.400 for Brett this year?
Fort Myers, Fla.
Outside the spring training locker room of the 1980 American League champion Kansas City Royals, the gentle rain from heaven was falling on .330 hitters as well as those who struggle just to crawl over the .200 mark.
Inside, George Brett, who made a prolonged bid last year (.390) to become the first player to hit over .400 since Ted Williams in 1941, had thrown his 6-foot frame over a reclining chair that looked as though it had been built about the same time.
"Don't ask me how I feel, don't ask me about my operation, and don't ask me where the Royals are going to finish this year and I'll talk to you," Brett said. "I guess what bothers me most is having to deal with the same questions all the time."
"I'm thinking about having a good year, because what else would someone who has confidence in himself think about," George continued. "If I hit .400, fine, but it's not going to be an obsession with me. I think you should try to have as much fun as you can in everything you do, and that's my approach to baseball."
Asked if there is a pattern to the way American League pitchers work on him, and if it's true that he seldom sees a fast ball, Brett replied:
"Let me tell you something about pitchers. Their managers can order them not to throw me this or not to throw me that, but if a guy's best pitch is his fast ball, then that's what I'm going to see if he gets behind in the count. He knows it and I know it, so what it generally comes down to is his best against mine.
"My theory on hitting is to learn as much as I can about opposing pitchers and then make it work for me. If we're ahead in the game or there is nobody on base, I don't challenge the pitcher. I take what he gives me and I try to adjust so that I can drive the ball where nobody can field it. I'm not talking about home runs, I'm talking about going between the infielders or into one of the alleys in the outfield.
"If we're in a situation where we need a home run to get back into the game, then I'm going to take a chance and try to overpower his best pitch. I don't think about the percentages, because if I'm familiar with the pitcher, I can adjust. Although some people say a guy can't think and hit at the same time, I don't agree with that, because I've done both plenty of times."
According to Kansas City Manager Jim Frey, Brett has gone past Rod Carew as the best pure contact hitter in the American League.
"Until a couple of years ago I think Carew probably had an edge on George because of his experience," Jim explained. "Rod was so good at adjusting and going to the opposite field with the pitch that nobody could touch him."
"But Brett can do the same things now, plus he also hits for power and drives in many more runs," Frey went on. "Physically George has reached a point where no pitcher consistently overpowers him. He might be the best player mentally in the league at getting himself up for every game, and that includes his fielding."
It is doubtful if anyone with the Royals knows Brett better than his older brother Ken, a former starting pitcher with half-a-dozen big league teams and since last year a member of the Royals' bullpen. In fact, back in 1967 with the Boston Red Sox, Ken became the youngest pitcher, at age 19, ever to work in a World Series.
"If I'm lucky, I might get a chance to relieve two or three times a week," Ken explained. "Yet when I leave the ballpark I treasure my privacy, which is why I live alone. And remember, I don't have half the pressure on me that my brother does."
"George has to have his privacy and time by himself to unwind or he'd go crazy," the older Brett continued. "He shouldn't have to deal with 30 reporters before every game; he can't have magazine writers calling him at all hours of the night; and he can't give interviews to everyone who sticks a microphone in front of him.
"If he did, he wouldn't hit .300. That's why when it looked as though he might catch Williams last year, the Royals' front office had to step in and make some ground rules to protect him. George knows and I know that reporters have a job to do, but when it gets to the stage where you can't leave the off-limits of the trainers' room without being mobbed, you have to ask for help. Personally, I think George handles this situation better than most superstars, especially when he knows what most of the questions are going to be before they are asked.