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tk13
08-14-2005, 05:29 AM
http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/12378854.htm

The chase for .400

JOE POSNANSKI

The Kansas City Star


On a warm February evening in Arizona, George Brett, the last batter to wrestle with .400 through the heat of a full summer, stands in a hotel lobby fighting off mosquitoes and middle-aged men who wish they were him.

Brett knows this crowd. Brett is surrounded by fantasy baseball players, men who paid a few grand to put on Kansas City Royals uniforms, pull principal muscles and, most of all, hover around George Brett. They stand too close. Brett tells baseball stories. He tells drinking stories.

Then, he announces the secret of hitting a baseball.

“You gotta think about nothin’,” he says.

The men laugh. But George Brett is quite serious. He puts down his beer.

“You,” Brett says as he grabs some guy’s shoulder. “I got an experiment for you.” The hotel lobby buzzes. The doctors and lawyers who have autographed photos of Brett on their desks, the UPS drivers and police officers who worked overtime to pay for this, all move in closer.

“OK,” Brett says to the guy. “Now I want you to think of a number between one and five. At the same time, I want you to hold up a different number of fingers. Got it?”

“No,” the guy says. Chuckles slip out.

“Hey, I’m the one who’s drunk here,” Brett barks. The laughter snaps shut. “Think of a number and hold up a different number. Like think three, but hold up four fingers. Then do it again. And again. See how long you can do it.”

The guy nods. He shouts out “three,” and holds up two fingers. He shouts “one” and holds up five fingers. He shouts “four” and holds up four fingers …

“Wait! You said four and held up four,” Brett shouts. There is triumph in his voice. “You see what I’m talking about? You can’t say one thing and do another.”

He crouches into hitting position. “You can’t think about anything when you hit,” he says. “See? What do you think about when you’re in a slump? You think about where your hands should be, where your feet should be, how well you’re seeing the ball …”

As Brett talks, he leans way back on his left leg. He glares straight ahead, as if he’s trying to burn a hole through the chest of the injury attorney standing in front of him. “When you’re going bad,” he says, “you’ve got all the world’s problems on your mind. … But when you’re going good, your mind is blank.”

He wiggles his fingers, as if he’s playing his imaginary bat like a flute. “You have to think, ‘I’m going to hit this guy right here. I’m going to hit this ball right back at his head. This guy can’t get me out. Nobody can get me out.”

And then, in a sudden blast, Brett unleashes his swing, the swing, snapping his fingers shut, rushing all his weight forward, ripping his hands through the strike zone. He finishes by letting go of his imaginary bat with his right hand.

“All I’m sayin’ is ya gotta think ’bout nothin’,” Brett says loudly, as if he’s drunk again. Laughter. Applause. Brett picks up his beer again.

“What were you thinking about the year you almost hit .400?” someone asks Brett.

“Nothing,” Brett says, and now his voice quiets almost to a whisper. “Well, until the end. It was hard at the end. But that whole summer … damn, I was hot.”

Nobody has hit .400 since 1941, when Ted Williams refused to sit the last day, banged out five hits, and rode off into the sunset with that unforgettable .406 average. There have been a few faltering stabs at .400 since. Tony Gwynn was chasing the number when baseball went on strike in 1994. Rod Carew, Larry Walker, John Olerud, even Ted Williams himself as an old man dared to fly close to the sun.

But really, only one man in 64 years has come close to hitting .400.

That was George Brett, 25 years ago, in that white-hot summer of 1980.

August 17, 1980

On the hottest day of George Brett’s white-hot summer, people prayed for the hostages to come home safe. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan debated about whether they should debate. Muhammad Ali announced he had lost 50 pounds and was ready to win back the heavyweight championship. People complained that Richard Dawson shouldn’t kiss all those women in “Family Feud.”

And George Brett stepped into the batter’s box against a soft-tossing lefty named Mike Barlow. He dug his spikes into the dirt. He whispered: “Damn, I’m hot.”

From the distant seats in the upper deck of Royals Stadium, Brett looked utterly confident. It was an illusion. George Brett never felt calm on a baseball field. He played the game in constant fear. You might say, “What was there for George Brett to be afraid of?” Well, to start with, he was afraid he would mess up, foul up, let down his teammates, disappoint the fans, embarrass himself, forget how many outs there were, get picked off, throw the ball into the 12th row and never get another hit. This was just the start. He was afraid that he would do something bad, like swing at a pitch out of the strike zone, and then, after the game, get the call from a certain California accountant.

“What were you swinging at?” Jack Brett asked.

“Dad, the pitch broke late.”

“You have no self control.”

“I hit the ball for a single, Dad.”

“You got lucky. Bad pitch. You should give that hit back.”

Yes, Jack Brett was one tough son of a gun — an accountant at Datsun — and he never thought his youngest son tried enough, not even that year. George had started feeling good at Yankee Stadium in June, and he’d gotten at least one hit every single day since. He’d hit .468 since that weekend in New York. Still, the calls came nightly. Why did you swing at that pitch? Why didn’t you get a double out of that ball? Were you even trying on that ground ball? Then, George and Jack would yell at each other for a while. Once, after the call, George ripped the phone cord out of the clubhouse wall.

Still, George hit. The Elias Sports Bureau announced that the odds of a lifetime .300 hitter hitting .400 was a staggering one in 1.9 quadrillion (Brett’s lifetime average before 1980 was .311). Other mathematicians offered more sane odds of 9 million to one. Anyway, Brett wasn’t much into math. On that Sunday in August, he knocked three hits off of Toronto starter Jim Clancy (“I wore that guy out,” he would say years later) and raised his average to .399. Then he faced Mike Barlow.

The sun beat down. That was the hottest summer on record in Kansas City. Temperatures swelled past 100 degrees just about every day. The writer Bill James remembers it being so hot that people would pass each other and just start laughing, as if to say, “Can you even believe this heat?” People would duck into movie theaters, not to see “The Great Santini,” but just to get a little air-conditioning.

And the hottest place in town was the turf at Royals Stadium. George Toma, the leathery groundskeeper, would put his thermometer on the turf and often measure it at 145 degrees. Players kept buckets of ice in the dugout and just stood in them between innings, metal spikes and all. But George liked it hot. Brett never hit in the chill of April. “If you don’t hit the ball just right in the cold, it hurts,” he said. “It shouldn’t hurt to hit.”

It was only 88 degrees this Sunday, meaning it was barely 110 on the field. Barlow looked intimidating. He was 6 feet 6. But he was all illusion and charade. His best pitch was a sinkerball that moved slowly, almost reluctantly, to the plate, like a freshman approaching a girl at a high school dance.

Barlow got tattooed most of his career, but that slow pitch was like Kryptonite to Brett’s Superman. Brett’s swing was built for speed — nobody could throw a fastball by him. But Barlow drove him batty. Just the night before, Barlow had struck him out swinging, front-page news in 1980. After that, Brett walked into the dugout, through the tunnel and battered a metal cart with his bat until his anger subsided. Jack, of course, gave him all sorts of heck.

Barlow started his windup. Brett would say he heard the voice of his batting coach, Charlie Lau. “Wait,” Lau was saying. “Wait, dummy. You’ve got to wait. Wait on him.” The bases were loaded. The cheering at Royals Stadium roared in Brett’s ears. Wait. Barlow pitched. Wait. Brett could see the stitches. He could feel his hands tense up; his swing wanted to go. “Wait,” Charley Lau’s voice said. Then the ball was by him, the catcher was stabbing for it … only, no, Brett uncoiled. He hit the ball hard to left field.

Then he did the first of two things that George Brett never did. He watched the ball go. Brett had always hit and run without looking. But this time, he had to know. He watched the ball soar over Garth Iorg’s head. Three runs scored. Brett ran hard around first and eased into second base. The cheers deafened — the people there at Royals Stadium, and that number grows every year, say it was the loudest they ever heard the place. Brett’s teammates all stood on the top step and applauded. Behind George, the scoreboard told the story:

“George Brett is hitting .401.”

Then, Brett did the second thing he never did: He raised his arms in triumph.

“Do you know what you mean to these people?” a Royals’ marketing person named Rush Limbaugh asked Brett in the moments after the game. Brett shrugged. By then, he was surrounded by reporters and cameramen, the questions were flying at him. What was the count? What was the pitch? How did it feel? And, mostly, they asked: Can you do it? Can you hit .400? Brett was exhausted. He said there was a long season ahead.

He didn’t know the half of it.

“I wish my father was here,” he said. “He’d find something to rip me about.”

August 26, 1980

George Brett whacked a line drive off of Brewers pitcher Mike Caldwell’s glove, nearly hitting him square in the forehead. George was off again, five hits in five tries, his batting average rising to .407. Up in the press box, a car salesman and owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, Bud Selig, nearly choked on his hot dog. “Can anyone get this guy out?” he complained to the large cluster of reporters who had followed the Brett circus to town. “I mean, nobody’s this good.”

Brett was that good. He was trying to hit the ball off of Mike Caldwell’s forehead.

Yes, it was some show. In Texas, fans had booed their own pitcher, Jon Matlack, for getting Brett out (Matlack told reporters after the game, “To hell with George Brett.”). In New York, Brett’s old hitting coach Charlie Lau told the press, “Sometimes I feel like I have unleashed Frankenstein.”

In Florida, Ted Williams told people that Brett was the one to hit .400.

“Anyway I sure hope he does it,” Williams said. “Because I’m sick of people calling me every time someone gets close.”

The chase sparked America’s imagination. People had been saying for years that there would never again be a .400 hitter. “Where are the .400 hitters in the world?” Life magazine asked as far back as the 1950s, and 25 years later various scientists and statisticians pronounced the .400 hitter dead. They said that because of night games and devastating new pitches like the slider, the human body simply could not produce a .400 season. Then scientists have always been overly impressed with hitting.

“If a person from another planet was told what was involved hitting a baseball,” Porter Johnson, a physics professor in Chicago, told a reporter, “they would say it’s impossible.”

Brett was different that year. He hit everything thrown at him. Every day, another pitcher was admitting defeat. “The only way to pitch Brett now is way inside and have him pull the ball,” Yankees starter Rudy May said. “That way he’ll pull the ball and the line drive won’t hit you.”

Umpire Steve Palermo offered up the classic: “If God had him no balls and two strikes, George would still get a hit.”

One story — a golf story, no less — summed up things: One day that year, Brett was playing golf with his childhood friend, Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor. George was sitting in the golf cart, drinking a beer, when McGregor hooked a shot straight at him. “Fore!” McGregor yelled.

Brett grabbed a club, got out of the cart, and hit the ball in midair back to McGregor.

“Hit it again,” Brett said nonchalantly.

“Most amazing thing I ever saw,” McGregor said.

In that summer, though, it was just another Brett thing. America could not get enough of him. After his five-for-five in Milwaukee, Brett was hounded by reporters for so long he missed the team bus.

September 6, 1980

The George Brett .400 show rolled into Cleveland, and calls poured into Peter J. Franklin’s Sports Line, a sports-talk radio show that, as Franklin often said, “Sets the standard for excellence.” Within minutes, it was easy to see why. Someone called in to say that he thought Brett would hit .400. Franklin mildly disagreed. “How can you dial a phone,” Franklin asked, “while you’re wearing a straitjacket?”

Sports-talk radio was really just kicking in about then. ESPN had just taken to the airwaves a couple of months before and was sending a camera crew around with Brett. CNN was reporting news 24 hours a day. The game was changing.

And Brett was in the middle of it. Television reporters were everywhere. All the big magazines — Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, Boy’s Life, People, you name it — sent their writers to swoop in and find out about Brett’s love life, his thoughts about religion, his feelings on art. And, of course, newspaper reporters were still around, every minute, hammering Brett with the same questions, what pitch was that, what were you thinking about, tell us about your father. “I hated my father,” George told The Los Angeles Times. “But now, well, maybe I understand him a little bit better.”

At first, Brett liked the attention (“This is the time of my life,” he said). But now, it was getting into his head. Brett had always been the first one to the ballpark. He would throw batting practice right-handed and then left-handed. He would hit until his hands hurt. He loved to play hearts in the clubhouse. That kept him cool. Now, he hid in his hotel room, trying to avoid the talk shows that argued about his chances.

“He would play one game of hearts, and then there would be 10 people lined up behind him wanting him to do something,” Brett’s teammate and hero Hal McRae said.

Brett started to get touchy. “Can’t you just copy someone else’s story?” he asked the guy from The Chicago Sun-Times.

“I never asked to hit .400,” he snapped at other reporters, leading the New York Daily News to headline its story, “Pressure Getting To Brett.”

“I just remember Brett looking like a trapped animal,” said John Garrity, a Kansas City-based writer now at Sports Illustrated. So many people had asked Garrity to write George Brett stories that, to satisfy everyone and make a few bucks, he wrote several under the pseudonym Floyd Warneke

Still, Brett hit. He was hitting .401 coming into Cleveland. Vegas odds makers placed the odds of Brett hitting .400 at an absurdly low 4-1. Brett was excited on this night because the San Diego Chicken was in town. “That guy’s hilarious,” Brett said. “People are going to be watching him instead of me. That will be fun for a change.” He was glad for any sort of diversion.

His first time up, he flew out. Next time up, he flew out. He kicked the dirt. His average dropped below .400 for the first time in 10 days. His third time up, he lunged at a bad pitch (he knew Jack would call about that) and hit his third fly ball. He also hurt his hand badly on the swing; he would miss the next 10 days. After the swing, the Chicken fell on his back and acted as if he was convulsing with laughter.

“&%$#* Chicken,” was George Brett’s official statement after the game.

September 19, 1980

George Brett got two hits against Oakland and his nemesis Billy Martin, and his average was back at .400. There were only two weeks left. America was going crazy for him. Newspapers everywhere ran a daily “Brett Watch.” He was featured in Time, Newsweek and Fortune in the same week. President Jimmy Carter drew his biggest cheers on the campaign trail in Kansas City when he held up a “George Brett for President” bumper sticker.

Brett was in the funny pages (“What proof do you have that George Brett eats his Brussels sprouts,” a boy asked his parents in a comic strip called “Berry’s World,”). He was in The Saturday Evening Post (“The Next American Hero,” the magazine proclaimed). Johnny Carson told jokes about him on “The Tonight Show.” He had his own sneaker before Michael Jordan (“The GB5 with breathable nylon!”). A New York Times editorial rooted for Brett to hit .400 and salvage a bit of American pride that seemed lost.

Billy Graham told his large congregation that it was OK to fail. After all, he wrote, sometimes even George Brett went zero for three.

A Hollywood writer wanted to make a sitcom out of his life, but he never could have come close to the real sitcom that Brett was living. Every day, he was getting marriage proposals in the mail. Every night, women would call his hotel room, so he could hardly sleep. And, always, there were cameras and lights and writers and celebrities, hounding him, prodding him, asking questions, wanting a piece of him.

“We will not throw George Brett another fastball for the rest of this season,” Billy Martin told his Oakland pitchers after the game. And that, maybe more than anything else, changed the chase. At least on the field, Brett had felt sure. He loved to hit. But for the rest of the year, he would have to deal with slop, curveballs and change-ups and slow stuff of all kinds. George Brett never liked the slow stuff.

September 27, 1980

In Minnesota, George Brett snapped. He was expecting the day off — it was a morning game against tough lefty Jerry Koosman — but instead he found himself in the lineup. He was mad, and he went zero for four, and his average tumbled to .384. He had gone four for 27 since the Oakland game, and he probably had not seen three fastballs the entire time. The reporters who had been following him were getting edgy, too. Their questions suddenly had a biting tone.

“Was the pressure too great?” they asked.

“Why have you stopped hitting?” they asked.

Brett’s answers snapped shorter and shorter. He was not eating. He was not sleeping. The atmosphere was tense in the clubhouse, too; Brett’s teammates had been patient for a while, but many of them had grown sick of all the attention he was getting. “Tonight, the Detroit Tigers meet the Kansas City Bretts,” one television reporter had told viewers, and the Royals — a first-place team — didn’t like it one bit.

“White people want white heroes,” muttered teammate Willie Wilson, who was having a remarkable and unnoticed season. Brett had tried to talk to his teammates about it all, tried to explain to them that it was out of his control, but at some point there was nothing else to say. After the game, reporters were told that Brett was not talking.

‘Thanks a lot,” Kansas City columnist Mike McKenzie said to Brett. “I came all the way up here to do a story on you, and you’re not talking.” Brett turned to a teammate and shouted: “Can’t I have one (bleeping) day without answering the same (bleeping) questions?”

But, in fact, Brett did want to talk. He unloaded his frustrations, his fears, his biggest worry. “You know what they’ll say,” he said softly. “They’ll say I choked.”

McKenzie assured him that no one would say that. Brett smiled. By then, he was a lot older than his 27 years.

“If they would leave me alone,” he said, “I could still do it. I could still hit .400.”

The next day, with most of the reporters gone, Brett hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 14th. The day after that, he went three for three and brought the average up to .391. He needed 10 hits in his final four games.

“It’s not over,” he said happily.

It was over, though. Brett hit a couple of warning-track fly balls in those last few games that died in the Midwestern wind. He hit a line drive right at a third baseman. He hit a ground ball that looked like a sure single, only Seattle’s rookie second baseman, Kim Allen, made a diving play. He finished five hits short of .400. He finished at .390. Nobody since Ted Williams has finished a full season with that high an average.

These days, George Brett looks back on his chase proudly; he still believes he might have hit .400 had the media been handled better and had he not hurt his hand in Cleveland. Anyway, he says that hot summer was a great time. He was thinking about nothing, ripping line drives everywhere, hearing cheers only a few athletes ever hear.

And after the final game of the season, he got a call from California, of course. And George says that for the rest of his life, he will never forget what his dad said that day.

“Do you mean to tell me,” Jack Brett said, “you couldn’t have gotten five more bleeping hits?”

Sure-Oz
08-14-2005, 06:45 PM
What's truly sad is that by seeing the title for the thread i thought it was "the chase for .400" as in winning percentage! real sad indeed....

shakesthecat
08-16-2005, 09:43 AM
My folks took chiefhusker and I to that August 17th game.

I've seen some pretty cool stuff at Chiefs games, but for a Brett worshiping 16 year old like myself, that was the best.

Sure-Oz
08-16-2005, 11:40 PM
i bet that wouldve been cool i vaguely remmeber brett play, my grandma was real good friends with him, she of course worked for the royals for a long time in their offices, rip grandma, im just glad she saw them when they were not a joke.

Thig Lyfe
08-27-2005, 01:49 PM
What's truly sad is that by seeing the title for the thread i thought it was "the chase for .400" as in winning percentage! real sad indeed....

same here... ROFL... :deevee:

ROYC75
03-28-2006, 03:56 PM
Found it, took awhile ..........

ROYC75
03-28-2006, 04:02 PM
Bump for those who want to see this again.