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Jim Palmer, the premier Baltimore pitcher, stepped onto the mound last Thursday night and from this eminence observed the positioning of his outfielders before addressing himself to Kansas City's impertinent young batsman, George Brett. The great man's composure was obviously shaken when he spied the Orioles' rookie leftfielder, Andres Mora, playing shallow and well toward center as if Brett were the usual sort of left-handed pull hitter. Waving his arms like a Signal Corpsman, Palmer strode off the mound and toward the offending outfielder, directing Mora to a position closer to the foul line and considerably deeper. The poor kid obviously did not realize that Brett was an off-field hitter with power to left.
Now, with everyone in his proper place, Palmer returned to the business at hand. It was the first inning, the Royals' Tom Poquette was on third base, there was no score and one out. Palmer delivered a fast ball for strike one. Then, reasoning that Brett enjoyed crossing up the opposition by hitting inside pitches to left, he threw a hard slider in on the wrists. Brett pulled it neatly to right field, Poquette scored and the Royals moved into a lead they would not relinquish.
For all of his accumulated knowledge, Palmer had committed the blunder of trying to outsmart George Brett. Before his career has ended a decade or more from now, Brett, who is just 23, will have sent many such deep thinkers to the showers. Pitchers do not get rich matching wits with George Brett.
Brett led the American League in hits (195) and triples (13) in 1975 while batting .308. It was his second full season in the big leagues. He is a much better hitter this year. From May 8 through 13 he had six consecutive games in which he got three hits, possibly a major league record. The record is questionable because no listing for consecutive three-hit games could be located, a startling discovery in a game enslaved by statistics. From May 4 through 13 Brett averaged .605. His season's average has hovered around .350, a figure which, if he maintains it, could unseat Rod Carew as the league batting champion.
For a player so young and anxious, Brett is remarkably consistent. He has not gone more than two games in a row without a hit since May 1, 1975, and he hits all manner of pitches, from Nolan Ryan fastballs to Mike Cuellar slowballs. He has the speed (nine stolen bases) to beat out the slow rollers and to take the extra base, and the power to hit for distance: Normally he is content to "use the whole field," spraying hits indiscriminately to all corners and alleys. " George Brett does not have a definite weakness as a hitter," says his batting instructor and all-round guru, Charley Lau.
As a third baseman, however, Brett did have some weaknesses last year. He has never experienced any difficulty catching the ball. Like Brooks Robinson, he is ambidextrous, which Robinson believes is mainly responsible for his own fielding prowess. But Brett had a tendency last season to throw caught balls beyond their appointed destination at first base. He has applied himself sedulously to correcting that defect this year, so much so that Coach Chuck Hiller has felt obliged on occasion to advise him to ease up lest he wear himself down. The improvement in his fielding this year has been commensurate with the effort. Brett now has only half the errors he had at this point in 1975.
With his bat and his glove, Brett has been the driving force of a Kansas City team that has moved smartly into the lead in the American League West. The Royals top the league in most of the important offensive categories—team batting average, runs, hits, doubles, triples, sacrifice flies, total bases—except home runs. They are second in stolen bases.
First Baseman John Mayberry, who "gets hot when it gets hot," is expected to start moving at the summer solstice. He hinted at what the future will bring last week by cracking out three homers in two games against Detroit and Baltimore. In pitching, starters Doug Bird and Al Fitzmorris are, respectively, 7-1 and 7-2; Paul Splittorff emerged from an early-season slump with a shutout last Thursday; and Steve Busby, the staff ace, is only now regaining his form after a shoulder injury.