Another day in his 19th spring-training camp has ended with rivulets of perspiration rushing toward the rising reservoir at his feet. Two months from turning 38, George Brett is seated at his corner locker talking about racing Robin Yount to 3,000 hits in the next two years, about feeling younger than his years and about playing baseball through the 1994 season and maybe even beyond that. It is the talk of a man who survived the ballplayer’s version of a near-death experience and came back with a renewed zest for the game.
It was early one evening last May in Texas when one of the Kansas City Royals’ coaches approached Brett in the clubhouse and said solemnly, “Duke wants to talk to you in his office.” Duke is John Wathan, the Royals’ manager.
“I said, ‘Oh, no,”’ Brett said. “I knew what it was. They were getting rid of me. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of guys younger than me and a lot of guys older than me.”
Brett was hitting .200 at the time. He looked so feeble at the plate that he said the worst part was not the failure, but that “it was embarrassing.” He read and heard reports in every city he visited that he was done, that the proper thing to do would be to retire and not languish as some fading, pathetic star. He believed them.
“I was 5 1/2 feet into the ground,” Brett said. “I heard it all. If you hear things enough, you start believing it. Yeah, I thought I was done.”
Said pitcher Steve Farr, a former teammate who since has joined the New York Yankees: “He didn’t say much at the time, but you could see it was wearing on him. The thing about George is when he’s hitting .200, he’s not exactly a great guy to get a cold beer with. When he’s hitting .320, he is.”
So when the manager called for him, Brett believed it was to tell him he had been released. “It turned out,” Brett said, “that all he did was drop me from third (in the batting order) to fifth, and Duke and the coaches weren’t sure how I was going to take it. It was scary. It was almost over for me. I was knocking on the door.”
Brett then began a roll in which he batted .356 after May 7. Soon the sky seemed bluer, the sun brighter and the Astroturf greener.
“I found myself getting to the ballpark at 2:30 in the afternoon (for night games),” Brett said. “I looked forward to coming to the clubhouse. I looked forward to doing interviews before the game. I looked forward “
He was hitting .259 by the end of May, .267 at the All-Star break, .300 by the end of July, .316 by the start of September and .329 by the end of the season, which was good enough to win his third batting championship, his first in 10 years. No other player won batting championships that far apart. Only Ted Williams and Honus Wagner won batting titles at a more advanced age.
“I’ll always remember it,” Brett said. “I remember my last hit in Cleveland, the one that really clinched it. Half the team was out of the dugout. Even some of the Cleveland players were on the top step of their dugout. I’m getting goose bumps right now just talking about it, and that was back on Oct. 3.”
The remarkable season left Brett with a career .311 batting average and 2,707 hits. Yount leads active players with 2,747 hits. “I want to reach 3,000 hits in the next two years,” Brett said, “and I want to beat Robin Yount to it. Of all the thousands of people who have played this game, only 16 have 3,000 hits. That’s something. It’s a big goal for me.
“The other goal is the Hall of Fame. I’m no different than anybody else in this game. Everyone starts out with the Hall of Fame as their goal. That’s the ultimate, the ‘E’ ticket to Disneyland.”
Brett is in the final year of a five-year contract, but the Royals hold options for the 1992 and 1993 seasons. He plans to play after that, too.
“If the Royals don’t want me then, I’ll play for somebody who does,” said Brett, who is trying to re-work his contract, which will pay him less than nine of his teammates this year. He will turn 41 in 1994, which would be his 21st full major-league season. There are mornings when he has to stand in a hot shower for 20 minutes to loosen his body. He has a sore right shoulder and a sore left knee. He estimated he holds the career record for most American League games played on artificial turf. He dreads the travel days when “you get into the hotel at 3 or 4 in the morning, sleep until 1 o’clock, have lunch and go to the ballpark at 4.” There are times when his bat “feels like it weighs 10 pounds” and he has to switch to a lighter one. No active player has put in more service time with the same club (17 years, 21 days).
But now, even amid the sweat, toil and drudgery of spring training, Brett is young again. His career is revitalized less than a year after he thought it might be over.
“I’m feeling really good,” he said. “I don’t feel 38 at all. Listen, I’m realistic enough to realize that I can’t do this forever. I know there’s going to be a time when I’ll have to walk away. They’ll either call me in and say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,” or I’ll walk in there and say, ‘I can’t help you anymore.’
“I hope that’s the way it is, that I can leave on my own terms. I’d hate for them to have to tell me. That would be hard to take.”