The Purest Swing.
(From the Internet without attribution)
Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey
Written content only
One Friday morning, I sat down at my desk, flipped on the computer and surfed over to the Kansas City Star’s website. After a cursory glance at the headlines, I drilled down to the sports page to see the image of George Brett at spring training. Not that such a picture is unusual. Every year since he retired, Brett has gone to Florida in the spring, laced up the spikes and pulled on the jersey with the familiar number 5. I’ve also seen pictures of George in a suit and tie, but somehow the sight of this leathery-faced warrior wearing a Royals jersey is the one that fits him the best.
The Royals have been a major league franchise since 1969. I can still remember the excitement of that first year at Old Municipal, the clean look of blue and white erasing forever the taint of another team in garish green and gold that foundered in the American League basement until they left Kansas City, moved west and began winning World Championships. The Kauffman’s were a breath of fresh air; they looked like everyone’s favorite grandparents. They loved their city, they loved their fans, and they loved their team, smothering it with a sincere care and nurturing that helped the Royals mature into an early contender.
Despite the giddy excitement of those first few years, one could arguably make the point that history of the Kansas City Royals really began in 1973. That was the year that a young tobacco-chewing Californian with untamed hair and a reckless disposition donned a Royals uniform for the first time. Over the next 21 seasons, George Brett and the Royals would make history. Once he retired in 1993, the team receded into history. New York fans will always remember Joe DiMaggio, another number 5, as the Quintessential Yankee. Likewise for Royals fans, George Brett was not just a Royals player; for almost all of us, he was the Royals. And 13 years after his retirement as a player, he still is the face, and the heart of Royals baseball.
“5” is what is known among mathematicians as a “prime number,” so described because it is divisible only by the number one and itself. It was a prescient choice. George Brett, wearing a prime number, became the prime number, the prime mover of Royals baseball. It wasn’t just the brilliant numbers he put up, or the aggressive take-no-prisoners approach he took to the game. There was the intangible of leadership.
I was in the Navy in 1989, assigned to the Battleship USS Missouri. We made a port call to Bremerton, Washington, near Seattle during the late summer. Knowing that the Royals would be in town to play the Mariners that week, I made plans to attend the game. Arriving early, I sat in my seat and watched the team take batting practice and shag flies. As that activity drew to a close, Brett wandered over to the foul territory along the right field line and stood there for a few moments, hands on hips. In a short time, he was joined by about 15 other Royals. After a short time, George sauntered back towards the visitor’s dugout. The other 15 players followed him. There had been no direction, no order, not even an obligatory wave of the hand or twitch of the head. Nevertheless, when Brett moved, the team moved with him. Of all the games I saw him play, in person and on television, I can think of no moment more completely descriptive of what George Brett meant, and still means to this franchise.
And now, as I see the annual “George Brett at spring training” photo, I get a little thrill knowing that Brett is giving back to baseball, striving to train the current generation of Royals in what it takes to be a major leaguer. Yet, I wonder if these youngsters really understand the true value of the gift they are receiving. For most of them, their parents weren’t even married when Brett, under the patient tutelage of Charlie Lau, was slashing line drives all over A.L. ballparks and running the bases like a man possessed. They weren’t born yet during those magical years of ’76, ’77, ’78, and ’80 when Brett and his powder blue crew came into their own as a team to be respected, even feared. They will never know the thrill of his home run in the ’80 playoffs that utterly silenced a jam-packed Yankee Stadium and lifted the Royals into their first World Series; Or the breath-taking slide into the dugout in pursuit of a foul ball; or the competitive fire that drove him to storm from the dugout when Billy Martin, for once, used the rules to take away a key home run.
When actor and American icon John Wayne was still Michael Morrison, a tall, strapping laborer on the California movie sets, he happened to meet the legendary Wyatt Earp, who was there as a technical advisor to the Hollywood directors making their first western films. According to both Wayne’s and Earp’s biographers, the two had several conversations. Wayne would say later that every character he ever created on the screen was a reflection of Wyatt Earp. There is the hope in the heart of every Royal fan that one of these young bucks soaking up the wisdom from George Brett would reflect those singular qualities in his own career.
It’s probably good that Brett never managed the Royals. Nobody wants to see him dragged into the abyss of a perpetually losing team, for that would tarnish the luster. I suspect that is at least a partial reason why his teammate Frank White didn’t get the job this time. But it’s fun to speculate about the character of a Brett-managed team drafted and trained in his image.
First of all, they would be street-wise and tough, but smart enough to take coaching. They would take the field with the same élan as the army of Genghis Khan, taking no prisoners, showing no mercy. Victory comes first; self-preservation is secondary. They would come to the stadium early, stay late, and spend time in the locker room afterwards, talking baseball. Hitters would eschew gloves, taking batting practice until their calluses cracked and bled. They would instinctively understand that sweat and dirt make a uniform look good, and a rip or two completes the ensemble. And no bling. Their hamstrings would always be at risk from ferociously running out ground balls. Opposing second basemen and shortstops, looking at a Royal on first would dread a double play ball. The whole team would wear the scars of turf burns from diving for ground balls and line drives. And the pitchers would all be the living incarnation of Sal Maglie. Yes, they would be warriors. But, they would also be winners. Because nobody else plays baseball like that anymore.
Time is the enemy of us all, even someone as seemingly immortal as George Brett. It’s been a long time since number 5 played, but out of the hundreds of players who have worn the Kansas City uniform since, only Mike Sweeney comes close to this ideal. There has been a lot of discussion about what has happened to this team. Some blame the salary structure that works against small-market teams; some point to the departure of John Schuerholz; some think that overall, modern-day ballplayers simply don’t have the passion or the work ethic anymore. For the Royals, I think it boils down to one thing.
Not enough Number 5.