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Enjoy a George Brett game

So many to pick from

Many people have said that their childhood hero was a ballplayer, guys like Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio. Sometimes you hear that athletes should be role models, an idea that NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley once rejected. I agree with Barkley. Athletes should set a good example, but your role models should be someone close to you, like your parents.

My favorite baseball player as a kid was Dirty Kurt Bevacqua, until George Brett happened on the scene. I liked Bevacqua because I could see myself in him, an undersized scrapper, always hustling, diving for loose balls, uniform always dirty, always fired up. Someone who was having a good time being a ballplayer. Of course, Brett ended up being the favorite player of millions of young men and women across the country. He was never my hero. My heroes were my mom and dad. I admired my parents for their work ethic. It didn’t matter if they were feeling ill or tired, they still got up in the morning and went to work. We didn’t have much but they always provided what was needed and usually set a good example for us. That’s hero stuff to me.

Brett on the other hand, was just an enjoyment. A superhero wearing a cape of blue, seemingly always stroking the big hit when it was needed. Modern baseball has become fixated on what’s called the three true outcomes: a strikeout, a walk or a homerun. Often, when watching a game, I find myself just longing for players who make contact. Put the ball in play. The Royals once had some success with that. Conga line baseball – keep the line moving. C’mon baby, let’s do the locomotion. There’s nothing wrong with singles and doubles. Triples? Hell yes, sign me up.

The triple is arguably the most exciting play in baseball. The Royals have always had a thing for the triple. Brett led the league in triples three times. Willie Wilson did it five times, including a club record 21 in 1985. Wilson could run like the wind, but he also made a lot of contact. He ended his career with over 2,200 hits. Then you have the strange 2019 season where three Royals, Adalberto Mondesi, Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier (Hunter Dozier?) tied for the lead league with 10 triples. Currently, the Royals lead the American League in triples and Bobby Witt Jr. sits atop the League with four three baggers. We’ll see if Junior can extend the Royals dominance in the triple category.

This past weekend, we went to see the Brewers and Twins Class A teams play. One new addition to the scoreboard was the number of strikeouts a batter has. The numbers were alarming. Nearly all players had strikeout rates of 25% or higher. Most were in the mid-30’s with the highest being a stunning 54%.

I didn’t see anyone who I thought was eventual big-league caliber, but that can change as players age and develop. A lot of the players were 23-24 years of age, which to me seems old for Class A. I came to the realization that the Royals aren’t the only team with problems on the farm.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Brett. Millions of words have been written about George, so I’ve mostly stayed away from writing about him. What else can be said that hasn’t been said already? But while suffering through this 2023 season, I often find myself looking back at some of the previous accomplishments of Sir George.

Take the night of April 20, 1983. The Royals were in Detroit, playing the Tigers in the tenth game of the young season. This was a very good and still ascending Tigers team. Jack Morris started that night. They also had Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammel, Kirk Gibson, Howard Johnson, Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon and a host of excellent role players. The Tigers would finish 1983 second in the East with 92 wins, behind a 98-win Baltimore team which would go on to win the World Series. This is essentially the same Detroit team that started the 1984 season by winning 35 of their first 40 games on their way to a 104-58 mark, crushing everyone in their path.

On this night though, it was all Brett. Number five got the Royals on the board in the first with a solo shot off Morris, deep into the right field stands of Tiger Stadium. Brett tacked on an RBI single in the third but got thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double. Morris finally got a measure of revenge, getting Brett on strikes to end the fifth.

Morris gave up a walk to Wilson and a single to UL Washington in the seventh, bringing Brett to the plate. Manager Sparky Anderson thought about bringing in a lefty reliever to face Brett but elected to stick with Morris. Brett made him pay by depositing a two-strike pitch deep into the right field stands.

That was enough for Anderson, who pulled Morris in favor of Aurelio Lopez.

The Royals led 6-to-1 going into the bottom of the seventh before starter Larry Gura and reliever Dan Quisenberry imploded. Gura started the inning like this: walk, single, single, single before manager Dick Howser went to the bullpen. Quisenberry didn’t fare much better, going error (Wilson), run scoring groundout, double, single, flyball and finally, mercifully, an inning ending groundout. That put the Royals in a 7-6 hole.

It stayed that way until the top of the ninth when Lopez gave up his first hit, a single by Wilson leading off the inning. Lopez got Washington on strikes bringing up Brett. Anderson thankfully decided to outsmart himself and brought in lefty reliever Howard Bailey. Managers love that lefty-lefty, righty-righty stuff. If you’re a good hitter, it doesn’t matter. You hit either one. And Brett was a great hitter. Bailey fell behind 2-0, which is the kiss of death for a pitcher, and Brett put the next one into the right field stands to give the Royals the lead. There were only 7,973 fans on hand, with it being a school night and a bone chilling 40-degrees and all, but they let Anderson have it, chanting “Sparky sucks”.

“I hear it, I’m not deaf. I’ve had it pretty good before, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had it that vulgar” said Anderson to the Detroit Free Press.

Quisenberry set the Tigers down in order in the ninth to secure the win. For Brett, it marked the third time in his career that he hit three home runs in a game, the first coming against the Yankees in the 1978 playoffs and the second coming on July 22, 1979, in a game at Texas. His seven RBI’s were a personal high and tied a club record shared with Willie Mays Aiken and Jerry Grote, of all people. Grote played in just 22 games for the Royals in 1981, but one of those games was a big one. Going back to Brett: just how clutch was he? He was Zalinsky clutch. In the decade of the 1970’s, in the 7th inning or later, when the team was tied, ahead by one or had the potential tying run on deck, Brett had the highest slash of all qualified hitters: .354/.421/537. And that wasn’t based on a small sample size. Brett came to the plate 614 times in that situation. And he delivered in the biggest moments.

Umpire Don Denkinger, who I wrote about a couple weeks ago, was on second base that night. Denkinger had an unusual knack for showing up in big Royal moments.

The win moved the Royals to 6-4, on their way to a 79-83 finish, which was good for second place in the Western division, behind the 99-win Chicago White Sox. Unbelievably, that White Sox team was managed by Tony LaRussa, who’s been around forever. That White Sox team had a magical summer. They had some boppers with Ron Kittle, Greg Luzinski, Carlton Fisk and Harold Baines. They also had a 28-year-old outfielder named Rusty Kuntz. Rusty had something of a charmed baseball life, and somehow found himself on the Tigers roster in 1984. On the mound for the Sox, LaMarr Hoyt, Richard Dotson and Floyd Bannister all had career years. Jerry Koosman, who won 222 games in his career, was their fifth starter. Sometimes a team gets constructed in a way where all the levers click and for one magical summer, everything works.

Royal fans enjoyed a lot of those summers when Brett was playing.