Brett gets hurt so often because he plays with such reckless disregard for his well-being, and on artificial turf, at that. "He's a blue-collar player," says Royal vice-president Dean Vogelaar. Actually, he looks, even at 39, more like one of those kids you used to find playing in vacant lots, cap tilted back over crew-cut hair, dirt-stained pants, cocky bearing. Brett is a full-blown anachronism in a game that has grown increasingly mannered. He doesn't wear batting gloves (except in batting practice) and, in fact, deplores them. "I just can't get a feel of the bat with them," he says, "and yet you see kids come up to the plate now with gloves on both hands and two more in the back pocket." He chews tobacco. "The boss [Leslie] wants me to stop, and I will," he says, "after the season." He has never filed for free agency, content, despite occasional contract disputes, to remain with one team for the length of his career. And he shames younger men by running to first as if fleeing a holdup. An audible groan escaped from Royals Stadium patrons last week when after watching Brett all these years, they saw Seattle star Ken Griffey Jr. move down the line as if he were window shopping. They had been conditioned to expect better.
It is not without reason then that Brett is the most popular player in Kansas City baseball history and one of the most popular anywhere these past 20 years. He pretty much is Kansas City baseball, for that matter. "George, right now, is the only game in town," says McRae. When Brett comes to the plate, he is treated to a thunderous ovation. And when he bats for the last time in a game, the show is over and the fans head home. The crowd of 17,915 that turned out for the Sept. 24 game against the Mariners quickly became 915 when Brett, up for the last time, lined out leading off the eighth inning. Then again, there probably wouldn't have been 17,915 there in the first place if it hadn't been for Brett and his quest for 3,000 hits.
"He's made the end of the season seem not so drab and dreary," says manager McRae's son, Brian, the Royals' centerfielder, who finds it "weird" playing with a man who once baby-sat him. "When George gets to 3,000, we'll all be a part of it. I know I plan to tell my grandchildren about it."
Brett has been pretty much an offensive specialist the last several years. He switched from third base to first during the 1987 season, then, because of his recurring injuries, gradually devolved into a designated hitter. He has played only 18 games in the field this year. "Old third basemen become first basemen," he explains, "and old first basemen become designated hitters." Brett never did boast much of his fielding prowess. He joked a few years ago that he might become the first player ever to get 3,000 hits and make 1,000 errors. Actually, he has made only 292 errors, and, playing DH, he's not likely to make many more.
The fact is, for all of his disclaimers, he did develop into an excellent third baseman, a Gold Glove winner in 1985. Not that anybody noticed his glove in a year when he hit .335 with 108 runs scored, 112 batted in, 30 homers and 103 walks. It would consume the remaining pages of this publication to recount Brett's achievements at bat. Let it suffice, then, to say that he is the only man to win batting titles in three different decades (1976, 1980, 1990); that he has led the American League in one season or another in average, hits, total bases, doubles, triples, on-base percentage and slugging; and that only Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig have excelled in so many categories; that in averaging .390 in '80, he came closest to being baseball's first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941; and that by hitting .340 in 27 league playoff" games and .373 in 13 World Series games he confirmed McRae's contention that "he's the most dangerous clutch hitter in the game."
Because he plays home games in such a spacious ballpark, he hits comparatively few homers, but he makes most of them count—witness the mighty upper-deck shot off Goose Gossage in Yankee Stadium in the deciding game of the 1980 playoffs, the three off Catfish Hunter in the '78 playoffs and the two he hit in the pivotal third game of the 1985 playoffs against Toronto, which led to the Royals' only World Series title. His last home run, and the 298th of his career, was typically dramatic, an inside-the-park thriller against Chicago in Royals Stadium on Sept. 6.
Two more homers, of course, and he will have 300, and six more stolen bases will give him 200. Will he stay around long enough—another season, maybe—to round off those numbers? Brett is not yet saying. "After the season, I'm going to talk to some people about it. My wife. My brothers. Johnny Bench, who quit on top. Dan Quisenberry, who quit only two years ago. Some of my friends on the old Royals—Jamie Quirk, Bud Black. My good friend here in the clubhouse for the past nine years, [attendant] Joe Caronia. The ultimate decision will be mine, but I want to be sure of it. This has been an interesting year for me, with all that's happened. I've had a lot to think about."
It's not that he's unwanted. "You just don't replace a George Brett," says general manager Herk Robinson.
"I'd love to see him back," says catcher Macfarlane. "The guy inspires me every day."
The fans obviously still adore him. And the media will sorely regret the retirement of one of the most gracious and intelligent interviewees in all of sports. Before the Sept. 24 game at Royals Stadium, a television sportscaster was reviewing Brett's long career with him, reliving heroic moments of the past. In time, the recitation began to sound suspiciously like a eulogy. This was not lost on Brett.