Vahe Gregorian

Streak illuminates bond between Royals legend George Brett and Whit Merrifield

Richard Lovelady gets called up to the Royals for the first time

Left-handed relief pitcher Richard Lovelady speaks with reporters in the clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium after being promoted from the minors to the majors for the first time in his career.
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Left-handed relief pitcher Richard Lovelady speaks with reporters in the clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium after being promoted from the minors to the majors for the first time in his career.

As Whit Merrifield thought about it Wednesday afternoon, there was “no special story” to the first time he met George Brett, the Ultimate Royal and Baseball Hall of Famer.

But there sure has been one since for the player who on Wednesday broke Brett’s long-standing club-record 30-game hitting streak with a perfect bunt in the seventh inning against Seattle at Kauffman Stadium.

“Kind of surreal,” Merrifield called it after the Royals fell to Seattle 6-5 for their ninth straight loss.

Just like his first substantial personal memory of Brett. A few years after Merrifield was drafted by the Royals in 2010, he remembers stepping into a batting cage at spring training and feeling a sense of wonder when Brett started loading balls on a tee for him.

Whatever awe Merrifield felt then, well, it turned out he’d also made an impression on Brett, with whom his name was linked for the first time in 2014 when Merrifield earned the organization’s George Brett Hitter of the Year Award given to its top minor-league offensive player.

“I’m encouraging of all minor-leaguers in our system, I really am. But there was just something special about this kid,” Brett said by phone on Wednesday. “You know, he’s a ballplayer. Other guys might be good athletes and the Royals are trying to make them into ballplayers.

“This guy was a ballplayer. I mean, he can play the game without thinking. He just reacts. … He’s got great instincts.”

All of which was prologue to how Merrifield broke Brett’s 1980 franchise record, reading the opportunity to bunt as he had so many times earlier in his life. It made him think of all those times as a kid that his father, Bill, would take his hat off and ruffle his hair to give the bunt signal, or when coach Ray Tanner at South Carolina made the signal by rubbing his nose.

“All those bunts paid off tonight,” he said.

So did his relationship with Brett, who wrote him a note that was waiting at his locker after he tied the record Tuesday. Merrifield was thrilled by the gesture from one of the greatest to ever play the game. The words, already on their way to being laminated for a future place in Merrifield’s home, affirmed Brett’s sentiments for Merrifield and how he has long rooted for him.

“I’m very, very happy for him,” said Brett, who summed up the note thusly: “ ‘I knew it was going to be broken someday. I’m glad it was you. I’ve always thought you were a good player but a better person than you are a player.’ ”

With a laugh, he added, “ ‘Now, go out and get three more tomorrow.’ ”

In anticipation of that, Brett was at Kauffman on Wednesday hoping to pose for a picture with Merrifield before the Royals played Seattle. He figured it would hold up no matter what happened for two of only eight American League players to have had streaks of 30 or more games since 1969.

“Either one ahead of me or be tied with me,” Brett said. “Couldn’t happen to a nicer kid.”

For his part, Merrifield continues to embrace the fanfare that’s coming with this as he now stands as one of just five American League players with a hit streak of more than 30 games since Joe DiMaggio set the baseball record of 56 in 1941.

With the Royals planning to make him available for group media sessions until the streak ends, for instance, Merrifield on Monday and Tuesday made it a point to playfully end the interviews by saying some version of … see y’all tomorrow.

“I LOVED that,” Brett said. “You know what, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, how do you expect other people to have it in you?”

In fact, Merrifield outdid himself a bit before the game on Wednesday.

After playfully noting the crowd at his locker “keeps growing by the day” and that he was backed into a corner, he reiterated that he’s not scared of the topic and subtly added, “So we’ll keep talking about it for 27-plus more games.”

That wasn’t the only reference he made to DiMaggio’s record. Asked when his parents might make the trip from North Carolina to see him play again, he said, “As we get a little closer, maybe we’ll find a flight to Houston.”

Which is where the Royals will be if he still is in line to surpass one of the most revered and seemingly unbreakable records in the game.

Some have challenged the validity of Merrifield’s streak extending over two seasons. But baseball recognizes it, and it’s only logical to note that it might be harder to simply pick back up where you left off five months before and keep it going.

That’s among other points Brett has admired about Merrifield’s streak, which Merrifield says he considers “a little more special” than leading the AL in hits last year, because few in the history of the game have gotten to this point.

“You had a couple of nice days sprinkled in, but he’s done it in really inclement weather. And that’s hard,” Brett said. “It’s a lot harder to hit a baseball when it’s cold than it is when it’s hot. And he’s done it with rain delays, he’s done it with a lot more things than I had to put up with.”

In Brett’s case, the streak was carried off in what he considered the ideal conditions of a particularly warm summer.

“I loved playing when it was hot; I loved playing when it was humid,” he said. “I loved to go out there and sweat. The hotter it was, the better.”

The streak itself didn’t make Brett sweat as much as the backdrop for it might have: his pursuit of another of baseball’s Holy Grail records, a .400 batting average. He actually was hitting that (.401) even in the wake of Jon Matlack and Texas snuffing out the streak on Aug. 19.

Brett still remembers hitting two balls “decent” and grounding out to first on his last at-bat, a bobbled ball that became a bang-bang play. And he also remembers, correctly, that 10 days later against Matlack and the Rangers he had three hits.

“Why couldn’t I just trade in one from two weeks before?” he said, laughing.

But the truth is the streak was secondary with the prospect of .400 looming before Brett finished the season hitting .390.

“When everybody started to ask questions about that,” he said, “you kind of forgot about the streak.”

Which hadn’t been thought about much for 39 years until Merrifield, whose throwback style Brett loves and saw encapsulated in his opposite-field triple on Tuesday.

“He can hit the ball to all fields, and we don’t see that from a lot of today’s players,” Brett said. “And he works on that in practice. That’s why I’ve always been a fan of his.”

Something else Brett relishes about Merrifield is that amid all this, his priorities reflect his love for the game itself. Consider Merrifield’s first words late Tuesday after he tied Brett:

“Let me say something before ya’ll ask me about that,” Merrifield said. “We’re 2-8. We’re frustrated. We know you guys are frustrated. We know the fans are frustrated. We’re better than our record shows. We know we are. … So we ask you guys (to) stay with us. Fans, stay with us. Better days are coming. They’re coming soon.”

That, Brett said, “was pretty awesome.”

Just like Brett has been, and continues to be, for Merrifield.

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