— SURPRISE, Ariz. - George Brett has a message for players who have been struggling for years in an effort to make it to the major leagues: Don’t give up.
You might think it’s easy for Brett to say that. After all, he spent only two-plus years in the minor leagues, his rise aided by a Royals franchise that was only two years old and simply wasn't stocked with much talent to hold him back.
He got his first taste of the big leagues at age 20, and was a regular for the Kansas City Royals at 21. Twenty years later he finally called it quits, a career .305 hitter with 3,154 hits, 317 home runs and 1,595 RBIs. Cooperstown was waiting.
So what does Brett, one of the best-hitting third basemen in baseball history, know about struggling in the game? Plenty.
For one thing, he advanced so quickly through the minor leagues that he wasn’t ready for the big leagues when he arrived, and saw plenty of struggles initially. In the first two months of the 1974 season, his first full season in the majors, he hit just .216. By the All-Star break he was at .242. He wasn’t walking, and he wasn’t hitting for power, his OPS resting at an uninspiring .596. Brett spent the All-Star break working with Royals hitting coach Charlie Lau, and it was a whole new world from that point on.
“I was in a very fortunate situation, with a new organization, an organization that wasn’t loaded with a lot of talent because it was so new,” said Brett, who has been vice president-baseball operations for the Kansas City Royals for the last 18 years. “I think defensively I felt rushed, and offensively I struggled when I first got to the big leagues, which was the best thing that ever happened to me because Charlie Lau kind of redid my whole swing.
“I learned how to hit in the major leagues, which a lot of guys don’t get the opportunity to do.”
Brett was fortunate enough to quit when he was ready. He played through his age-40 season, and it was his call to retire. His older brother Ken wasn’t so lucky.
A pitcher who was drafted by Boston in the first round of the 1966 draft, Ken Brett was also a rapid riser in the minor leagues. He pitched in the 1967 World Series at age 18, and was a big-league regular by 21. But at age 33, after 14 years in the major leagues, Ken Brett couldn’t find anyone who wanted his services.
“All of a sudden he couldn’t get a job, and it crushed him,” George Brett said of his brother, who died in 2003 after a six-year battle with brain cancer. “It was tough on him. He didn’t go to a baseball game for a year. He wouldn’t even pick up the box scores and look at them. This was his life.”
And that is the lesson George Brett would deliver. As long as someone wants you, keep playing baseball. Keep striving for the major leagues. Don’t give up, because you never know when it will end.
He knows that it's a lot tougher to make it in baseball than it was when he came up. He knows the outside pressures are greater, with more media outlets than ever. He knows the scrutiny is tougher and more intrusive, and that it’s easier to make a misstep. Every fan has a cell phone, after all, and every cell phone has a camera.
“There were a lot of times I probably could have gotten in trouble,” Brett said with a laugh. “I wasn’t afraid to go out and enjoy life after a ballgame with my teammates. We had a lot of fun back then. But it’s different now.”
And Brett knows that the competition is far better and deeper these days, with teams operating schools all over Latin America and scouting the Pacific Rim for talent.
But he also knows that there are a lot worse things to be doing in life, and as long as a player has a dream intact, he ought to follow it.
“Just keep on going as long as you can because you never know,” Brett said. “When they tell you to take off that uniform it’s going to be a sad day because it’s something you’ve done since you were in Little League, and you played in the back yard with your brothers.
“You’ve got a chance to play it. You’ve got a chance to make a pretty good life, and I would much rather play a game than go to work every day.”