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GEORGE BRETT : It's a Bit of a Longshot, but He Could Make a Run at Rose If He Plays Another Decade

October 01, 1985|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

As the Anaheim Stadium audience busied itself between innings in early September, a haunting, ominous number from the baseball movie "The Natural" was played, fitting since one stood in the Kansas City Royals' on-deck circle awaiting his turn to injure one of Kirk McCaskill's pitches.

Mr. Living Legend soon stepped to the plate. Two white Utica Blue Sox wristbands, gifts from his brother, the Utica manager, decorated his forearms. A white No. 5 dominated the back of his powder-blue jersey. The crouched batting stance was courtesy of the late Charlie Lau.

Three pitches later, George Brett's 1,943rd hit splashed gently in the right-field grass. McCaskill could only admire the soft line drive.

In the fourth inning, this time behind in the count, 0-and-2, Brett again sent one of McCaskill's pitches to right field.

A double by Hal McRae scored Brett each time.

Brett wasn't through with his chores, though. At third base, Brett had seven fielding chances and handled six routinely.

One of the ground balls skimmed the infield dirt at the last moment, however, making a routine play suddenly difficult. Brett gloved the ball with practiced nonchalance, examined American League President Bobby Brown's signature, then snapped a throw to first baseman Steve Balboni.

None of this was particularly new to Brett. He is a competent defensive player. As for hitting, let some of his peers describe Brett's ability to introduce bat to ball:

--Reggie Jackson: "I think George is the best left-handed hitter in the game."

--Dick Howser, manager of the Royals: "I haven't seen anybody who can hit like him."

--Don Sutton, recently acquired Angel pitcher who has won 295 games: "When he's hot, he's the best hitter in our league."

Brett hasn't been terribly hot lately, hitting .223 in September. But what makes Brett's recent appearances against the Angels so noticeable are, well, his appearances.

Normally when summer has edged into fall, Brett is wearing a sling, cast, bandage or hospital bed. In Kansas City, the change of seasons isn't signaled by the color of leaves, but by the sighting of Brett on crutches.

Before 1985, Brett's body had survived just 6 of 11 seasons. Knee, hamstring, toe, wrist, heel, hand, ankle, finger and shoulder injuries have accounted for his frequent visits to the league's disabled list. You may be pleased to know that his elbows and possibly his neck are OK.

Translated into tangible terms, the Royals lose more often when Brett is absent. Last year, for instance, the Royals had a .554 winning percentage with Brett in the starting lineup for 101 games. Without Brett, the figure dropped to .459.

"He feels bad," Howser said. "He knows he can't help us win with him on the bench with injuries."

Before this season, Brett approached Howser. "He told me coming into spring training this year that his goal was to play in 160 games," Howser said.

Howser, a nice man not known for embarrassing anyone on purpose, least of all his meal ticket, nearly burst out laughing. Brett averaged about 115 games during the last five years.

"He said 160," Howser said. "I said, 'George, I'd be satisfied with, say, 150. That would be plenty good enough.' "

This year, Brett has played in 150 games, and there are no indications that the remaining six will be difficult for him to attend.

"I've missed six games all year," said Brett, who despite his September slump is second in the American League with a .330 batting average and is contending for honors in runs scored, total bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, doubles, game-winning RBI and extra-base hits. Brett also has 26 home runs, which won't win any titles this season, but is noteworthy anyway, since he hits for such a high average.

Two other numbers to remember: Over the last 10 years, Brett is hitting .332 in late-inning pressure situations; and in 1985, he has received 31 intentional walks, which is like the other team saying, 'We give up.' The American League record is 33, set by Ted Williams in 1957. The major league record is 45, set by Willie McCovey in 1969.

"I really feel that 1979 and 1985 are probably the best years I've ever had," Brett said.

What about the 1980 season, the year Brett batted .390 and drove in 118 runs, his career high? "In 1980, I missed too many ballgames," he said.

The reasons for Brett's health and resurgence are few and uncomplicated. Quite simply, Brett became less friendly with beer and more friendly with fruit and vegetables. His off-season work habits improved. He spent more of his day exercising than he did arranging tee times. It shows.

"I think the reason I've had a good year is because I've been able to stay in the lineup," he said. "And if it's because of the conditioning program I went on last year, it makes it all worthwhile. I missed too many games the last three, four years and thought it was about time that if I got in a little bit of shape I could probably play healthier and play in more games."

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