staff ace who wound up 16-6 that season.

“No, George, it’s you,” Brett was told. “Get going.”

Soon, Brett was on a plane to Chicago, where the Royals were facing the White Sox. When he arrived at Comiskey Park, Brett didn’t expect to play.

That is, until he saw the lineup card.

8. Brett, 3B.

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