George Brett is thinking about his father again, the man who punched him and kicked him and at least once threatened to kill him. George loved the old man. Sometimes people have a hard time understanding that.
George has read stories that say he hated his father, and, sure, there were moments back when he was a kid in Southern California when that was true. But isn’t that how most of us are with our parents?
No, George never hated the man. Not in a real, lasting way, at least. He was scared of him. Scared to death. But that’s different than hate. Jack Brett demanded the best from his kids. There’s something to be said for that.
Father’s Day is this weekend. This summer is 25 years since George’s dad died of cancer. But George would be thinking of him anyway.
He does all the time, every day.
“The night before he passed away,” George is saying, “I lied to him.”
Even after he became one of baseball’s biggest stars, George still wasn’t good enough. Not to Jack, anyway. Jack lived in Southern California and wanted George to be more like Steve Garvey.
George partied too much, got hurt sometimes and his hair was too long. Garvey was married, never missed a game and looked like a Ken Doll.
In the 1980s, Garvey was divorced, got two women pregnant and married a third. When George saw that, he picked up the phone.
“Hey dad,” he screamed, “you still want me to be like (expletive) Steve Garvey?”
Jack Brett walked with a bow-legged limp, his leg forever damaged by shrapnel he took running through mud from a broken down tank in France during World War II. He believed in order, and discipline, and did not believe in this mumbo-jumbo that a father could be his children’s friend.
The Brett boys could not eat breakfast until their teeth were brushed, their faces washed, their beds made. George had to wash all the dishes, and if Jack found a spot — one measly, nothing spot — the boy had to start all over.
Once, Jack threw his oldest son, John, through a shower door. A hundred stitches in the boy’s back. Another time, Jack chased Bobby around the backyard with a two-by-four. George ran out of the house once to escape his father, hearing from a block away, You better never come home or I’ll kill you! The neighbors didn’t much notice. That was just Jack. Those were different times.
Looking back now, it’s strange. George spent his entire childhood and most of his time as a baseball star trying to please a man he knew could never be pleased. One summer day in high school, George had a nightmare on the baseball field. He overthrew first base, missed an easy grounder and dropped a popup. Jack happened to be working the scoreboard that day.
Normally an error is marked by turning on the light underneath the “E.” But here, Jack grabbed the microphone.
“That’s the THIRD error on the shortstop,” he said, and when the game was over and they were walking into the house, Jack kicked his son right in the behind.
“You better never embarrass me like that again,” Jack said. George was 14. He never forgot the feeling, or the message.
It’s easy to see why people assume George hated his dad. Or, at the very least, resented him. But George has never felt that. Never admitted it, anyway. Jack was an imperfect man guessing on how best to raise a family, but doesn’t that describe all fathers?
Maybe this is hindsight talking, because all four boys became successes. George is one of the 30 or so best baseball players of all-time, and his brother Ken pitched 14 years in the majors and then was a broadcaster. John built a contracting business. Bobby got into real estate and later operated a minor-league team he bought with his brothers. They were close, often with insults, the way brothers are.
So, George figures, maybe it worked. Who knows? George played every game of his career with an abject terror about embarrassing himself and, by extension, his old man. Maybe that wasn’t healthy, but it sure as hell was productive.
Years ago, George gave a speech at the grade-school graduation of one of his kids.
“You know the difference between right and wrong,” he told the kids. “If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure, just ask yourself, ‘Would I do this if my parents were around?’ If the answer is no, don’t do it.”
It was the same thing George heard from that mean old cuss of a father so many years ago.
George Brett picked up the phone and heard his father screaming. This was October 1980, and George had come out of game two of the World Series with hemorrhoid pain.
“(Expletive),” was the first word George heard. “I thought I raised a man! You (expletive)!”
Ten years later, one of George’s brothers calls. “You talk to dad lately?” “No, why?” “He’s in the hospital. Hemorrhoids.” George wrote down the number, hung up with his brother, and called.
“You (expletive)!” he told the old man. “You sit at a desk, I have to go out there and run and slide!”
George doubles over in laughter as he tells the story.
So, about that lie. George flew home to California to see his dad one last time. The cancer was too much, and the old soldier was fading, gasping for breaths. He had asked everyone not to bother George with the news. George was slumping at the plate. He had enough on his mind, Jack said.
But now, that was over. Everyone knew this was it. George walked in the hospital room and looked at his dad and tried not to cry.
“How’d you do?” Jack said.
“Oh-for-four,” George said.
“Did you hit it good at least?”
“I hit three good, dad. I just didn’t get any hits.”
Even 25 years later, George’s voice goes quiet when he tells this story. He shakes his head.
“I didn’t get a ball out of the infield. I just didn’t want to let him down. I didn’t want to let him down.”
Maybe a 63-year-old man isn’t supposed to think about his father every day. George’s two living brothers don’t. But George does. He keeps his dad’s initials, birthday and last day on a necklace he never takes off.
In some ways, George is his father. Competitive as hell. Sure in his ways. George doesn’t have his father’s temper, but there are moments it comes out.
As a father, George has essentially tried to be the complete opposite of Jack. George never did anything with his dad. Didn’t go fishing, didn’t play catch, didn’t talk with him. Nothing. George takes his kids to Alaska to go fishing, or to Hawaii to swim with dolphins. He golfs with them.
He was an assistant coach on all their teams growing up, a constant fixture at their games. He was particularly proud when Jackson and Dylan, the two oldest boys, started on the offensive line at Shawnee Mission East High School together. George never pushed his boys into sports, or critiqued their play. He told them he didn’t care if they went 0-for-5 — just have more fun than anyone else.
Jack Brett always said he was his sons’ father, not their friend. Well, George is trying to be his sons’ father and their friend. Most days, it works.
But even in trying to be nothing like his dad, in so many ways George never stopped trying to please his dad. He wonders if his dad would like the house they live in. Would he like this car? What about the dogs? Would he like this shirt? These shoes?
Most mornings, George meets some friends for coffee. They do the crossword puzzle. Jack used to love the crossword puzzle. George thinks about that every day, too.
“I think he’d be proud of me, because I’m getting better at it,” George says. “I’m getting better at it, you know?”
What would Jack think of George as a father? That’s the question George wonders about the most. He is so much different, but then, times are, too. George thinks about this often.
Jackson is 22 and has dropped out of college. School was always difficult for him. Dyslexia. He lives and works for a baseball team in Australia now. Dylan is 21, a senior at Kansas. He’s smart but easily distracted. Robin is 20, a sophomore at Mississippi. He’s a late-bloomer academically, having undergone brain surgery when he was a baby. But he is doing well now.
“He’s just always wanted us to be happy,” Jackson said of George. “That’s what we are. One happy family.”
Yes, George wonders all the time: What would grandpa think? He’d tell Dylan to get a haircut; that’s an easy one. And he’d tell Robin to look him in the face, because he’s kind of shy. Jackson is harder to read. But he’s a good boy.
“So I don’t know,” George says. “I really don’t know. But I think he’d like them. I hope he’d like them.”