Brett was the youngest of four sons, all of whom played professional baseball. But only Ken, 31, a lefthanded pitcher who was released this spring by the Dodgers, and George made it to the big leagues. John, 33, is in the construction business, and Bob, 29, is in real estate. All three older brothers preceded George as star athletes at El Segundo High. "I was always being compared to one of them," George says. "When my brothers got to playing, it was sort of mandatory that I do it. My father—he's a director of finance for Datsun—backed us all the way. We got the best $40 gloves, although mine were hand-me-downs from Bobby and John. We were middle class. My father said we didn't have to get jobs in the summer. That was the time to enjoy yourself, he told us. I don't recall ever getting an allowance, but if I needed something, I got it. There was no stereo or TV in my room, but if I wanted $3 to go to the movies, I'd get it."
Ken—or "Kenner," as George calls him—was the family's first star. "He was the best thing ever to come out of my hometown," says George. "He was better than anyone in everything in high school—baseball, football, you name it. Hey, he pitched in the World Series for the Red Sox when he was 19. I saw him in Busch Stadium. I was only 14. What a thrill! At that time, he could really blow the ball. He'd come home, driving a GTO and pulling out a roll of $10 bills—there might have been only three or four, but it looked like a roll. I'd say, 'Look, he's got it made.' That's when I decided if there was anything I wanted to be, it was a ballplayer."
George was drafted by the Royals out of high school in 1971 as a shortstop, but he was switched to third base in his first season, at Billings, Mont. In 2½ years in the minors, he never hit .300. "I was strictly a pull hitter then," he says. "I went for the long ball. What else? In my high school it was 320 feet in the power alleys." In 1974, both he and McRae fell under the influence of the man who was to become their Svengali, Royal hitting instructor Charley Lau. Lau taught them patience at the plate. He taught them to go to the opposite field and to concentrate on hitting the ball where it was pitched. In time, Brett, the lefthand hitter, and McRae, the righty, became mirror images of each other at the plate. "We had the same stance," says Brett. "We did everything alike." In that year, McRae's average improved from .234 to .310 and by 1975 Brett had become a .300 hitter, finishing at .308. McRae had three successive .300-plus seasons, and Brett, whose career average is now .310, has dipped below .300 only once since '75—in the injury-riddled 1978 season when he hit .294.
There are those, notably Herzog, who contend that Lau's influence on Brett has not been entirely beneficial, that had Brett not concentrated so much on hitting the ball to the opposite field, he could have become a big home-run hitter. The 23 he had last year is his highest total, but Brett has not appreciably changed his batting style since Lau's departure to the Yankees two years ago. In Frey's opinion, Brett is simply getting stronger and the homers will come with ever-increasing frequency. It is not a pretty prospect for American League pitchers.
Brett learned something else in that pivotal 1974 season from watching McRae: "I could see him stretching singles into doubles, and I'd say, 'Hey, I can do that.' I'd never played that way in the minor leagues. I was lackadaisical. Now I don't think I can play any other way but all out. Baseball's no fun if you don't go out there and be...well...berserk, if that's the word. I enjoy the game so much because I'm putting so much into it. It makes you feel great inside when you're standing on second or third base knowing you've just stretched a hit. I'll bet if you took all the players in this game and had a race, you'd find I have just a little more than average speed. But I've led the league in triples three times and in doubles once. Seven or eight of my triples last year were really just doubles. I stretched them."
Frey has said that when Brett is incapacitated he tries not to think about his absence. And yet..."when we lose a one-run game, I find I have a tendency to say to myself that if George had been there we probably would have scratched out another run or two that would have meant the ball game," Frey says. "I might try to convince myself that maybe George would have had a bad two weeks if he'd been with us instead of being hurt. But I know that's not very darn likely, because this is a man who consistently gives his best day in and day out. There are no alibis and no excuses from him. There are some fellows who are outstanding players who go out and work at the game. They grind it out. George is like some kid in a schoolyard."
Stretched beneath a dying sun on the dock, Brett does not look like a human dynamo, a stretcher of doubles, a slugger of clutch homers, a wooer of Midwestern beauties. He looks like a Southern California kid bagging some rays. Actually, he is thinking about the cattle ranch he wants to own someday.
"Remember Mike Battle?" he inquires dreamily. "Used to play for the Jets. He's from El Segundo. Hung out with my brother, John. He's got a big ranch now in the Texas Panhandle. I go down there a lot. You can't even see the house of his closest neighbor. He got me interested in ranching. And Tony Adams? Used to play quarterback for the Chiefs. He's got a beautiful ranch with Dave Owen in Kansas. He's a professional calf roper. I go down to his place and help him out. I enjoy that kind of hard work. Now, the way it is, I ask myself what I've accomplished over the winter and I have to say, nothing. What did I do? I played some golf with my brothers in California and I went hunting. I need something more." He smiles. "Trouble is, I'd need a wife to help me run a ranch." He frowns. "But I don't see how you can love someone if you don't love yourself."
What's that? George Brett doesn't love himself? "Some days I hate myself," he says, rising from the chaise. "Like when I go 0 for 4." He pulls himself upright and limps off to the golf cart. The sun is setting. The evening, with all its promise, is ahead. And soon, very soon, there will be ball games to be played.
He is back in the Bronco again, rolling toward a restaurant in the Plaza section of Kansas City called the Granfalloon. This is one of those spots frequented by the city's singles crowd, of which George is virtually a charter member. Kansas City's singles seem appreciably younger than the nocturnal carnivores of, say, New York or San Francisco, where silver threads among the gold are not uncommon. It is likely that in K.C. no one stays single or swinging for very long. Brett is known by everyone in the Granfalloon. His arrival is cause for a sort of celebration. They are honored by his presence. He is tying into some chicken wings, a bacon-pineapple Swissburger and a succession of beers when a very young-looking woman disengages herself from the bar and approaches him.