George Brett long ago passed the point of giving a damn how anything comes across as long as it's his truth, so here comes the story of why he quit as the Royals' hitting coach five years ago this month.
Wild days, do you remember? That was a year after the Our Time disaster, and the franchise's most talented collection of young talent had all but napalmed their chances in 2013 with a 19-losses-in-23-games stretch so discouraging that general manager Dayton Moore begged Brett into the dugout.
His title was hitting coach, but in practice he was more like a swagger coach, with Moore describing Brett's task as being "to rescue us mentally." Brett said yes. He does love baseball, always loved that group's talent, and besides, his kids were older and out of the house. He had the time, promised a month and ended up giving 56 days.
The memories are fresh enough that he was shocked to hear it'd been five years already. The freshest memory is the last one, when he walked into the indoor batting cage and saw five guys lined up for soft toss with assistant hitting coach Pedro Grifol, known to the players as "Pete."
"Salvy, come on over," Brett remembered saying.
"No, I'm going to wait for Pete," the catcher responded.
"OK, Moose, come on over."
"No, I'm going to wait for Pete."
"Gordon, come on over."
"No, I'm going to wait for Pete."
"OK, wait for (expletive) Pete. I'm out of here."
At this point in the retelling of the story, Brett pauses for effect. He said that by the end, no players talked to him. Whether he's exaggerating or not, the point is the same.
"I quit the next day," Brett said. "Yeah. That night after the game, I told (manager) Ned (Yost), 'I don't think this is working out. I don't think I'm connecting with the players, I don't think they're connecting with me.' I called (owner) David Glass: 'Thank you and Dayton, but this isn't working. I'm not getting any satisfaction out of it, and I don't think the players are appreciative of the effort I'm putting in it. So let's just let Pete do it.'"
Now, some context. Brett was never going to be the hitting coach long-term. He could've been a hitting coach a thousand times before, a manager at least once, but the biggest reason he retired as a player was the grind of a season and all the travel.
Decades removed from the night he kissed home plate after his last game, why would he seek the long days and flights without the rush of being able to hit? He never thought of himself as a coach.
Several club sources have generally said that Brett, while genuine in his desire to help, did not carry himself like a traditional hitting coach. It's often said that hitting coaches are the hardest-working guys on staff, because there are 12 or 13 swings — more, if you count switch-hitters — in constant need of tuning and without the limitations of pitch counts.
Hitting coaches need to be available, always, for video or soft toss or batting practice on the field or a simple pep talk. Brett has been described as engaged, but on a level below Grifol. After hearing the story Brett recalled above in this column, one team source simply pointed out that Grifol had already been in the cage working when Brett walked in.
After a while, both sides knew this wouldn't work long-term.
"Not at all, not at all," Brett said when asked if he was frustrated. "Put it this way: I'd rather be a good player than a good coach. I'd rather be known as a good hitter than a good (expletive) hitting coach any day of the week."
In the broader sense, Brett's time in uniform worked. Much more than fixing swings, Brett was asked to fix minds. So much had been put on that group. They were the first in a generation to bring more than drunk hope to a once-proud franchise.
There had been fleeting moments — perhaps best illustrated by the Carlos Beltran-Johnny Damon-Jermaine Dye years — but never a collection of talent that had captured the attention of industry insiders like the one fronted by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. And they were failing.
Our Time was a marketing mistake made worse by a 90-loss team in 2012, and when Brett was hired on May 30, the group had lost 19 of 23. In just seven of those 23 games had the Royals managed even four runs.
They went 25-22 with him in the dugout and took off from there — they were the second-best team in the American League after July 22. The next year, of course, came the Wild Card and pennant and the year after that a world championship. Brett watched those playoff games from suites, but the connection remained.
"Him being willing to partner with us at a time we really needed it is something I'll always treasure," Moore said. "To take on this challenge and breathe some freshness and life back into our organization."
There is an irony of cause and effect here. The Royals hit .261/.314/.375 before he was hired, .248/.309/.369 with him as hitting coach and .268/.320/.388 after. At least in that way, his presence made no material difference.
Strangely, the pitchers had a 3.82 ERA before he was hired and 3.29 ERA after.
"They started winning, and I was going around telling everybody I'm the pitching coach," Brett said. "We were winning games 2-1 instead of losing 2-1. I was telling people, 'No, I'm not the hitting coach, I'm the pitching coach.'"
He describes those days matter of factly, the memories a combination of excitement from being in the dugout again to not feeling like he connected.
Some nights, he said, he went back to his house or hotel room thinking, "This is a great job." For a time, he thought he'd finish the season, maybe even do it again the next year.
But other nights, he felt like guys were politely ignoring him, or worse. They had all gravitated toward Grifol anyway, so what was he doing there?
If this had gone another way, maybe the emotions would be different. If the Royals hadn't won so much after he left, hadn't won a pennant and then a World Series, maybe we'd all be wondering why a Hall of Famer who cared and a talented group with their baseball reputations on the line couldn't better connect.
As it stands, they won a championship and Brett grabbed the microphone at the parade and called them the greatest team in franchise history. No hard feelings and no strained relationships with the players.
"Oh, God, no," he said. "It's better than it was when I was the hitting coach. I'll still offer suggestions, and some of them listen and some don't. I won't ever try to change anybody. I just tried to offer suggestions to make them better.
"Charlie Lau offered me suggestions. He didn't tell me to do it. He offered suggestions, I tried it, and I saw results. If it could work for me, these guys are bigger, stronger, faster than I was. Maybe it could help them. It just didn't work out."