George Brett and Ted Williams only have one thing in common
In his autobiography, "My Turn at Bat," Williams sneered that modern players doon't have those "real big, hard ugly calluses" that gave him such pride. Batting gloves, bah. Teddy Ballgame took batting practice until his mitts bled. He knew that an honest workman's hands bespoke his trade, and that a hitter's paws should look like the pads on a gorilla's feet.
Brett's got 'em. You'd need steel wool and a day's elbow grease to get down to the skin on his palms. His hands are the deeply stained orange-brown of pine tar, dirt and maybe a little tobacco juice rubbed in over a lifetime.
Those calluses are the outward sign of an inward rage to hit. On rare evenings when Brett has been held hitless in his first couple of at bats, his Kansas City teammates often hear a horrid smashing sound from the tunnel behind their dugout. It's just George beating a bat against a cement wall in frustrated fury.
Only in their raw, sometimes almost antisocial passion to compete are the patrician Williams and the grimy Brett truly the same.
Their theories of hitting, their style at the plate, their whole attitude toward the game, as well as their personalities, are nearly total opposites. In time, their only link may be that, since 1930, they are baseball's only two .400 hitters.
"When Williams got a hit, he gave everybody a lecture on how he did it," said Hal McRae of the Royals as Brett laughed. "When George gets a hit, he just says 'Gimme another one.'"
"Williams was cold-blooded. Scientific. George is hot-blooded."
"I remember that chart Williams made, showing what he thought his batting average was against pitches in every inch of the strike zone," interjected Brett, shaking his head. "I'd have no idea."
Where Williams was analytical -- whether batting, flying a fighter plane or building a better fishing rod -- Brett is a baseball child of instinct and enthusiasm. Because of that, this September's chase for .400 is, in some sense, unfair to Brett, and perhaps even unworthy of him.
Williams was always a creature of statistics, a man who divided baseball into the exalted occupation called hitting, and all the rest, which was pointless drudgery, and beneath him. Even that title -- "My Turn at Bat" -- implied that the rest of any game was superfluous. For him, the solo hunt for .400 -- just the Kid against those dastardly pitchers -- was a proper measure of the man, a heroic crusade full of solitary dignity.
By any candid comparison of career statistics, Williams was a better and a more powerful hitter than Brett. On the other hand, Brett is far more complete and entertaining total player than Williams ever was, or even wanted to be. If a general manager were given the luscious choice of picking either the Williams of '41 or the Brett of '80, he might have to think hard, wondering if he preferred self-centered genius or hard-nosed leadership. If Williams was always the stylish flyboy, then Brett is the first lieutenant leading the troops over the top. It is not necessary to have a preference between such contrasts. That is why there is an unpalatable perversity about measuring them on the same .400 scale.
When Rod Carew hit .388 in '77, it was appropriate that these two artists be balanced against each other. Carew was the purist of the place hit and the bunt; Williams was the art-for-art's sake purist of the well-struck pull hit.
But now we have a different situation. Brett, like Pete Rose, is an impurist of the best sort. In a sense, they are baseball cousins once removed. Hal McRae learned the game by emulating Rose when he was a young Red. Brett learned his style by overly copying McRae when Brett was a young Royal. Theirs is a philosophy that sees a player's skills in terms of function and team result.
"I'm a situation player," says Brett. "When the game isn't close, I have a hard time concentrating. When I go to the plate, I ask myself, 'What do we need. A sacrifice fly? A single to move a man from first-to-third? Do we need a home run to tie the game?'"
Williams was a one-man drama larger than most of the games in which his Red Sox played. He dominated the scene, separted himself from teammates and made no bones about being a prima donna. When he walked to the batting cage, at a moment of his own choosing, the seas parted, he took his cuts, and left when he was good and ready.
Brett is the melody running through a Royal victory. He doesn't dominate the game, but blends into it. You must study the action to discover everything he has contributed. Proud of his dirty uniform, bruises and abrasions, Brett is particularly pleased by his wild extra-base style of running since, like McRae and Rose, he has almost no true sprinter's speed. Brett is just added proof that, in baseball, intensity, adventourness and seasoned judgment can produce the same results as great talent.
Even Brett's father, who was a demon of a stage-door parent, admits that "I always overlooked George. I thought all three of his older brothers had more baseball quality." They probably did.
For those close to the game, Brett has been a half-appreciated treasure for six years. Just seven weeks ago, Royals public relations director Dean Vogelaar could say, "This is the first year that George has started to get the kind of national attention that you'd associate with one of the best players in the game." Now, Brett says, "In the last month, I've gotten more attention than I need, more than I want, and more than I deserve."
To see the true Brett, to see how much more than "a .400 hitter" he is, and to sense how irrevelant it is whether he finishes this season with a certain average, we must go back to a hot June day when few eyes were on him and he could be himself.
On a 96-degree day in Kansas City, Brett arrived at the ball park at 2 p.m. -- 5 1/2 hours before game time, and three hours before most of his mates. First, the ambidextrous Brett pitched batting practice left-handed to a few rusty scrubs who needed extra work and knew they'd be run out of the cage when the stars arrived. Then, Brett shagged their fly balls for another hour after his arm go tired. Williams came to the park early, too, working on those calluses, but he only took batting practice; he didn't pitch it. Next, Brett, who is determined to become a Gold Glove third baseman (and isn't far away), took extra ground balls at both shortstop and third base. After batting practice, Brett took infield with the regulars at third, then, when the subs had their infield, he played first base left-handed.
Oh, yes, he played the whole game that night and had three hits.
For this man to be the match head of a purely personal fire is something more than incongruous. It would not be true to Brett to call it ugly. Brett himself is enjoying most of the .400 hoopla and finds it valid. "I want to hit .400 more than anybody, even my father," he says. "By it's going to be drudgery. I'm going to make it fun."
Nevertheless, it does not seem fair to measure Brett by one skill. His highest contribution is an attitude toward the game, a sort of moral philosophy of how a ballplayer should act. Perhaps Brett epitomized his approach -- which is not to every taste -- in his '76 playoff brawl with Graig Nettles. Each tried to kick the other, as well as punch and gouge. Afterwrd, Brett said, "One thing impressed me about that fight. Thurman Munson was on top of me in the pile. My arms were pinned, so he put both his hands over my face so his teammates couldn't punch me."
While the aloof Williams with his spotless flannel uniform and the gregarious Brett with his filthy doubleknit uniform are sharp contrasts in personality and style of play, they are even more dramatically different as hitters.
The surest way to keep Brett from raising his .396 average above .400 would be for Williams to give him a hitting lesson. Then, the oddsmakers could move their line agianst Brett up from "6 to 1 against" to "off the board."
Almost everything Williams preached is anathema to Brett. Williams thought a "flat" swing was a chimera and sought an ever-so-slight uppercut. Brett wants an ever-so-slight downward chop.Williams stood still with his weight slightly back as he awaited a pitch. Brett moves constantly, searching for an "interior rhythm," while rocking his weight completely back in what he, and other Charlie Lau pupils, call "the launch position." Williams stepped directly forward into a pitch, or perhaps, opened his hips a little so he could "get out of his own way" and pull with authority.
Brett "charges the plate" by standing well off the dish, then stepping toward it as he swings so he actually hits across his body. If Brett used his hips the way Williams constantly preached, he might hit .000.
Williams' bat was vertical; Brett's is almost horizontal. Williams kept his hands free of his body; Brett's are locked in close to his shoulder. Williams never swung at a "bad" pitch, since the strike zone in the rule book and his own strike zone were nearly identical. Brett, who gets only a third of the walks Williams did, has his own strike zone and swings at what pleases him. While Williams was classic and motionless, Brett flutes his fingers on the bat.
Williams, the slugger of menace, was a statue of perfect form. Brett, the all-fields line-drive gap-hitter, stands in the box whirling his bat in an unobtrusive, yet constant circle like a small single-prop plane about to take off. Perhaps most important, while Williams built his own swing and created many of the ideas behind it, Brett had his notions handed to him by Lau. Williams developed a style to match his own almost superhuman eyesight, his height, leverage and power. Brett adopted a style Lau created with the average man in mind -- a technique that could help the mediocre ballplayer, like the kind Brett was in the minors, become a .300 hitter. Williams, in time of stress, could go back to his own drawing board. Brett must go back to the teacher. Only now, with Lau on the rival New York Yankees, he can't.
"I'd like to talk to Charlie," Brett said this week. "But you can't call up someone in your own league. Charlie used to look at me for one or two at bats, and he'd spot what I was doing wrong. Now, I may go a week or more before I figure it out for myself."
"Jeeeez, Brett," scoffs McRae, a fellow Lau protege and the one man who serves a swing doctor to Brett, "You haven't been in a slump in two years. You don't need a coach."
"I could use one right now," said Brett, who was four for 19 before a minor hand injury sidelined him Sunday and Monday. "I might be striding too soon, getting out in front. When I swing, I feel like I need a parachute on my bat to slow it down."
"I feel like Dr. Frankenstein watching his monster on the loose," says Lau.
But Lau also knows the problems. "Sooner or later, a flaw will creep into George's swing," Lau predicted six weeks ago, "and then he'll just be a garden-variety .320-hitting George Brett."
Like Williams more than a generation ago, Brett is trying to forestall that day. Neither he nor Williams was a .400 hitter.There is no such thing. There is only a great hitter who has swum out farther than he ever has before and then must tread water as long as his strength and luck can last.
Long ago, Williams analyzed his advantages and focused on two: his home ballpark, and an injury. Brett analyzes his edges and comes up with two: his home ball park and an injury.
Williams thought that Fenway Park, with its close wall in left, allowed him to "wait" better for pitches, since, if he swung late, he could still get a cheap fly ball hit off the Monster. The injury came in April and allowed him to miss about 50 early season plate appearances during the cold weather that he hated. For two weeks he either sat or pinch hit.
Brett, of course, loves AstroTurf, which is ideal for his slashng style. Of K.C.'s last 18 games, 15 are on the rug, a dozen of them at home, including the last six. Brett's injury -- a 30-day ankle ligament problem -- gave him a midseaon "vacation" and, more vital, lowered his plate appearances by 150 or more. That, any statistician will attest, helps a career .310-hitter stay in the deep water of .400 for a full, but shortened, season.
Brett thinks he has discovered two other edges. First, he is taking a page from Williams' book: walks. "Normally, it frustrates me to be pitched around,'" says Brett, who has never walked more than 55 times in a year, compared to Williams, who walked 145 times in the typical year of '41. "But now, walks are gravy. Every walk just means one more time at the plate that I'm still close to .400. The crowds boo when I'm walked. But they ought to cheer. As long as I'm close to .400, they're an ally," says Brett, who has walked 16 times in his last 15 games.
Brett's other advantage is purely psychological. Where Williams believed that there was a reason for everything, Brett is convinced that there is a mystical element to hitting. "One day, I wake up and I'm hot," says Brett. m"I can't explain it. When I'm like that, I get more hits in a shorter period of time than anybody in baseball. I once had three or more hits in six consecutive games (19-for-24). When I'm like that, I hit any pitch from any pitcher. I can't explain it and I don't try.
"As long as I'm anywhere close to .400, I know that can happen any day. Other people may give up on my chances, but I'll be the last to lose the faith."
For Williams, the closing days of '41 were ones of internal pressure. He walked the streets of Philadelphia long into the night before raising his average from .3995 to .406 in a closing-day doubleheader. A student of the record book, he knew exactly what he was doing and how much it meant. He had discussions with old .400-hitter Harry Heilmann and sought his advice.
For Brett, a simpler chap, this September is a chance for "fun" and no particular cause for internal stress. After all, he must know that a .400 average is only one partial measure of what he brings to his game and his team. aTold that is statistical line for '80 is almost identical to Heilmann's in '24, Brett gets a quizzical expression on his face.
"Who the hell is Harry Heilmann?" said George Brett.
In the end, that insouciance, that almost casual attitude toward a task that may be the most difficult in any team sport, may be Brett's greatest helper.
After all, he already has the only thing a .400-hitter really needs. He has the calluses.