Clearly, what the Royals need most right now, at this very moment, is a leader, someone to lift them en masse out of the muck and mud of 1983 and back into dignity, prominence, success. Hi there, George Brett.
"I don't see myself as the team leader." Brett protests. "Frank White's been here as long as I have, and Hal McRae's the loud guy in the clubhouse." Maybe so, but Brett has the loudest bat and is surely capable of carrying the Royals all season. The good news for Kansas City is that Brett, now 30 years old, has been romping around training camp like an 18-year-old rookie.
"I've never felt more like playing than I do now," Brett says. "I used to hurry in real quick after practice, shower and head to the golf course. Now I get here at 8:30 a.m. and stay late. I've got a place with [catcher/utility man] John Wathan on the Caloosahatchee River, and he keeps me honest. My weight is up a bit [200 pounds to 204], but my body fat is down [10.1% to 9.6%]. I'm eating chicken, fish and salad and drinking water and iced tea. I just want to have a good year."
Brett says that last season's series of calamities, including his injury and subsequent poor average, hit him hard. "I thought about it all winter," he says. "I'd been off to my best start, and then I fell apart. My big thing had always been not to try hard, to try easy. The day after I hit the pine-tar homer on July 24, I struck out three times. Then I was trying to hit homers every time up because the team was slipping. I was lucky to bat .300 for the year."
For a time during the winter Brett thought he'd have to learn a new position in spring training; when Aikens became persona non grata to the K.C. management, Brett was mentioned as the obvious new first baseman, but the job now belongs to Balboni. Still, Brett was practicing at both first and third last week, taking grounder after grounder after grounder and working on his fancy footwork. That done one afternoon, Brett walked briskly to his home away from home: the batting machines.
"I take a lot of batting practice—about 200 swings a day," he said. "You have to. In March the pitchers are so far ahead of the batters they can try stuff on you. It's not batting practice but pitching practice. So I use the machines. We've got two new cages, and two of the best machines I've ever hit off."
With that, Brett walked into the cage. Whurrrp! The first pitch was in the dirt. Whurrrp! Same thing with the second pitch. And the third. And the fourth. Brett shook his head. "Give the machine a compliment," he said, "and see what it does to you."
Later, his cage time finished, Brett headed back to the clubhouse for an hour of physical therapy. First, he put an ice pack on his left shoulder, which has ached sporadically since he separated it in 1978. Then he underwent his daily schedule of heat, massage and exercise for the lower back. Brett has spondylolisthesis, a congenital back condition that affects the last lumbar vertebra. In addition to his broken left little toe and separated shoulder, he also has had bone chips in his right thumb, torn ligaments in his right ankle, tendinitis in his right wrist and a badly cut left knee, the result of a 1982 slide into second. But at least his famous hemorrhoids are a thing of the past. Last week Brett, who in 1980 hit .390, the highest average in baseball in 39 years, was saying, "I feel great, and I'd like to play another 10 years. The longer you're in the game, the more you'll miss it. My brother Ken got out of baseball two years ago after playing 12 years for nine teams...and he's still looking for work."
Says Wathan, whom Brett credits with keeping him on the straight and narrow this spring, "George is one of the most competitive people I've ever known." But how competitive can Brett and the Royals be with their new look?
The '84 outfield is an untested partnership of Davis, Morris and Sheridan, not Otis, Wilson and Martin. Beckwith, with a total of four major league starts in his five seasons with the Dodgers, has been asked to switch from middle relief to the starting rotation. Beckwith does arrive in K.C. with one number that leaps out of his stat sheet: 151 strikeouts in his 208 innings for the Dodgers. He feels that the Dodgers wasted his talent. "In 1980 I was supposed to go to Boston in a deal, but Fred Lynn and the Dodgers never came to terms," he says. "In 1981 Mickey Hatcher and I were going to the Cubs for Bill Buckner, but I had eye trouble and missed the whole season. My four years with the Dodgers were basically an apprenticeship. I was like a jockey doing his time before getting a good mount. Now it's time for me to prove I can ride."