All Hail King George

Credit: Royals.com

On Friday, the greatest Kansas City Royal in history celebrated his 67th birthday. Yes, Hall of Famer George Howard Brett was honored by many this week, including MLB Network who aired a couple of interviews, a Royals feature and even a couple of classic games in George’s career. George was a “layup” for the Hall and is considered the 5th best third baseman in baseball history according to the Hall of Stats.

George was also my favorite player growing up and a big reason why I love baseball. Nothing beats watching Brett hustle on every play, diving or sliding for everything he earned. Watching George play was like watching a sprinter use every last ounce of strength to get themselves to the finish line; he had no idea how to half-ass anything. Looking back, it is easy to see how a whole generation of Royals fans look to Brett as the definition of what it means to be a Kansas City Royal.

All that being said, I realized today I have never really written an in-depth piece on George. Considering this blog has been around since 2012, it’s weird that I haven’t written thousands of words on what made him a great ballplayer. Maybe it’s because he is George Brett and we all know how great he was. Maybe it’s because I would drone on and on about the numbers that encapsulate his career and place in the fabric of the game. Or maybe I just don’t feel like I can do him justice.

Credit: Ron Vesely/Getty Images

So instead, I decided to veer in another direction. Today, I want to take a look at some of the greatest George Brett stories out there. While the numbers will speak of what a great ballplayer he was, the stories will define who the man truly was. Look, I am fully aware that Brett is no saint and some of us have heard (or even experienced) the horror stories involved when meeting a cranky George. He is human and I’m hoping we can take a look back at some of those great human elements that helped make him a one of a kind baseball great.

Credit: Getty Images

Let’s start with a great story told by a man who worked at a Cleveland strip club. While I’m sure you are already thinking something seedy is going on,  instead it is more of a look at his generosity:

“Here comes George Brett in the club—I recognized him right away—and I showed him to a chair and got him a complimentary drink. I ran the tables. And if I said somebody got a drink, they got a drink.”

In the Hustler bathroom, Door George is half-seated on the sinks with his head cocked in what the uninitiated might mistake for a parody of ‘fond recollection.’  Chris Brown’s “Don’t Wake Me Up” is blasting overhead and an upbeat announcer is imploring us to keep it going for a dancer of unseen endurance and felinity.

“This was ’87, and the Kansas City Royals were in town,” George goes on. “This was the year after Buckner let that ball go through his legs in the World Series. And, well, I didn’t recognize Buckner, but I recognized Brett. And somebody was giving Buckner a hard time on account of that ball going through his legs.

“And I took care of them, moved them to a more private table and got them drinks. And Brett, he appreciated it. He asks me ‘Can you come to the ballgame tomorrow night?’ And I say, sure.

“Next day, here comes a limousine and an envelope with $100 and two tickets to the game with a note thanking me for looking out for them.” George raises an index finger, the story’s not over.

“From that day on—I never saw him again in my life—but every time the Royals were in town, sure enough, I got an envelope with $100 and two tickets, up ’til the day he retired. That George Brett, now there was a classy guy.”

 

Many wondered why George came back to be a hitting coach for the Royals in 2013. Brett had spent years in the Kansas City organization after his retirement and never did any coaching outside of helping out a bit during Spring Training. But a story from a few years back in Arizona probably points out that the love of the game (and organization) is the biggest reason he helped out the team seven years ago:

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.”

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention George the competitor. But of what made Brett so great was his ability to tap into a part of him that would not give up, no matter the circumstances. Even an injury wouldn’t slow down George, as told here by ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian:

 

 

 

If you have heard any stories from his bachelor days, you know that Brett enjoyed the night life during his prime and was quite the ladies man. That being said, his teammates had to know that if they went out with George, there was a chance they were going to be left at the bar as he might head out on a date. This was the exact predicament that Clint Hurdle and Jamie Quirk found themselves in during one of these “trips”:

“One night, the three bachelors went partying in Kansas, all in the same car– unusual, Hurdle says, because, “You don’t wanta depend on one of those guys for a ride” — and Brett found a date and went off with her. Hurdle and Quirk got back to the house at four in the morning, drunk, and discovered they had no key to the front door. And Brett was not at home, either. “We said, the hell with it,” Hurdle laughs. “I put my shoes up on the doorstep and slept on the lawn. A neighbor lady came out at about six thirty in the morning and asked if we wanted to come in the house.” Hurdle snorts. “There was dew all over us.”

Did such antics constitute a public nuisance? Did the neighbors complain? Hurdle shakes his head. “Everybody loved George.”

 

Brett was a big star by 1985 when the Royals made it into the playoffs. Around that same time, Chris Berman was being told by ESPN management to cut out his famous nicknames he had for players. Once George got wind of this, he was not happy . Here is the story told by Berman:

 

“I remember, I was very good friends with players my age, and one of the biggest fans of the nicknames was George Brett, Hall of Famer, great guy, great player. And they were going to the postseason. And I called him to wish him luck with a week to go or whatever it was, ‘Good luck, I’ll be rooting for you, I don’t know if I’ll get to the World Series or whatever it was, I don’t cover that, oh, by the way, I can’t do the nicknames any more.’ And he exploded over the phone. I said ‘Well, don’t worry about it,’ you know, whatever.”

“And I was not there at Game 1 (of the American League Championship Series), Kansas City played Toronto, and I guess all the news media gathered around him at the workout the day before, because he’s George Brett, right? And George Grande went up to him, one of the great people in our early anchors, one of our baseball guys, the baseball guy along with Lou Palmer then, and he said ‘George, can I get you?’ And [Brett] said ‘Wait a minute, hold on.’ And he unloads, not at George Grande personally, but ‘What is your management doing?! I’m not going to watch ESPN any more, they’ve told my guy he can’t do nicknames!’”

Among those in the circle was [USA Today sports media columnist] Rudy Martzke, who hadn’t been aware because it was not announced, right? Not ‘He’s not doing them anymore,’ because that would be stupid. But that got written up about eight places the next day, and I’m told that, in the 80s now, that the mail that came when people heard about it, was unprecedented at that time. I’m not saying that meant my stuff was great or this, but the people cared that much that they showered ESPN with letters in 1985. And next season, they were back and he [presumably the producer] was gone.”

So whether you love or hate the nicknames that Berman was doing, you have Brett to thank for them sticking around.

Most of you are fully aware of George’s infamous “Pine Tar Incident”. In fact I even did a “live tweeting” version of the full game right here on this blog a few years back. You would think a Hall of Famer wouldn’t want a moment where he goes loony to be the main moment people think of when your name is mentioned. But for Brett, it could be worse, as he explains:

 

“After the World Series in 1980, every city I went to, I was ‘The Hemorrhoids Guy,’ ” he said. “And you get these people sitting near the on-deck circle, and they have their pops. The first two or three at-bats, they don’t say anything. And then they get a few pops in them and they start making hemorrhoids jokes.

“Well, I heard every hemorrhoid joke in the world –- my best response is, ‘My troubles are all behind me.’ … From October of 1980 to July 24, 1983, that’s what I heard. And from that July 24 to 2013, now I’m the pine tar guy. So it’s really the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Thank you, Billy Martin. I went from having an embarrassing thing that people remembered me for to something positive.

“Pretty much every time I play golf, they always want to check my clubs for pine tar. If I’m playing with strangers or in a pro-am or some type of celebrity tournament, the gallery at every hole brings it up. It’s kind of funny the first couple of holes, but after a while it gets old. And of course, that’s what I’m known for. It could be worse.”

 

But the ultimate story is one you have probably heard and probably numerous times. If we are being honest, this story never gets old:

 

 

 

I don’t know whether I love this story more because here is a baseball Hall of Famer relating the time he crapped his pants, or because he just goes up to guys in Spring Training and is almost giddy telling them about his “accident”. No one is going to tell George to NOT tell that story, even if they don’t want to hear it.

Also…”Who’s the pitchers in this game?”

Credit: USA Today

So happy birthday, George. If anything, this was a reminder that while I still would have loved ‘George, the ballplayer’ no matter what, the fact that he is a charming and fun guy points out why he will always be my favorite. Brett is royalty, not only in Kansas City but in baseball. Nothing will ever change that…no matter how many times he eats bad seafood.

Getting His Due

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This weekend, baseball honors the greats of the game in Cooperstown, New York, as the induction ceremonies will be held on Sunday afternoon. The players voted in this year are more than worthy but one player in particular will finally take his deserved place in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. That man is Tim Raines and over the last few years I have been one of the many beating the drum for his inclusion into the greats of the game. If anything, Raines has become a poster child for advanced metrics and increased value in stats revolving around on-base percentage, defense and base running. It took way too long, but are finally to a point where logic has taken over.

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Now, if you are expecting this to be an article slathered with statistics, you are wrong. I wrote in-depth about Raines back in 2013, so if you are wanting to read the argument for his induction click the link. What I will say is that Rock’s argument is pretty simple: he is one of the most proficient base stealers in the history of the game, his on-base percentage is comparable to the great Tony Gwynn, and there for a few years in the 1980’s he was in the argument of being the best player in the game. But Raines ended up falling under the radar, whether it be from being hidden in Montreal all those years or not being as good as Rickey Henderson (which is just as laughable writing it as saying it out loud). Raines numbers are on par with some of the greats of the game…and even I was late to the party.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

Call it ignorance or just being out of the loop, I wasn’t even aware of advanced metrics until about 5-6 years ago. Once I was aware, I did research into them and realized it broadened my view of the game and made me pay more attention to the areas of the game that I already valued. I was already a big proponent of walks, realizing they were just as important as singles. To this day I still value great defensive players over guys who contribute very little with the leather. I love watching the players who are five tool guys, which is why I used to love watching Barry Bonds play, but found him boring once he became ‘just a masher’. To this end, statistics like OPS and WAR speak to me more than the numbers we are used to seeing on the back of our old baseball cards. Once I looked into Raines’ case, it became very obvious very early that he was being overlooked and was worthy of a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

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Credit: USA Today

Once I realized the mistake that was occurring,  I made sure when Hall of Fame discussions came up to mention Raines as much as possible. My voice didn’t reach as far as a Jonah Keri, but even if it changed one person’s mind it was worth it. Raines and Edgar Martinez became the two players I rallied for the most. Advanced statistics had opened up my worldview and my appreciation for Tim Raines had grown immensely. Most of my viewing of Raines was late in his career, the period where he wasn’t the dominating force he was in Montreal. Now I look at his stolen base percentage, or the amount of walks he tallied throughout his 23 year career and I just shake my head. Raines was under all of our noses and a large amount of baseball fans had no clue just how great he was.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

While I loved what the advanced metrics taught me about Raines, the best part of this revelation was being part of a united community. Since I was a kid I’ve long considered myself a “stathead” and pushing the cause for Raines made me aware of how many baseball fan’s had the same sentiment. Knowing that because of extensive research and lots of number crunching led to opening the eyes of voters made it more than worthwhile. I’m sure no actual voter for the Hall of Fame read any of my articles or tweets about Raines, but many saw the effort and time put in by Jonah Keri and were open-minded enough to listen and change their mind on Tim. Brian Kenny was another strong proponent of Raines and made sure to argue his case whenever he could on MLB Network. The fact that so many writers and analysts pushed this agenda for a number of years and had a big enough spotlight to change people’s minds is  more than impressive. To know that this community of like-minded individuals were able to make such a dent in the minds of what is normally a very ‘stuck in their ways’ audience is double as impressive. This movement made a difference and helped to get a deserving player the recognition he rightly earned.

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Credit: Baseball Hall of Fame

So to say this Sunday will be rewarding is an understatement. Myself, I am super happy that Raines will get to take his rightful place in Cooperstown this weekend and he will get to share that with his family and peers. Over the years, guys like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Dwight Evans and Bobby Grich have been passed over for election to ‘the Hall’ and one has to wonder if they had the same push and media attention drawn to them they could have garnered the same result as Raines. It will be a joyous occasion at the induction ceremony this weekend, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Billy Wagner are just a few names that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame and the push for the next election should begin now.  While all the hard work for Tim Raines paid off, it’s time to push the next cause. There is always a deserving player who just isn’t getting their just due. Remember, the numbers never lie.

 

Authors note: I have been reading Tim Raines’ new book, “Rock Solid: Life in Baseball’s Fast Lane” and highly recommend it. If you interested here is the link on Amazon. Hopefully when I get it done I will be able to post a book review as well. So far, I am really enjoying it.

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