I wanna go home with the armadillo,

Good country music from Amarillo

And Abilene. -- Lyrics by Gary P. Nunn

BALTIMORE, Aug. 12 -- Perhaps Scotty McGregor, his boyhood friend, was the first to notice that the real George Brett had returned from exile.

At Sunday's All-Star game, Vice President George Bush walked through the American League dugout, shaking the hand of each standing player, receiving-line style. Behind Bush came Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

"As soon as the vice president got past Brett," McGregor recalled, "George said, real loudly, 'Well, here comes Bowie. We can sit down now.'

"And," testified the Baltimore 20-game winner, "half the dugout sat down."

Kansas City Manager Jim Frey also noticed the change in Brett immediately.

Frey didn't know that Brett's medicine had been Panhandle, Tex., a remote, off-the-map prairie town reserved for cows, horses, branding irons, rattlesnakes and horizon-to-horizon solitude. But he knew that somehow, some way, the best hitter in baseball had taken the cure. Brett had gone on the wagon from civilization and returned the better for it.

"George isn't up-tight anymore," Frey said. "He didn't touch a ball or bat for 50 days, and, I say, good! This is the same guy again.

"George hasn't relaxed for a year. He went through overwelming attention. They say once a player reaches a certain level, like (Ted) Williams or (Joe) DiMaggio, the only place they can relax and enjoy themselves is on the field. That's a shame.

"Brett was almost embarrassed by everything happening around him. He was just wore out with it," Frey said, sympathizing. "It hurts a player to realize he's never going to be able to enjoy the game like he did when he was 22. That's something the big player has to learn to live with."

The Royals' Hal McRae illustrates the Brett problem even more succinctly. "George loves to play cards and shoot the breeze in the clubhouse," McRae said. "For the last year, every time he has sat down to play hearts it hasn't taken five minutes before there was a line of people formed behind him, just waiting for him to finish so they could try to get something from him."

His winter offseason was a whirlwind -- he was in 12 cities in 18 days at one point -- that offered little respite to gather himself. In spring training, his hemorrhoid problem recurred, forcing surgery and generally weakening him. ("A real downer for George," Frey said.) As he was leaving the ballpark after a slide-into-home injury, Brett swatted a photographer with one of his crutches. Under the constant inquisition into his and his team's early season slump, Brett became boorish. After one frustrating defeat, he took a bat and smashed toilets in the Royal clubhouse.

Despite a .323 average, Brett's one homer and 13 RBI in his first 42 games were pathetic totals for a defending MVP.

As is often the case, Brett found himself by letting go and losing himself.

When the strike began, Brett declared himself on holiday. "I wasn't going to cheat myself," he said. "I figured it would end soon."

Brett started with racquetball and golf as his escapes, then gradually worked his way further and further from the baseball world. Sailing on Lake Quivera beside his home outside Kansas City was the first step.

Toward the end of the strike's first month, some link with baseball snapped. And he knew he was glad it had. "I gave up the season for lost and didn't give it another thought," Brett said.

The man who hit .390 last year decided it was time to start getting serious about making the transition from urban cowboy to real cowboy. For several years, Brett has worn jeans and snakeskin boots, chewed tobacco and worn feathered cowboy hats, done snuff and learned to ride horses.

But, as with so many young men, all this was mostly a romantic idyll, a daydream relief from the attraction and repression of a high pressure career that was both an enormous addictive success and a growing burden.

Brett headed to Panhandle for the strike's duration, staying with his family friend Mike Battle at the former NFL player's ranch.

"In Panhandle, which is about 30 miles outside Amarillo, there's a lot of horses, cattle, wheat and flat green grass as far as you can see," Brett said. "There's very little cement, no hills and a lot of good ol' country livin.

"To the people there, I was just another cowboy. I did some of everything. I rounded up cattle, branded 'em and gave 'em shots. I did everything except the castrating, and I'd have done that, too, but it wasn't the right time.

"I even tried to lasso a calf, but I almost roped my own horse.

"That's hard to do."

If there was a moment of catharsis for Brett, it came one day when he was on the furthest corner of the Battle spread. Yes, he was roundin' up dogies on a horse named Ol' Red.

"I'd been riding as fast as Ol' Red could go," Brett said, "and we finally stopped. We were both tired and the horse was just amblin' along. You know how their shoulders kind of roll from side to side. It was just beautiful and green in every direction.

"I leaned forward and crossed my hands on the saddle . . . no reins," said Brett, demonstrating how his wrists were crossed and his hands limp as he leaned. "For a minute, I felt like one of those old pictures of a cowboy resting and just looking out at everything.

"I said to myself, 'What the hell am I doing playing baseball? I could do this every day for the rest of my life.' "

Presumably, Brett, given time to consider the prospects of spending the next 40 years punching cattle and mending barbed wire, would have second thoughts.

However, the heart of the moment was that Brett realized a whole relaxed and natural world was available to him, any time he really needed it, where he could be just another decent cowboy alone on a horse on a Texas prairie.

Brett, however, is not looking for an escape hatch. It just does him good to know one's there. "Last year . . . trying to hit .400 . . . it was worth doing," he said. "It didn't feel like it was worth it at the time, but, later, you say, 'Aw, it wasn't that bad.'

"There's a lot of pleasure in there, too."

Some might say that Brett betrayed a trust, either to his team or his fans, by ignoring baseball for so long and returning to the game extremely rusty and a bit overweight. "I feel like a race car that's not tuned up yet," said Brett whose first seven poststrike at bats have been hitless.

Frey disagrees. "Last year, George came back from 30 days on the DL, took 10 minutes of batting practice, then doubled to left his second time up that night. The next night, he had three doubles and he hit .420 for the rest of the season (72 games).

"This year, he's had 10 days, not 10 minutes, of BP. George'll turn it around on one swing, then he'll be on fire.

"Maybe someday George'll be like Pete Rose, so at home with fame that the game's not like work, but like play again," Frey said. "I hope so, because Pete seems like almost the only star who's able to enjoy his own career the way a fan would."

One look at Brett's grinning, devilish face these days tells that he's on the right track. Just ask Bowie Kuhn.