The days start early here, when the desert air is still cool, and on this particular morning the first person you see in a Royals jersey is the most accomplished and famous of them all.
George Brett is here, every year, even 23 years after he kissed home plate following his final professional baseball game. An old ballplayer’s internal clock never fully adjusts to normal life after retirement. Brett still gets restless as winter turns to spring.
Officially, he is here as both figurehead and coach, one of the greatest 30 or so baseball players of all-time hitting fungoes and throwing BP and looking for the next Lorenzo Cain among the Royals’ minor-leaguers.
In reality, he’s here because he has to be. Not for his job. But for his soul.
“I’d be miserable,” he says, contemplating a life without baseball. “Actually, I was miserable before I got down here.”
At the moment, the story on his mind is from the other day, when the Diamondbacks’ Jean Segura hit the second pitch from Royals starter Kris Medlen into center field. It was a clean single, or at least it should’ve been a single, but Segura sprinted from his first step out of the batter’s box.
Cain didn’t nonchalant it, in baseball parlance, but he also didn’t match Segura’s intensity. Spring training is normally a time for building up to top speed, not for showing it off. Segura never slowed down, surprising everyone on the Royals’ side, and slid in for a double.
“I’m watching that,” Brett says, “and I’m getting goose bumps. That was awesome. That’s how we play, and here we were against the Diamondbacks, in spring training, and we’re seeing it from them, too. I turned around in our dugout, to Brett Eibner and some of those guys, and I said, ‘Do you play like that?’ ”
Brett is smiling as he talks, shaking his head as he replays the moment in his mind. From the outside, especially recently, it’s easy to wonder if Goose Gossage and Oscar Robertson speak for all former stars when they go off on back-in-my-day rants.
But here is Brett, one of the greatest players of all-time, the man who so openly labels the 2015 Royals better than his own 1985 World Series champions, moved to goose bumps by a play in the first inning of a Cactus League game that most who watched have probably already forgotten.
This is part of what Brett loves about this time of year. He tried to be the team’s hitting coach a few years back and burned out after a few months. He figured that would happen. The hours are brutal, the travel is one of the main reasons he retired as a player, and he grew frustrated that his passion for hitting did not translate into a message he felt was helping.
But here, now, this is baseball in its simplest form. No planes. Little media. Just days full of ball, of seeing someone new, or something new, like a leadoff hitter turning a sharp liner to center into a double.
“I (freaking) love that,” he says. “It reminded me of Hal McRae, in the first game of the World Series in Kansas City against the Phillies.”
Now Brett is onto another story. A look back at the box score and game stories show he’s off on some of the details — it was the Royals’ second home game of the 1980 World Series, not the first — but it would be a little weird if he remembered perfectly everything from 36 years ago.
Anyway, the gist: The Royals trailed the Phillies two games to one and knew they needed to do something early against starter Larry Christenson. A first-inning home run by Willie Aikens put the Royals up three, but they wanted more. McRae followed with a grounder up the middle.
Maybe Phillies center fielder Garry Maddox figured the ball would get to him quickly enough on the hard Astroturf. He didn’t come in on the ball, waited for it to get to him, and dropped to a knee to field it. McRae was never particularly fast and had turned 35 that summer. But in that moment, on baseball’s biggest stage and with the crowd growing louder, he read Maddox’s casualness and never broke stride around first base.
“That was a routine ground ball,” Brett says. “I’m telling you, a routine ground ball. And he gets a double out of it. We end up scoring four runs in the inning, and win the game, everybody’s going crazy.”
Brett is leaning on a baseball bat as he tells this story, and when he hits the emphasis — a routine ground ball — he bangs the top of the bat against the ground beneath him. These are among his favorite moments in baseball, the ones that stick with him even decades later, because there’s nothing quite like a talented player at the top of his field squeezing every drop from every moment.
After Brett saw Segura make that play, and after he turned to Eibner and the other minor leaguers to ask if they play like that, he made another point. Brett told them he used to get five doubles like that every year, just by running as hard as he could around the bases. He retired with 665 doubles, at the time the fifth-most in history. By that math, about one in six of his doubles came from running hard.
“Without those hits, I’m just a guy,” Brett says.
He’s being modest to make a point, of course. He’s a Hall of Famer with or without those extra 100 doubles, but the story tells something important about Brett.
He was talented, sure, but more importantly he was driven to work maniacally by a fear of failure and an obligation he felt to always play his hardest.
That helps explain why he still comes here and puts on a uniform every day to stand in the sun and wait for the next moment.
“I’ll be coming down here forever, are you kidding me?” Brett says. “Twenty years from now, I don’t know how much I’ll be moving around, so maybe I’ll be the guy in a golf cart driving around to be part of this. But I’ll be here. Yeah. I wouldn’t miss this.”