Little did 20-year-old George Brett know that the Royals clubhouse he walked into for the first time in 1973 was the most skillfully crafted team in Major League Baseball’s 1969 expansion class.
Through bold trades and deft scouting and drafting, the Royals pushed enough of the right buttons in their infancy that by the time Brett first took the field in Chicago on Aug. 2, 1973, a team less than five years into its existence found itself in the thick of a pennant race and had started an upward trajectory that would soon place the franchise among the game’s elite.
Expansion status was no excuse in pursuit of a pennant, and Royals owner Ewing Kauffman made that abundantly clear after the 1972 season, when he fired popular manager Bob Lemon and replaced him with Jack McKeon.
“During the next 10 years, I expect to win at least five pennants,” Kauffman said at the news conference.
He was off, but only slightly, as the Royals made seven playoff appearances in a decade, starting in 1976.
The player who would become defined by his fierce competitiveness had landed in an organization that was driven to excel.
In other words, Brett and the Royals made a perfect marriage.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven saw it from the opposite dugout throughout his career.
“I’d come to the ballpark early to do my running, and he was always there, working his (tail) off, taking grounders, hitting, whatever he felt like he needed to do,” Blyleven said. “That was about every time we played the Royals.”
History tells us Brett became the Royals’ greatest player, and in time we’ll have a better understanding of the impact of his recently completed two-month tour of duty as the team’s hitting coach.
But if this group molds into a playoff-caliber club, 2013 will be seen as the start of something special.
As it was when Brett arrived in Kansas City in 1973, when a winning culture was being established.