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.

The Royals and Yankees Just Don’t Hate Each Other Like They Used To

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This Friday the New York Yankees travel to Kauffman Stadium as they open a three-game series against the Kansas City Royals. There will be many a discussion about the “old days” and how at one time the Royals and Yankees had one of the biggest rivalries in baseball. But in 2018 that is no more and hasn’t been for a very long time.

Back in the late ’70’s/early 80’s the Royals and Yankees hated each other as much as Rob Manfred hates anyone standing still. The two teams battled it out in the American League Championship Series from 1976-1978 and then again in 1980. While the feud was mostly based on competition and the desire to reach the World Series, there was also a real built-in hatred there.

Let’s start with 1976 and the series deciding Game 5. In the Top of the 8th inning, George Brett would come up and put the game into a 6-6 deadlock:

Unfortunately for Kansas City, Chris Chambliss would break the hearts of Royals fans everywhere with this walk-off home run to win the series:

In 1977, the play on the field would get even rougher thanks to one of Hal McRae’s patented slides:

This was from Game 2 of the ALCS and it showed that both teams would do whatever it took to come away victors. That would get ramped up even more during the 1st inning of Game 5:

So at this point it is pretty easy to see that the Royals didn’t like the Yankees and the feeling was mutual from the Yankees. The Yankees would rally for three runs in the Top of the 9th and would seal the deal in the bottom of the inning:

The two teams would meet again in the 1978 ALCS and would split the first two games in Kansas City. For the Yankees to win Game 3, they would have to stop George Brett:

Despite the three home run day for Brett, the Royals would fall short again, losing both Games 3 and 4 as the Yankees would once again punch their ticket to the World Series:

While the Yankees were always the team ending up on top during those three years, the truth was that Kansas City was right there with them in most of those games. The two teams would face off 14 times in the playoffs during that three-year stretch and 6 of the 14 games would be decided by two runs or less. Finally in 1980, the Royals would get their revenge:

While many consider Brett’s homer off Gossage in the ‘Pine Tar Game’ to be the most iconic homer of Brett’s career, he would never hit a bigger shot than the one in Game 3 of the ALCS in 1980. After years of falling just short of New York, sweeping the Yankees in 1980 was the definition of things finally coming back around.

The two teams would continue to battle for American League dominance over the next few seasons but wouldn’t ever meet back up in the playoffs. In fact maybe the most remembered moment of their feud was the aforementioned ‘Pine Tar Game’:

After years of feuding, Billy Martin was still looking for a way to stick it to Brett and the Royals. As most of us are aware, this would eventually backfire on Martin, as the American League President Lee MacPhail would uphold the Royals protest and the home run would stand. The Royals would end up winning the game when they restarted the game almost a month later.

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Credit: Associated Press

After that? Well, the feud pretty much dissipated. The Yankees would have a long playoff drought and not return to the playoffs until  1995. While it would have been great for the Royals and Yankees to continue this rivalry, the truth is that the two teams were hardly ever relevant at the same time. With the main players in the feud gone and retired, the hatred and animosity trickled away as well.

Now in 2018, it’s just business as usual when these two teams meet up. Many of the players not only know each other but are friends with the other side and there is a different aura when the two clash. If anything the only real vitriol that remains is from us, the fans.

In fact if I am being honest, it is mostly from us older fans. As a kid I was trained to hate the Yankees. It wasn’t because they were a big-market team or because they would sign our players when they hit the free agent market. No, we hated them because they were the team the Royals had to jump over to get to the World Series. We hated the Yankees because of all the times they broke our hearts.

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Credit: Associated Press

While there is still a vile taste left in the mouth when mentioning the Yankees, for younger fans it is more of a ‘Big Market vs. Small Market’ hatred than anything else. Over the last 20 or so years, there are very few moments of the Yankees personally doing something to the Royals to really make us despise them.

I guess you could be mad at former Yankee Robinson Cano for not picking Billy Butler in the Home Run Derby in 2012 or be mad at Derek Jeter for being Derek Jeter. But actual, legit beef for doing something dastardly to our boys in blue? It just isn’t there.

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To be honest, it saddens me that this feud has tapered off. There is nothing quite like a healthy competition between two teams that want to win and will do anything to do it. Call it David vs. Goliath, or to modernize it a bit maybe Thanos vs. the Avengers.

There is nothing quite like a good underdog story and for years the Royals played that tune ‘to a T’. Sometime in the future it will happen again and these two teams will rekindle their venom for each other. But for now, it’s just two teams trying to win a nice game of baseball. It’s compelling, but it just doesn’t have the same bite to it.

The Pine Tar Game

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Today marks the 32nd Anniversary of the infamous ‘Pine Tar Game’ between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees. To celebrate this memorable game, I decided to watch the entire game. I realized once I started, that watching a game from 1983 was amusing to say the least. So with that said, here is a thoughts column on a game that will forever live in baseball lore.

  • Ooooooo, 80’s graphics! My son couldn’t grasp why the graphics were so bad. I told him that was the best we had at the time. He said that was sad.
  • Bert Campaneris was still playing in 1983?
  • The Yankees announcers are horrid. Yes, it was a different period, and I realize that. But it’s amazing to listen to just how bad the commentary was back in this era. There is literally no statistical analysis at all. In fact, Phil Rizzuto has discussed so far moustaches, buttons on the jersey and the tobacco in Leon Roberts mouth. The sad part is they are probably on par with Steve Physioc. Yes, Phys is that bad.
  • I realized this when I watched the 1985 World Series recently, but I have really gotten used to having all the information on the screen during the game. The only part that drives me crazy is not being able to see the score and outs at all times! We sometimes tease that there can be too much information on the screen but at the same time it has become a vital part of our baseball watching experience.
  • Steve Balboni without a moustache is blasphemous. Although without the lip hair he has a passing resemblance to John Belushi.
  • U.L. Washington still has his toothpick in his mouth. The. Entire. Time.
  • I almost forgot Don Slaught spent some time in Kansas City. I keep picturing Slaught with that guard covering his face after he had gotten hit in the face later in his career.
  • Since I didn’t see Dave Winfield until later in his career, I think I forgot just how crazy athletic he was. He is playing center field in this game and a few innings in it makes total sense.
  • Trash talking on Municipal Stadium in Cleveland…beautiful!
  • John Wathan should be in the Royals Hall of Fame. Yes, Wathan wasn’t a great player, but he was a solid part of these Royals teams in the 80’s and has stayed in the organization throughout the years, whether he was managing or scouting. To me, Wathan is a guy transcends any numbers he compiled in his career.
  • Frank White was pretty damn graceful on defense. I don’t think I am saying anything you didn’t already know.
  • There is a lot more discussion in the broadcast about strategy and I like that. Part of the beauty of baseball is the mental back and forth that goes on between the two teams as they decide what is their best move in a close game.
  • Skoal Bandit tote bag day at Yankee Stadium? Pretty sure you wouldn’t get a tobacco company to sponsor any giveaway at the stadium in this day and age.
  • Lou Piniella(seriously, I thought he had retired yyyyyyyyyears before this) made a catch that was very reminiscent of Nori Aoki. In fact the route Piniella took was straight out of Aoki’s playbook.
  • There has been some talk about the Royals needing pitching. Within a year of this game, the Royals would have Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza, two young pitchers in their farm system, in the majors. By 1985 you can add Danny Jackson to that list. Pitching was a big part of that 1985 championship team.
  • There aren’t enough pitchers who throw sidearm in the majors these days. Take note, youngsters.
  • Don Baylor scares me. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley in the 80’s. I’m pretty sure I still wouldn’t want to today.
  • Let’s go to replay…oh yeah, they don’t have that yet…
  • Every generic 80’s song used for these games used a synthesizer. People loved their moog’s back in the 80’s.
  • Amos Otis might be one of the most underrated players in Royals history. He wouldn’t quite be on the Royals ‘Mount Rushmore’, but he would be pretty damn close.
  • Don Mattingly as a defensive replacement? Wonder if Balboni was higher on their depth chart in 1983.
  • I know it’s Rizzuto, but do you need to ask whether or not Willie Mays Aikens was named after Willie Mays?
  • Brett vs. Gossage is such a classic matchup. Is the modern day equivalent Aroldis Chapman vs. Bryce Harper or Mike Trout?
  • Brett just seemed so locked in there against Goose. It seemed like no matter what Brett was going to drive a pitch during that at bat.
  • If you are a lip reader, don’t watch George’s mouth after he runs out. I noticed a plethora of four letter words spewing from his mouth.

 

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The funny thing about this game is that this situation will never happen again. The whole reason the pine tar rule was even in the rulebook was so the tar wouldn’t muck up the baseballs. Having pine tar on the bat does absolutely nothing to the ball if hit. This game is now one of the most famous games in history and will probably be discussed for hundreds of years to come. If you want to know more about the game, there is a new book out this week called “The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, The New York Yankees and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy” by Filip Bondy. You can get it on Amazon by clicking here. You can also watch this game in its entirety down below. Trust me, it is worth your time.

 

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