"The way George Brett is hitting right now, God could have him down no balls and two strikes and he'd get a hit." -- Umpire Steve Palmero
"I wouldn't go that far. If the Lord was up 0-2, He might get George out . . . but God better hit the black." -- Hal McRae, Kansas City Royals
When George Brett stepped to the plate in Yankee Stadium Friday night, he hit the first pitch he saw into the upper deck in right field for a home run.
"Hello, Yankee Stadium," Brett said to himself. "I'm sorry I missed you the first time around."
When the Kansas City Royals made their other trip of the season to New York in May, Brett was banged up as he often is because of his hellbent style of play. But last weekend, he had his one opportunity of the year to feast on his favorite park.
In his first seven at-bats, Yankee pitchers threw him seven strikes. Brett swung at every one. The result: one homer, two doubles, two singles, six RBI, a 420-foot fly out and a line drive out that almost knocked the second baseman's glove off.
Seven strikes. Seven swings. Seven rockets.
"It must be just like watching Stan Musial in his prime when the Brooklyn fans named him Stan the Man," Yankee Manager Dick Howser said. "I can't bear to watch him take batting practice, 'cause it's just like the game."
Brett batted .500 his New York weekend, with seven hits and nine RBI in 14 at-bats. He also had a walk, a sacrifice fly and a foul liner that missed being a homer by a foot. And he was robbed of two other doubles by running shoestring catches by the Yankees.
The 27-year-old third baseman sat by his locker after the dust had settled on a 101-degree afternoon he had capped with a bases-loaded double in his last at-bat.
"Man, am I hacked off," said Brett, hitting .376.
"I start off with four hits the first night, then I only get three the last two games," he said, earnestly shaking his blond locks. "I hate that scoreboard with your batting average in numbers 10 stories high. You can't help but look at it.
"It really bugged me when I came up and saw I'd dropped under .380.
"I'll just have to wake up tomorrow morning and tell myself first thing, 'I'm still hot.'"
No one else in baseball plays the whole game with the ravenous relish of George Brett. Throwing himself around in the dirt at the Hot Corner. Trying to annihilate a second baseman with a takeout slide. Or coming to the park early to shag flies for an hour for another hitter.
"He plays the game as tough as Frank Robinson. He has as much fun and is liked by people as much as Brooks Robinson," K.C. Manager Jim Frey said. "Nothing's work to him. You can't beat him to the ballpark. Being a ballplayer . . . he just enjoys the whole thing."
"He's Pete Rose, but with a lot more ability," said Hal McRae, a close friend of both.
But above all the things about baseball that make Brett's right-at-you blue eyes dance are one of his hitting tears. Nobody else alive can match them.
Brett can joke about his fielding, saying, "I wear this wrist band as a cushion for the balls that miss my glove . . . no, those aren't the bad hops. They are the good hops. The bad hops I miss entirely."
But he doesn't joke about the most important matter in his life: hitting well, and staying that way.
"When I get hot, I think I get more hits in a short time than anybody in the game today," said Brett, who had an American League record of three hits in six consecutive games in '76, going 19 for 25.
After the All-Star break, returning from a month's absence with torn ankle ligaments from a stolen-base slide, Brett went 23 for 40 (.575). The streak started in Baltimore where an Oriole pitcher said, "Not only can't we get him out, we can't even get ahead of him in the count."
By the time he arrived in New York, he was a mystic figure even among opposing players. Reggie Jackson, after taking his own prodigious batting practice, sat in a corner of the Yankee dugout as the Royals hit, rather than changing his sweat-soaked uniform. "Just wanna watch Brett," he said. "I've never seen a man hitting .570."
Later, Jackson approached Brett and said something.
'no, no," Brett answered sheepishly, "just quantity, not quality. Been getting a lot of cheap ones lately."
Sure, George. In Brett's last 100-at-bats, he has 51 hits, 79 total bases and 31 RBI.
"I've never seen George more grooved than he is right now," said the Yankees' hitting coach, Charlie Lau, who as the Royals' instructor, transformed Brett from a mediocre minor league punch-and-Judy into the third ALer in history (along with Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig) to win titles in batting average, hits, total bases, doubles and triples.
"George's head is absolutely still when he swings," Lau said. "His mechanics -- weight shift, bat flat -- are locked in. His concentration and his strike zone are absolutely disciplined.
"Sooner or later, a flaw will creep in. Just like with a golfer. He'll start to roll his hands over, instead of pushing squarely through the ball. Or he'll collapse his back leg. Then he'll just be a garden-variety .320-hitting George Brett.
"But right now, he has no weakness. The only person who can get George out is George."
"Every time up, Charlie's got his eyes glued to me," Brett said. "I know he's looking for a flaw. But I don't think he's putting the hex on me. He likes me too much. I really don't know what goes through his mind."
"I'm in a Yankee uniform now," Lau said. "I have mixed feelings. I know the little SOB loves to hit in front of me. God, he's played eight games against us this year and he's got 17 RBI (and a .500 average).
"I feel," Lau said, "like Dr. Frankenstein watching his monster on the loose."
Brett, at this moment, is monstrously fine to watch.
From the moment he steps into the box, he is in constant motion, searching for what Lau calls "an interior rhythm." Flutting his fingers on the bat handle to stay relaxed, testing his checkpoints as he rocks his weight back into the Lau "launch position," and whirling the bat in an unobtrusive yet constant circle like a great single-prop plane about to take off. Brett epitomizes the entire theory of hitting that other players call "changing the plate."
From a position well off the plate, with a slightly closed stance, Brett is so screwed into a trancelike concentration that every pitch -- even the fastest -- seems to come toward him in slow motion. The only time he fails to hit "a pea" is when he is so anxious for the visceral crunch of wood against ball that he is slightly ahead of reality and "gets out in front," so that he hits a solid fly ball out or wastes a foul-ball home run.
Others may hit the baseball further than Brett, but no one in the game hits it so hard so often. Last season, in a .329 year, Brett became the first player since Willie Mays in 1957 to have 20 doubles, triples and homers in a season (43 doubles, 20 triples, 23 homers).
This year, Brett, who will have enough at-bats by year's end to qualify for the batting title, unless he has another serious injury, leads all of baseball in average, slugging (.651) and on-base percentage (.443).
"The one knack that can't be taught is for RBI," Lau said. "George has developed it. He's the best 'situation' hitter in the league, like Munson used to be. He hits the ball where it hurts most at the moment in the game.
"It takes years for all the parts of a hitting theory to kick in," Lau said. "They have now for George."
"I've reduced all statistical indicators down to one thing," Brett said. "Runs produced. That's the stat."
Ironically, during his first five full years, that was the very statistic in which Brett fared least spectacularly. It was the number that kept him from being in the absolute top offensive echelon.
But last season, Brett produced 203 runs in 645 at-bats, fourth best in baseball. This year, Brett has 55 RBI and 85 runs produced in 216 at-bats, which is astronomical.
"My dad always told me I'd reach my peak between 27 and 29," Brett said, beaming.
Right now, Brett may well be at the peak of the peak.
With a tin of snuff in his hip pocket, tobacco in his jaw, tape on his bad ankle, padding on his wrist for the good hops, and grime all over his gloriously filthy uniform, Brett is in a white summer heat.
"George will sure enough mend your ERA," said Yankee left-hander Rudy May. "The only way to pitch him now is way inside, so you force him to pull the ball."
"That way," May explained, "the line drive won't hit you."