Hal McRae has had more than his share of peak moments in a 14-year career with the Kansas City Royals.
Strangely, the best moment came along as McRae’s playing days were stretching toward twilight.
It happened last spring, after the 39-year-old designated hitter had stamped his name near the top of almost every club record, and when his powerful and consistent bat was revealing the inevitable signs of time’s erosion.
That day, McRae had an experience that no one else has had when he watched a confident, compact teen-aged second baseman take the field for his first game with the Royals.
Hal McRae was about to play in the same major league lineup with his son. The batting order read: Lonnie Smith, Brian McRae, Hal McRae . . .
Somehow, the mingling of team and family meant more than all the hitting streaks and game-winning RBIs and All-Star votes that had preceded it for Hal McRae.
“It was a dream come true, the most exciting day of my baseball career,” he said before batting practice at Anaheim Stadium this week, where the Royals played a three-game series with the Angels.
The other half of Kansas City’s Royal family felt the same way.
Brian McRae, 19, spent the summer playing with the Royals’ Single-A team in Eugene, Ore., which won the Northwest division title. He hit .268 and stole a team-high 28 bases in 32 attempts during the 72-game season. He was invited to the Royals’ instructional camp in Sarasota this month, a sign of favor extended by the club to its most promising prospects.
“That’s still been the highlight of the whole season for me, spring training,” Brian said from Sarasota. “I’d grown up hanging around these players at the ballpark, and in the first inning I was in awe out there.
“I was looking around and here were all these guys who just finished winning the World Series and I’m playing with them. Steve Balboni was at first, I was at second, Buddy Biancalana was at short and (George) Brett was at third.”
Brian hit a double, stole a base, scored a run and turned a double play with Biancalana.
“After I got that first hit, I started to think, ‘Hey, I might be able to do this!” he said.
Said Hal, who was 0 for 2 in the game: “It was thrilling. Even though I was so nervous, and I ended up pulling so hard for him that I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I thought I would.”
A few years ago, such a scenario would not have been found in either McRae’s imagination.
Until Brian was a teen-ager, there was no evidence that he would develop into an outstanding baseball player, not to mention a first-round draft choice who would command a $125,000 signing bonus. He was not allowed to join Little League until he was 12.
He remembers tagging along at his friends’ Little League games.
“I’d watch them play, but I wouldn’t play,” he said. “I’d say my dad wouldn’t let me play, and that was it. I had no say-so in it.”
Hal said his goal was to protect his son from having bad early experiences with baseball.
“I took him to the ballpark with me every day, and I guess I was afraid that he’d get burned out on the game,” he said. “I was really afraid of the pressure that might be put on him in Little League.
“I wasn’t sure what kind of coaching he was going to get, and I knew how the parents holler and yell at the kids. I didn’t want him exposed to that. I thought it might have a negative effect.
“We went to the ballpark together and he was learning the fundamentals without anybody teaching him.”
Brian finally played his first organized game the summer before eighth grade.
“I thought maybe I’d missed out,” Brian said. “But I found out that I hadn’t missed anything at all. I found out that just from working out with Dad, even though I hadn’t played, I was still way ahead of the guys who had been playing since they were real little. Now that I look back on it, in the long run, that (decision) probably helped me out because I was exposed to the big leagues.”
Not only was Brian’s baseball background unorthodox, his high school calendar was unusual as well.
Every fall, he attended Blue Springs (Mo.) High School, where he became a second-team all-state defensive back on the football team. Every November--when his father’s season was finished--the family moved back to Bradenton, Fla., where Brian played baseball at Manatee High School.
It could have been a schizophrenic existence--he remarks that he had “two sets of everything,” from friends to clothes--but in Brian McRae’s case the only people who may have found it troublesome were the scouts who wanted to locate him, and they apparently managed. He took football recruiting trips to the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri, and, for a time, leaned toward football, despite his 5-foot 11-inch, 175-pound frame.
“I really got into football my senior year,” he said. “I was recruited by quite a few schools, and I thought maybe I should play football and get away from the comparisons.”
The comparisons are the inescapable drawback of Brian McRae’s existence in baseball. Comparison is a word that twists Hal McRae’s face into a grimace.
“We don’t make any comparisons at all,” he said with studied emphasis. “He’s Brian and I’m me. He should be able to learn what he can do and not worry about what I did.
“I think it’s unfair to him to be compared to me.”
Brian, who describes himself as an easygoing individualist, has found mental strategies to make the best of it.
“You’ve got to be a little confident--maybe a little overconfident--when you’re in the position that I’m in, because everyone expects so much out of you because of what your father did,” said Brian. “They expect you to automatically hit .300--just like your dad did--and that you should be that much better than just the average person. But you can’t let it get to you.
“We’re two totally different players. The comparisons, they hurt a little bit. . . . (But) it’s going to be like that and there’s not much I can do about it. Earlier, it used to bother me. But now I just try to use it to my advantage. I can’t let it bother me.
“It was good playing up in Oregon because not too many people had heard of my dad. Up there, they follow the Mariners, and about all they know about the Royals is George Brett.”
Hal McRae is in the last month of a one-year contract. He has been platooned with Jorge Orta against left-handed pitching and used as a pinch-hitter this season. His 14 hits as pinch-hitter are the most in club history and his average reached near .300 in August, but his age and current .257 mark make his future with the Royals as uncertain as his past was productive.
Asked if he thinks there is a chance the two McRaes will ever hold another family reunion in the Royals’ lineup, he answers: “I would hope. But it’s kind of remote--mainly because of me. I may not survive this year, and if I do, then there’s next year.”