There have been a million words written about George Brett. Even though he was my all-time favorite Royal, there’s probably not much I can add to that conversation. If you want to read good Brett stories, I’m sure Joe Posnanski has some. If you wish to read a good biography, check out Russell Bergtold’s excellent piece on SABR.
Brett had an outsized influence on Royal fans and on the entire Midwest. I’m fairly certain there are scores of 35- to 45-year-old men, especially in Kansas and Missouri, whose parents named them Brett, thanks to #5. Maybe even some women.
Brett was always my baseball idol but never my hero. My heroes were my two parents, who went to work every day, even when they didn’t feel like it. They always kept us clothed and fed and encouraged and mostly well-behaved. After working a 12-hour day, dad always had time to play catch, often still in his work clothes.
I was so enamored with Brett’s swing, that the winter of my fourteenth year, I spent an hour every night in front of a full-length mirror practicing my left-handed swing. As the weeks went by, the awkwardness started to disappear and by spring I was the proud owner of a smooth left-handed stroke. I might have been the only switch-hitter in our small town. Even today, in my sixth decade, I still like going to the cages and cutting loose with some lefty swings. Funny thing, my right-hand stance and swing look more like Brett’s. My left-handed stance and swing resembles Reggie Jackson’s. Without the power of course.
Speaking of power, I still find it amazing that Brett could generate the power he did with that stance. Weight back, in an extreme fashion, lift the right leg, stride through the ball with a nice level swing. It was a bit of a thing of beauty. I’ve watched hundreds of Brett at bats and not one carried a hint of violence. Yet the power was there as attested by his 317 home runs, 137 triples and 665 doubles. Somewhere, I’d like to think that Goose Gossage still has nightmares about seeing George in the box.
George was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, his first year of eligibility, with 98% of the vote. Until Mariano Rivera broke the skid in 2019, there had never been a unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I still find it somewhat unbelievable that Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial, just to name a few, were not unanimous choices. What kind of demented power game were baseball writers playing to not vote for those guys? It’s a shame that not all ballots are made public so we could see who the scofflaws were. I can understand a player like Ted Simmons or Vlad Guerrero not being unanimous selections. Great players and fully deserving of the Hall, but how can someone not vote for Henry Aaron? Or Stan Musial?
When George was elected, the Royals hosted a George Brett Day at the K. I ordered tickets for the five of us plus my parents. The game was held on Sunday. July 25, 1999, the same day that Brett was inducted into Cooperstown. Other members of that HOF class were Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount, and Orlando Cepeda. A solid class of inductees. Those 1999 Royals though, were some kind of bad. They finished the season at 64-97, good for fourth place in the AL Central. Somehow the Minnesota Twins were a half-game worse. Pythagorean predicted the Royals to finish at 75-86.
They had plenty of offensive firepower. Mike Sweeney, Joe Randa, and Johnny Damon all hit over .300. Jermaine Dye, Rey Sanchez and soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Carlos Beltran all nearly hit .300. Beltran, Dye, and Sweeney all drove in more than a hundred runs. They had the third-best team batting average in the league. Hitting was not the problem. The pitching staff was as putrid as a piece of week-old fish. The staff finished last in the American League in ERA, saves, runs and strikeouts.
The Royals’ opponent that Sunday was the Oakland A’s. Art Howe somehow managed to squeeze 87 wins out of a team that finished near the bottom of the league in most hitting categories. They did lead the league in walks and finished fourth in runs scored, so maybe that Moneyball stuff does work. Jason Giambi was a bona fide star. John Jaha and Matt Stairs had career years and hit a lot of home runs. Other than a young Tim Hudson, their pitching staff was uninspiring.
The day was what you would expect in late July in Kansas City. Near 100 at game time and not a cloud in the sky. Fortunately, our seats were under the overhang on the first base side.
The Royals started Dan Reichert while the A’s countered with soon to be Royal Blake Stein. The teams traded runs in each of the first two innings before the A’s busted it open in the third. The A’s sent eight men to the plate against Reichert, tagging him for three runs on just one hit, a double by Stairs. The inning included three walks, a hit batsman, a wild pitch, and a passed ball. There’s got to be some kind of record in that half-inning of work. The Royals got it back in the bottom of the inning in a more conventional fashion, sending nine men to the plate. They tallied four hits and two walks, the big blow being a three-run home run by The Joker, Joe Randa. Stein retired to the showers after 87 pitches, having recorded only eight outs.
Reichert walked the first three batters he faced in the fourth, ending his day at 77 pitches. He recorded nine outs, gave up six walks and eight runs, and his ERA for the game ended at a nifty 20.00. Manager Tony Muser called on Brian Barber, who wasted little time in allowing a run-scoring sacrifice fly, reloaded the bases with another walk, then unloaded them when Jaha crushed what resembled a fastball, deep into the left field seats. Mr. Barber pulled himself together enough to get out of the fourth with the Royals trailing 10-5. Neither the A’s nor the Royals scored in the ffth. Barber went to the showers while Matt Whisenant came on. Baseball can be kind of a cruel game. Barber would make two more appearances in 1999, but after pitching two innings on August 1, his major league career was over at the age of 26. Strange things started happening in the sixth. Scott Pose, (remember him?) came on to replace Beltran. I don’t recall if Carlos hurt himself or if the heat finally got him.
Jaha cranked his second homer of the day in the sixth inning, to up the A’s lead to a seemingly insurmountable 11-5. There was some family discussion about leaving and heading to the hotel pool, but we gave the Royals one more at bat. Things kept getting interesting. Damon drew a walk. Carlos Febles singled. Pose hit a single, scoring Damon. Mike Sweeney ripped a double, scoring Febles and Pose. Now we got a party going on. 11-8, Oakland. My daughter was only 6 at the time. She and my mom fell victim to the heat in the seventh, retiring to the car, blasting the AC at full tilt. The heat was flat out brutal. The rest of us sucked it up and stayed. The score held until the bottom of the ninth.
Oakland brought on a guy named Billy Taylor to close things out. Jermaine Dye led off the inning with a solid double. Randa, still feeling it, blasted his second home run of the day to pull the Royals within one and send the remaining crowd into hysterics. Jeremy Giambi singled. Tim Spehr tried to bunt pinch-runner Jed Hansen over, but the bunt was an excellent one and Spehr beat it out.
Spehr was a great story. He was a hometown boy, born in Excelsior Springs. He had three stints with the Royals with 1999 being the last. His major league career ended after the 1999 season. His last hit in the bigs was a home run against Seattle on September 21. Spehr never had a ton of speed. He stole nine bases in eight seasons, so that tells you how good that bunt was. He never got caught stealing either, nine for nine.
Now the crowd was going nuts. Probably heat delirium. Muser, never one to go for the win, had Rey Sanchez bunt the runners over. This is just an insanely stupid move. Nobody out, runners on first and second, the crowd and your team going nuts…and you bunt one of your best hitters into a sure out. Sanchez could handle the bat. The man hit .294 in 1999 over 479 at-bats. Let. Him. Hit. After the Musered out, the A’s gave Johnny Damon an intentional pass. That brought Febles to the plate. He did what you would expect, looking at a third strike right down the middle. Bases loaded, two outs, down by one. Scott Pose came to the plate and bailed out Muser with a single to center. Hansen scored to tie it, but pinch-runner Steve Scarsone was thrown out at home in a close play to end the inning. The crowd was still going bananas.
Scott Service who came on in the eighth, set the A’s down in order in the tenth. The A’s brought in rookie Chad Harville. Sweeney greeted him with a sharp single. When Sweeney was healthy, he was some kind of hitter. This brought Jermaine Dye to the plate. Dye had finally turned into the player the Royals envisioned when they got him from Atlanta. He hit .294 with 27 home runs and 119 RBI in 1999. He would make his first All-Star team in 2000. Harville got two quick strikes on Dye before he tried to slip some cheese past him. The moment it came off the bat, I knew it was gone. So did the crowd. Every one of the 20,454 who were still in the stadium knew it too and were on their feet before the ball cleared the right field fence. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a crowd that loud before in my life. Royals 13, A’s 11. Just crazy. How often do the Royals ever rally from a six-run deficit to win?
It remains one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen. It was great that the Royals got the win on George Brett day. Afterwards, no one wanted to leave. A lot of the fans stood around talking about what had just happened. The stadium was buzzing. Even though we sat in the shade all day, four hours inside of a concrete bowl left all of us sunburned. Who were the heroes for the Royals? Dye of course, and Randa. Sweeney, Dye, and Giambi each had three hits. Randa drove in five. Damon drew four walks in the game! Four! Sal Perez got 150 at bats in 2020. You know how many times he drew a walk? Three. Service threw three innings of one-hit ball and stuck out five. Service was a big right-hander from Cincinnati. He made his debut as a 21-year-old in 1988 with the Phillies and pitched for 9 teams in 12 seasons with some of his best work coming in the three years he spent in Royals uniform.
Pose got two hits in three at-bats. Pose, from Davenport, Iowa, hit .285 in 86 games in 1999. He really looked like he might be a great 4th outfielder to complement the Royals Rushmore of Damon, Beltran, and Dye. Unfortunately, Pose was also already 32. He clocked 47 more games for Kansas City in 2000. He kicked around AAA for the next two seasons before retiring after the 2002 year. But on this day, he was the man.
It was one of the first games I took my children to, and the last game I ever attended with my parents. A lot of times we don’t recognize the significance of those things when they’re happening. Good memories.