It is 5 o'clock on the evening of the opening game of the World Series, and George Brett, the Royals' third baseman, has just completed an interview for television. All he wants now is what every Little Leaguer wants as he scurries out of the station wagon, what every semipro player wants when he finishes lacing his cleats, what every son wants when he drags Dad out to the backyard.
He wants to play catch.
"I'm gonna play catch now," he says with an air of pronunciamento to another TV reporter, striding purposefully on his thick legs across the green plastic scouring pad that Monsanto calls grass. The reporter, as reporters do, sticks with him.
"I got a game," Brett says, with more than a little steel in his voice. "I wanna play catch. I don't wanna just go camera camera camera."
George Brett loves to play baseball, as much as anyone loves to watch him play baseball. Forget all those statistics -- it's fun: go to the ballyard, play catch, play ball.
But in his heart he knows that this is the World Series, not just a game, not even just a big game. That his own heroism, like some mad billionaire at Binion's, has just doubled the ante and drawn another card. That he is at the center of a drama that is a version of the historic American drama: the old struggle between weakness and honor.
"Hey George, how you gonna swing?" asks Royals utility outfielder Lynn Jones, loosening up with a bat, annoyed that yet another reporter has gotten in the way. "These people keep moving in closer to ya."
"Hit 'em in the head," Brett says.
There are ghosts afoot here.
During the Civil War, Missouri (pronounced muh-ZUR-ah) was a border state -- 109,000 of its sons fought for the Union, 30,000 for the Confederacy. West Virginia was a border state, too, going with the Union. Thirty-two years ago, George Brett was born there, in a town called Moundsville, which houses the state prison.
Honor was not an abstract idea in the border states, the way it could be in, say, Massachusetts; it came hard, and you can see the strain of it to this day in the faces of their sons, a certain flat sheen of haunted integrity. You could see it in the face of Jerry West, "The Zeke From Cabin Creek," another West Virginian hero who struggled, and failed, to complete his myth. And you can see it in the face of George Brett.
As the World Series divides Missouri in half, as friends and former teammates battle each other, as George Brett faces off against Whitey Herzog, the man who introduced him to the pleasures of quail hunting, these seven games seem like simply an athletic contest between players with different uniforms, between fans with competing loyalties. But the ghosts are battling, too. Here, once again on the field of blood -- a hit-and-run guerrilla army of slap-hitters and base stealers pitted against one good man.
The Man from Moundsville.
"If I was gonna pick a guy to play for me, outside of a pitcher, I'd pick George Brett," says Mickey Mantle. Ask Stan Musial who Brett most reminds him of:
This is the Fall Classic, and Brett is its Autumnal Avatar -- the complete ballplayer, "a manager's player," in manager Dick Howser's phrase of praise. Since the days when Brett the third baseman was best known for his rocket throws to the first base boxes, he has developed into an impressive, if somewhat error-prone, third baseman, even a Gold Glove candidate. No speed merchant (he stole only nine bases this year), he's respected nevertheless as a cagey and aggressive base runner.
But it is as a hitter -- "the ultimate hitter," says Carl Yastrzemski -- that George Brett enters the realm of the ineffable.
Watch him hit: left-handed, his weight resting on the back foot tucked into the farthest corner of the batter's box, bat held way back; striding into the plate, head tucked in, eyes following the ball into the bat -- the swing that fabled batting coach Charlie Lau taught him.
But a swing performed with a fluidity, an imperial confidence, that no batting coach can teach. In batting practice, he makes everyone else's licks look like so much hacking and hewing. He's Errol Flynn, and everyone else is Conan the Barbarian. It took him hours of batting practice, of analyzing videotapes, of working with Lau. But not since Joe DiMaggio has anyone made hitting a baseball seem so effortless.
There's a "book" on every hitter in baseball: pitches they like to hit, pitches they can't hit. Jam Reggie Jackson with fast balls up and in -- "pitch him in his kitchen." Get Willie McGee fishing for bad breaking balls down and inside. Even Ted Williams could make a chart of the strike zone citing the variations in his batting average at each possible location.
The closest anyone has come to a book on Brett is California Angels Manager Gene Mauch's "keep the ball down and he might hit it hard; get the ball up and he will hit it hard."
"George looks for the ball and hits," says former National League batting champion Joe Torre. "I talked to him this summer about it. I said, 'Do you look for pitches away or pitches in?' He said, 'I just look for the ball.' He doesn't care who's out there or what they're throwing."
He hits for average (.335 this year) and he hits with power (38 doubles, 30 home runs).
But most of all, he hits when he has to. So you think the "clutch hitter" is a myth? Tell it to Brett. His slugging percentage -- bases-on-hits to at-bats -- in postseason play is around an astonishing .700.
At the end of the season, the Royals were neck and neck with the California Angels, and played a series against them; Brett went on a tear. In the play-offs, the Royals were down 2-0 to the Toronto Blue Jays; in the third game, Brett went four-for-four, with two home runs, to reverse the tide.
That four-for-four, by the way, came off four different pitches: fast ball, slider, curve, fork ball. There is no "book" on The Man From Moundsville.
What is merely personal about Brett? He is 32, 6 feet tall and 193 pounds; lives on a lake in Kansas; drives an orange Mercedes and a Bronco; likes Mexican food, hates champagne. He has lately learned pinochle and "is improving," according to bullpen coach Jim Schaffer, his mentor in this lively art. He golfs (in the 80s), fishes and hunts quail. He endorses Gillette razors (nationally) and Vess soda (locally).
Besides his hitting, Brett is best known for the infamous Pine Tar Incident, in which his home run against the New York Yankees was negated, then restored, because he had rubbed the resin on his bat above the 18-inch mark allowed by the rules. And for a spectacular case of hemorrhoids that pulled him out of the second game of the 1980 World Series. (He came back in the next game, surgically restored, and hit a home run.)
In the area around Kansas City, he enjoys a regard halfway between love and awe. "I grew up around here," says baseball maven and fellow Kansan Bill James, "and we never had a player of such quality. New York had Mickey Mantle and St. Louis had Stan Musial, and our best player was Manny Jimenez. It's a real privilege to have a player of this quality to watch."
He is generally good with the press, both articulate and available (although he once swung a crutch at a photographer's head).
He appeared at the wedding of his friend and former teammate Buck Martinez wearing a tuxedo, formal shirt and bow tie, black shoes and sanitary baseball socks.
Brett grew up the youngest of four bumptious, even belligerent, baseball-playing brothers, of whom he was thought to be the least talented; his brother Ken pitched two games in the World Series for the Boston Red Sox when he was 19 and went on to fame as "the most traded player in baseball" in a Lite beer ad.
They grew up in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and that, some say, is all you need to know about him: Brett the Hermosa Beach Boy, good-natured and easygoing, fun fun fun till Daddy took the T-bird away.
It's all there in those California good looks -- blond, blue-eyed and athletic -- that have given him an extensive reputation here as a ladies' man; he was long the favorite victim of Morganna, the "Kissing Bandit."
Maybe this is how Brett is at other times. But the World Series makes the personal irrelevant. Who cares if Ulysses wore baseball socks when he met with the Sirens? Who cares if the Deerslayer drove an orange Mercedes?
Look at Brett now, and you see no surfer man-child. There is a glittering opaqueness in the eyes, a rigid set to the jaw, force in the chin -- everything chiseled.
What those who see Brett as a California kid could never explain is why Brett, who could have gone anywhere in his free agency, would choose to settle and play here: to live in what was once known as "Bleeding Kansas," to work around the Civil War's celebrated battlefields. Could it be something as intangible as history?
Baseball is, of course, a team sport. Even in that pivotal third game against Toronto, the Royals still would have lost if it hadn't been for Jim Sundberg's home run, Steve Balboni's squib single, Steve Farr's four innings of shutout ball. But to an extent unmatched in recent series, the Royals' offense depends on Brett to score runs and knock them in, to start rallies and keep them rallying.
Without George Brett, the Royals' lineup is like a parody of the Red Sox: low-average power hitters, but who don't hit that many home runs, either.
With him, they won a pennant.
"He's to Kansas City what Willie Mays was to the Giants," says former Giants manager Bill Rigney. "Everyone leans on him, not directly but indirectly. They depend on him to do the right thing at the right time."
He is The Franchise.
Plug in the right numbers for football teams and you can determine the outcome with reasonable regularity, as any hardworking bettor can tell you. Not so baseball, least of all in the World Series. Where are the Blue Jays, with all the best numbers in baseball? Where did Mets manager Davey Johnson get with his computer? And where are the Royals, 30-1 shots last June?
More than anything, postseason play is a test not of a team's ability, but of its character. That's why Los Angeles Lakers guard Jerry West, always bested by Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, remained unfulfilled.
And in this case, the character in question belongs to George Brett. For him, what is usually a shared burden has become a private crucible. Defeat will mean personal failure; and success could be worse -- a myth so large as to be monstrous.
How to share that crucible?
Try thinking of Game One in these terms. The Cardinal starter, John Tudor, has less than his best stuff. Yet in the first inning, he has Brett swinging lackadaisically at a fast ball tailing off the plate for strike three (Brett stuck out only 49 times this year).
"I just want to hit," George Brett says to himself. And The Man from Moundsville says: Make them help you.
In the third, Brett goes with another outside pitch, grounds to short, legs it out for an infield single; in the sixth, he pops up weakly to second.
I am not going to do it. You guys have to do it.
And for a while, it seems like they will, indeed, do it without Brett. They score a quick run in the second when Balboni pulls a hard single to left, scoring Sundberg; the rally dies when Buddy Biancalana "bunts through" (i.e. misses the ball) on a suicide squeeze. It seems that way again in the fourth, when they have Sundberg on third with one out; he tries to tag up on a shallow foul to left, and gets nailed at the plate with 10 feet to spare. And again, in the seventh, when the bases are loaded, without Brett loading them; but Willie Wilson flies out on the first pitch.
What a gamble! The hubris of it! He had tried to get them to carry themselves, knowing that if worse came to worst, he'd be up again in the eighth. Well, it didn't work, so Brett comes up in the eighth, and sure enough, reliever Todd Worrell twirls a fastball right into his wheelhouse. The stride to the plate, the swift, majestic downward swoop of the shoulder, the crack of the bat.
Worrell is sure it's out of the park.
Brett begins his home run trot.
Andy Van Slyke catches it at the wall.
He has failed, failed to galvanize the Royals by his abdication, failed by a few feet to make up for it in the end. At the moment of truth, he was deserted by The Man From Moundsville.
What will come? George Brett has more records than his trophy room could house; he is almost a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. But records are nothing against facing a test of character, and succeeding. Nothing, that is, for a man from a border state.
Jerry West has always lived with the knowledge that the high point in his life eluded him. In the next week, George Brett must decide whether he will live with failure, accept it.
Or whether he will succeed, and live with what might be so much harder -- a personal myth of historic dimension and airless height. Whether he will live with The Man From Moundsville.
The first hint of the future comes during the fourth inning of the second game. There's no score -- the Royals' peerless junkballer, Charlie Leibrandt, has seen to that. Willie Wilson leads of with a single.
And then the crowd erupts with anticipation. And the scoreboard chants "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" And George Brett steps into the box.
He takes a strike.
And then the sign goes out: hit and run. The routineness of the play, the comfort of Wilson's speed, seems to relax something inside Brett. Danny Cox hangs a sinker and Brett unwinds a long, luxurious double down the right field line, scoring Wilson. Two pitches later, Frank White, who came to the Royals with Brett a dozen years ago, doubles him in.
And George Brett's ring finger, which bears two league championship rings but no World Series ring, begins to chafe.
But the next hint comes in the eighth. Brett takes a big cut at the first pitch, misses. Takes a called second strike. He's swinging like Roger Maris, swinging for the Denny's sign out past the highway over the right field wall. Strike three. Swinging with a myth on his shoulders.