Instead of being a national hero, Brett settled for being a honky-tonk hero. Ken Brett, that is.
Now, he sits in the Kansas City Royals locker room -- a journeyman left-hander who has been traded six times, released outright three times and pitched for 10 major league teams. He has the mind, memories and attitude of the oldest veteran. "I face the facts," he says. "I lost it. I was out of a job. And there's no conclusive proof that I've found it again."
Ken Brett's face is beginning to show the creases of his travels and adventures. He feels and acts baseball-old. After all, he was on a major league roster at age 18, pitched twice in the World Series when he was 19, set a major league record for pitchers by homering in four consecutive games when he was 24, and won the All-Star Game for the National League at 25.
Now, he is ancient and washed up and knows it. He is 31.
He looks across the locker room at his baby brother George, who has always been almost as handsome, charming, talented and blessed in the barroom virtues as he. But not quite. That is why Ken Brett calls his kid brother "Boomer," just to remind the runt that in a home run hitting contest it would always be Ken Brett, not George, who would win.
"I was always a better hitter than George. Still am," says Ken Brett.
He isn't joking. All the battling Bretts -- the tough father and his four tough sons, all born in different towns as the family moved west -- knew that Ken would go furthest in baseball. He was the gifted one.
"I had the good tailing fast ball, and a sharp slider," says Ken Brett, who won 13 games three seasons, but never got over the hump to greatness and now has the mediocre career record of 82-84. "I pitched all the hitters the same way. I dictated to them. That is. I did when I was going good. I never developed a good, big breaking ball."
Or a good change-up. Or a knack for varying speeds. Or . . .
But don't blame Ken Brett. He had to uphold a Family Tradition -- the kind Hank Williams Jr. sings about in the lyric, "So, if I get drunk and howl all night long, it's just a Family Tradition."
Jack Brett, the successful patriarch, says with casual pride in his successful, hard-driving sons, "I've been to the police station for every one of 'em." Heck, even growing up never gets rid of all the fire in the eye. On Thanksgiving '74, George and John -- the youngest and oldest -- got into it outside a bar in their home town of El Segundo (Calif.) and ended up handcuffed in jail. And George was in the majors then.Happy Thanksgiving, pap.
"All the Bretts looked alike and acted alike," says neighbor and longtime friend Scott McGregor of Baltimore. "They were all kind of wild and crazy. They'd get in fights and just beat the crap out of each other."
"It was fun," says George Brett now, "but sometimes it did get a little scary."
What about McGregor, telling tales out of school?
"Oh, Scott's like his whole family," says George Brett with a grin. "The McGregors are a dull family."
The Bretts burn with a brighter flame. Sometimes they get singed. Sometimes, like Ken, they burn the candle at both ends and flare out too soon. And sometimes, as in George's case, they achieve the focused white heat of a blowtorch where the wild streak is just a release and not an obsession.
Perhaps the burden of Family Tradition has weighed lightest on the youngest because he couldn't possibly surpass the shenanigans of his elders, and because, perhaps, he saw the pitfalls of too much of what he calls "finding out what being 22 years old is all about." In short, George is the Brett who grew up. Not too much, mind you. But enough to construct, rather than self-destruct. He's still got plenty of temper, and his ballfield grooming tends to be just a bit menacing and shaggy. Still, he has only charged the pitcher's mound once this year. Brett has moved out of the ritzy house he shared with bachelors Clint Hurdle and Jamie Quirk, and which he described as "like Halloween every night." But he still leaves the Royal clubhouse -- hair slicked back in a wet mane, wearing T-shirt, jeans and gray cowboy boots with hand-tooled crimson hearts -- looking like James Dean with muscles as he hops into his orange Mercedes and heads for his private mansion.
Even though Brett has just signed a multiyear contract for $1 million or more dollars a season, even though he is the hottest media figure in sports, anyone who knows him senses that what he really enjoys is a six pack and a game of hearts with a few friends, or a game of stickball in the clubhouse during a rain delay. At 27, nothing pleases him more than pitching batting practice, unless it is taking batting practice. Unlike brother Ken, who has always been proud of being a controversial and borderline-defiant flake, George has a knack for saying the soft, appealing thing. Ask George what he thought of President Jimmy Carter jumping on his bandwagon for a day of self-serving vote gathering, and Brett says, "I think it's great when the president of the United States knows your batting average."
For George Brett, the .400 chase may have come at the right time. He still has the fierce, hard drive instilled by the father whom he says, "I used to hate, but now I appreciate." On the other hand, he has mellowed enough, become his own man enough, to accept the pressures and inhibitions attendant on becoming a national big event. That isn't part of the Family Tradition. But it's part of George Brett.
Normally, baseball is a confrontation between pitcher and hitter. But, now, Brett has to succeed in an equally difficult matchup: personality versus pressure. From Texas to Milwaukee to Cleveland to California, Brett is baseball's King Tut exhibit. Stand in line, folks. Bring your Instamatics. You're not going to have this chance again. It might help Brett if he were mummified. His biggest problem for the rest of this season isn't going to be hitting .400, but living .400. He is suddenly the one-man center ring of a circus in which sport is distinctly secondary.
As Brett came to bat in Cleveland recently, The Chicken put the entire pursuit of .400 into a pantomime perspective. As Brett approached the plate, the feathered mascot (formerly of San Diego, but now on the open market at $5,000 a game) fell to his knees and began bowing, as though toward Mecca. Then, as Brett began his ritual fidgets in the batter's box, the fowl began biting his nails and trembling with mock fear. Finally, when Brett ripped the first pitch into the right field corner for a stand-up double, the Chicken led the crowd in polite applause, cocking his head from side to side as though appreciating something he never thought he would see and never expected to see again.
That night with the Chicken was a good example of how Brett has to adjust to the constant discovery that no aspect of hitting .400 is quite what he expected.
"I'm looking forward to the Chicken," said Brett, the night before the jester arrived. "He's a funny guy."
However, that was before he realized he would be the centerpiece of the vaudevillian's act. Probably, he should have known. "The Chicken," pronounced Brett, after going one for four during the animal's antics, "is a pain . . ."
Brett is feeling new pains and pleasures and figuring out how to cope as he goes. "In Texas, when I went zero for three to end my (30-game hitting) streak and let a grounder go through my legs, the people gave me an ovation until I had to come out of the dugout," says a laughing Brett. "For a while, I wouldn't do it because (Texas') John Matlack was working on a shutout in the ninth. I think it bothered him, because he got knocked out. After the game, Matlack said, 'The hell with George Brett.'
"I know exactly how he felt," said Brett. "Nobody interviews anybody on this team except me, ever even if I've had a nothing night. And we've got a dozen guys on this team having great years who deserve attention."
As though on cue, the Royals Willie Wilson and Hurdle got into an across-the-locker-room discussion of why everybody was talking to Brett and no one was interviewing the heroes of the game. "Well," said Hurdle, who is part Cherokee, "you know they're not going to talk to any blacks or Indians." p
Brett winced. Here was a bit too much of the salt of truth, especially with all the open ego wounds that abound in any clubhouse.
Brett was asked if the worst thing that could come out of his .400 chase might be the damaging of the camara deire between him and his teammates.
"You got," he said.
"George is getting the short fuse because he's been hounded so much," said Ken Brett, who, while not his brother's keeper, is at least watching for warning signs of trouble.
Brett's teammates try to defuse the situation with the usual needles. "We don't treat George as anybody special." says Duke Wathan. "We just go over in front of his locker after every game and how down before him."
"Actually, the media has been bery sympathetic to George's problems," says Manager Jim Frey. "Almost every reporter who comes to talk to George starts off by saying the same, 'I apologize for being here.'
"They really hate to think that they might be part of the problem. But where else are they supposed to be? only person who has a job to do."
"He knows that instead of trying to escape the spotlight, he should take pleasure in being in it, 'cause it'll go away quick enough."
George Brett only has to look across the room at his brother, the hero after whom he modeled himself as a boy, to know the truth of that.
Last Sunday, Ken Brett, who had five shutout innings in his first three relief outings as a Royal, faced Cleveland with two men on base.He walked the first batter to load the bases, then hit the next to force in a run. He got the quick hook. Afterward, he sat in front of his locker -- over which he had pasted baseball bubble gum card of his hero, George Brett -- and said, "I appreciate everything about baseball a lot more now. I was in the World Series one month after my 19th birthday. I didn't evenknow where I was. If we could make it to the Series this year and I could work a couple of innings and George could hit one. . . wouldn't that be something?"
Ken Brett, the brother with the looks and the talent, the man who has been with 10 big league teams, gave a quiet, mellow smile. His flame has finally switched to low pilot. He has learned to face facts.
"People think I'm here to have a mature influence on George," said Ken Brett with the sly smile of a fellow who is unaccustomed to hearing himself referred to as a "good influence."
"George doesn't need me. He's been grown up for a long time.
"If anything," said Ken, "I just hope I'm not a hindrance to him.