You’ve got to give the Kansas City Royals credit: Just when frustrated fans were gathering for an attack on the bastion at One Royal Way (Kauffman Stadium), the team made the boldest, most awe-inspiring move in its history by persuading George Brett to take up a place in the team’s dugout.
As soon as I heard the news on sports-talk radio yesterday, I excitedly pulled out my cell phone and called my wife Patty. Of course, being a working woman who is supporting me in retirement and blogging, she didn’t pick up. That dulled my excitement just a touch.
But the prospect of the greatest Royal of all time — ever loquacious and ever pumped up — putting down his golf clubs, grabbing his chewing tobacco and heading to the clubhouse was absolutely thrilling to me. I was there (at least I think I was) the August night in 1980 when Brett stood on second base, having just reached the .400 hitting plateau — arms raised, helmet in hand, basking in the standing ovation being extended by enthralled fans at Kauffman Stadium.
I was watching on TV when he came up to bat — the most memorable Royals at-bat of all time, in my opinion — against the Yankees’ flame-throwing reliever Goose Gossage in the 1980 American League playoffs and, unbelievably, smashed a home run to right field on a high, inside fastball that was traveling about 1,000 miles an hour.
So, when I heard that George was returning to the dugout, it was clear that this was something really special, something that could make all fans feel good again, even though the team had lost eight straight games and 19 of its last 23 going into last night’s game against the Cardinals in St. Louis.
…Allow me to digress her for just a moment. I hate the Cardinals and I don’t much like St. Louis because of the Cardinals. When I was growing up in Louisville, KY, they almost always beat my beloved (at the time) Cincinnati Reds, since moving to Kansas City in 1969, I’ve had to watch our cross-state rivals win pennants and world championships several times, while we wallowed in the post-1985 ineptitude and frustration of our Royals. I console myself by saying it’s easy to be a Cardinals fan, but it makes you tough being a Royals fan. We have true grit!
The lead-up to last night’s (and this morning’s) game was fascinating and fixating.
At a press conference, Brett explained why he decided to accept the challenge now of becoming the Royals interim hitting coach:
“This thing has been offered to me before, but my kids were young. I had three young boys. I retired from baseball. Right now, I have two kids in college, and one is a senior in high school. I’m not missing them growing up any more. It’s summer time, and it’s time for me to go to work.”
Summer and baseball called…and he answered. How can you resist a guy that thinks like that?
Later in the afternoon, there he was standing beside Billy Butler outside the cage at batting practice; there he was joyfully and playfully embracing every Royal he happened across as the team went through warm-ups; and, finally, just before the game, there he was in the dugout, chewing that cud and wearing a look of steely determination.
He still looks every bit the part of a baseball player, just worn and weathered at age 60, but rugged and intent. Did I mention that look in the eyes? “Get outta my way,” it screams, “because I’m comin’ through you if you don’t!”
Fast forward to the top of the ninth inning…Royals down 2 to 1; Cardinals apparently pretty sure the Royals don’t have a win in them. So sure that they send out a relief pitcher with an earned run average of more than 10 runs per nine innings. But the Cardinals must have forgotten that George Brett was in the dugout and they must not have paid any attention to the fact that Brett had spent a lot of time during the game talking to right fielder Jeff Francoeur, a clubhouse leader but who has been keenly disappointing at the plate the last two years.
On the second pitch, Francoeur drilled a ball deep to left — gone! a few feet over the wall, enough to tie the game.
A camera homed in on Brett, who was standing at the top of the dugout, holding onto the protective netting. You could read his lips. “YES!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, neck muscles bulging and that protruding in his cheek.
As most everyone in KC now knows, the Royals went on to win the game 4-2 after a long rain delay. The game ended at 3:14 a.m.
They long wait didn’t bother the Royals at all. They were on Cloud 9.
“There’s not a person in here who cares that it’s 3:30 in the morning,” Francouer said in the locker room. “It feels like 10 o’clock for us.”
And as far as we fans were concerned, Brett was back, the Royals had won, and summer lay ahead in Kansas City.