Vahe Gregorian

George Brett and Tom Watson share wisdom on each other, Henry Bloch, Joe McGuff, ALS

Tom Watson on the ravages of ‘damned’ ALS

At the annual Joe McGuff ALS Golf Classic, Tom Watson talked about the horror of ALS and his ongoing hopes for a cure.
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At the annual Joe McGuff ALS Golf Classic, Tom Watson talked about the horror of ALS and his ongoing hopes for a cure.

As Kansas City sports icons and peers of a similar vintage, George Brett and Tom Watson have shared so much over the years that there is a certain chemistry between them now.

Enough so, for instance, that the Baseball Hall of Famer and one of the greatest golfers who ever lived now can at once tease each other and relate to parallels in their paths.

“Couldn’t hit your way out of a paper sack,” the 69-year-old Watson said to Brett, 66, with a smile on Monday at the Joe McGuff ALS Golf Classic at LionsGate … an event that raised more than $126,000 toward the cause that brought them together in the early 2000s and still drives and binds them.

It took a while to find his way, Brett acknowledged, before giving some guff back to Watson: “From what I understand when you were winning all those tournaments early in your career, you were hitting it all over the place but you were making every putt in the world.”

On the banter went, before Watson added, “I think the similarities between you and me are this: that we never gave up, we tried as hard as we possibly could to get everything out of every shot we played. Same thing with your baseball career.”

Never took anything for granted, Brett replied.

In later years, spurred by their mutual experiences with ALS, their worlds mingled.

They’d play golf together, with Watson still marveling at how far Brett can drive the ball even as Brett jokes he often doesn’t know where it’s going. They both remember Watson suiting up at Kauffman Stadium, where Brett said it looked like he was using a sand wedge in the batting cage and Watson still flinching when he recalls playing catch with Brett.

“He’s out there, maybe 8, 10 yards away, and he throws this ball and it goes WHACK,” Watson said. “Aw, man that hurt. … Then I paid attention playing catch with him.”

It’s paying attention to their community, though, that is one of the most endearing and enduring aspects of the two men and what makes them all the more to be treasured.

Every year about the time of this event, which deserves as much attention as we can give it, we get another reminder of that through this death sentence that touches so many of our lives.

“I’ve had more than one person comment that while they are impressed with what each of them has done in their respective sports, what they are most impressed with and what shows the most about their character is the fact that they continue to give back selflessly,” Sherrie Hanneman, director of communications for the ALS Association of Mid-America, said in an email.

You could point to many things about the long-term ways they are engaged with and immersed in this community, but a few examples were amplified anew last week.

Each fondly remembers McGuff, for example, the legendary Star editor and sportswriter who died from complications of ALS in 2006.

Watson recalled McGuff taking him for a three-hour architectural tour of Kansas City and appreciating his journalistic duty to “call out people in power when they’re doing something wrong.”

Brett loves to tell the story of how he wrote the title of McGuff’s book for him: “Why Me? Why Not Joe McGuff?”

Which is what Brett said when McGuff, “a wonderful man,” happened to be the first person he saw when Brett was being questioned about his bout with hemorrhoids during the 1980 World Series.

At the mention of Henry Bloch, the philanthropist and co-founder of H&R Block who died last month, Brett told of getting to know Bloch well enough as a neighbor that they’d had dinner at each other’s house. He remembered once introducing Bloch to his brother John, who asked, “So, sir, what do you do?”

So at Bloch’s funeral, Brett took a picture of the program and sent it to his brother and said, “This is the guy you asked what he did for a living.”

Watson had a better-known connection to Bloch.

When Bloch, who was Jewish, was denied membership in the Kansas City Country Club in 1990, Watson resigned his membership from the club where he had learned to golf. Watson’s then-wife, Linda, and their two children are Jewish, and at the time Watson told The Star he resigned “as a matter of conscience.”

Less than a week later, Bloch was offered, and accepted, an invitation to join the club. Watson rejoined in 1995.

“Well, it was a thing that needed to be done,” Watson said Monday. “And I think it got the right results.”

Which brings us to what most binds Brett and Watson, a thing that needs to be done … with urgency for the right results.

Work to create awareness of and fundraise against ALS, the sinister nightmare that Watson aptly described thusly:

“Knowing there is very little chance or almost no chance of survival, that your mind is trapped and your body is deteriorating, to see people go through this is devastating,” Watson said. “There is not enough compassion in the world to give these people who get this damned disease.”

Their friendship with McGuff fuels part of their commitment. But each has even more intimate ties to this tragic illness, ties that resulted in vows to friends dying from ALS.

Shortly before Watson’s caddy, Bruce Edwards, died, Watson told him, “I’ll work on this and try to find a cure for the rest of my life.”

Just prior to the death of Brett’s friend Keith Worthington, in whose name the local ALS Society was incorporated in 1983, Brett told him he would continue his fight … a pledge immortalized in stone on the base of his statue at Kauffman Stadium:

“I made a promise to a friend and I intend to keep it.”

It was those promises that made for the truest connection between Brett and Watson, who said they previously knew each other “just a little bit, not much. But this has brought us together in a lot of different ways.”

Because they’ll never take anything for granted.

“We’re going to be here ‘til the end,” Brett said. “And I really believe that when they find a cure for ALS, I think the city of Kansas City should be very proud of itself.”

And of the two sports legends whose legacies grow through this fight.

“Their dedication and commitment is second to none,” said Colleen Wachter, executive director of the ALS Association Mid-America chapter, adding, “It’s incredible and much-needed.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.