From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

The Chase

Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.

Lou Holtz

When I arrived at the Kansas City Star in 1989 and began covering baseball, the only George Brett who I knew was from a distance. I’d heard the legendary stories. There was, of course, the Pine Tar Incident. The chase for .400. And the famous three-run homer off Goose Gossage in the 1980 play-offs that helped propel the Royals to their first World Series (that homer is still chilling on replays more than two decades later).

But by 1989, Brett was not the same player that he was in his prime. His knees ached, his right shoulder often throbbed, and the subtle rust on his game saddened me because I never had the privilege of witnessing his greatness firsthand, and knew I probably never would. I had to rely on the accounts of others to relive all of his great moments.

Yet there was one part of Brett that had not fallen prey to the relentless pursuit of time: He was still a warrior, driven by a passion for winning and for being the best. I could see that in his eyes and through his demeanor as he often sat slumped on a chair after one of the frequent losses the Royals experienced in the early 1990s. It still hurt Brett to lose. And I could sense that it hurt his pride that he couldn’t lift this team and this organization back to the top as he once did.

But for one glorious moment in 1992, Brett did rise up again, right before my eyes, and defied all probability. I did get my chance to witness his greatness.

As the Royals prepared to wrap up yet another disappointing season in 1992, their fans at least were treated something akin to a pennant race: Brett’s race toward three thousand hits. It was, by most definitions, a race. Brett was thirty-nine years old. Rumors persisted that he was about to retire. I even reported a story the previous off-season that then-Royals owner Ewing Kauffman had asked Brett to retire because he felt Brett’s skills had diminished too much and because the team needed to make way for its younger players. Brett was crushed. Two days after the story appeared, Kauffman called a press conference to publically apologize to Brett. But the damage had been done, and Brett himself admitted during the 1992 season that his playing days were near an end.

That, of course, made the timing of Brett’s pursuit of three thousand hits critical. He obviously wasn’t going to retire without getting his three thousandth hit, but with two weeks to go in the ’92 season, he was still about twenty hits short. Our newspaper had started the countdown with about two months to go but when he got to 2,975, we began putting the magic number to three thousand in a big box on the front of the sports section every day. Seeing that huge number every day in the newspaper was just another reminder for Brett, I’m sure, of the pressure he was under to get that hit before the season ended.

I knew he didn’t want to force himself to come back in 1993 just so he could get to three thousand hits. That would be cheating, in his mind, just milking the game for some self-serving statistic. Not exactly George Brett’s style.

With less than two weeks to go in the ’92 season, Brett was still ten hits away from three thousand and the hits were becoming harder and harder to come by. Brett’s aching shoulder was killing him, and he had immense pain every time he pulled the bat down toward the incoming baseball with that shoulder. But as the team embarked on its final road trip in 1992—a seven-game trip that would start in Minnesota with three games and end in Anaheim with four—Brett started to finally get a bit of luck. He dropped in a few hits during the three-game set in Minnesota and raised his total to 2,995. Brett now had seven games left to get five more hits—four games in Anaheim, and the three-game final home series back in Kansas City. Better yet, Brett now had a realistic chance of getting those five hits in Anaheim, less than half an hour away from where he grew up in El Segundo, California. How perfect. Sportswriters covering the team saw the story lines dropping into our laps.

But unbeknown to us covering the team, Brett had seriously reinjured his shoulder during his last at bat in Minnesota. On the plane ride to California, Brett was in tremendous pain. He never said a word to us about it. Neither did the team’s trainers. Monday night, during the first game against the Angels, Brett managed one single but it became apparent that something was wrong with his swing. He was grimacing with each yank of the bat. After the game, he fessed up. He might not be able to finish the season. The pain was intolerable. I could only imagine all that was going through Brett’s mind. He had hundreds of friends and relatives at Anaheim Stadium, including his mother, Ethel, and they were all there to see him get his three thousandth hit. Now he might not even be able to play the rest of the season. I know he felt he was letting everyone down.

The next morning, the Royals scheduled an appointment for Brett with a leading orthopedist just outside San Diego. Naturally, the media covering the team (normally just three newspaper writers but now there were more than fifty local and national reporters on the three thousand trail) chased Brett all the way to the appointment. After he came out from his appointment, he managed a grin and said he’d have to discuss the results of his examination with the Royals before he spoke with us. So back we drove to Anaheim.

About three hours before the game, Brett and the Royals physicians spoke to the media and announced that they would not rule out his playing again that season, that through anti-inflammatories the swelling in his shoulder could subside. It was a waiting game.

Tuesday night, Brett wasn’t in the starting line-up. He didn’t pinch-hit, either. Now, there were five games to go, four hits to go. Wednesday night came and went the same. No Brett. Four games to go, four hits to go. Brett was distressed for obvious reasons. So was his entourage at Anaheim Stadium, which included his brother, Ken, who was the Angels’ radio analyst. “Man, I know he’d like to get three thousand right here,” Ken told me that night. “That’d mean so much.”

By Thursday night, though, it seemed a foregone conclusion that if there was any chance of Brett getting three thousand hits in 1992, it would have to come in Kansas City during the final three-game homest and. But before the game, Brett began swinging off the batting tee in the tunnel leading to the Royals dugout. The pain was beginning to subside. A cortisone shot taken a day earlier was starting to work. He told manager Hal McRae he was ready to give it a shot. Of course, this was good news and bad news for us reporters.

Naturally, we were privately rooting for Brett to get his three thousandth hit in Anaheim—it was meaningful for him and a great “homecoming” storyline for us. But we also were crossing our fingers that he would do it in Kansas City—the two-hour time difference from Anaheim to Kansas City made newspaper deadlines on a night game almost unimaginable. As it was on a normal night, a beat writer might have twenty minutes to physically get down to the locker room, grab a few players for quotes, get back up to the press box, compose a story and then send it by modem to the paper. The same magic act done on a night a future Hall of Famer was getting his three thousandth hit would require ten times the effort because that story needed to be as special as the event it depicted. Yes, we were privately pulling for Brett to pull it off in Kansas City.

But Brett had other ideas. In his first at bat, he flared No. 2,997 to left. In the fourth inning, he lined another hit, No. 2,998 to left-center.

Uh-oh. We in the press box began experiencing a rather strange mix of emotions from awe and admiration to sheer panic. By the time Brett came up to the plate for his third at bat in the sixth inning, Anaheim Stadium was buzzing. Fans were standing, teammates were standing, and all eyes were fixed on Brett. Well, some of our eyes were fixed on our computer screens, too, and we scrambled to throw some verbs and nouns together that would make enough sense to be reprinted. Bang. Another hit for Brett. No. 2,999. By then we knew. Everyone in the stadium probably knew. Brett, ravaged shoulder and all, was going to do it in front of his friends, his family, his mother and his brothers, thirty miles from where he grew up. We knew that Brett was going to get another at bat and we knew he was going to somehow get his fourth hit of the night.

Then, at about 9:30 Anaheim time, Brett came up for that at bat in the ninth inning. First pitch, whack. Brett drilled a one-hopper that nearly beheaded second baseman Ken Oberkfell and sizzled into right field. Number three thousand. The ovation Brett received lasted longer than ten minutes. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he raised his batting helmet and saluted the crowd. He had done the improbable one more time.

I finally got to see that Brett greatness in person. (And I made the deadline, too.)

Jeffrey Flanagan

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Brett, by the way, did come back and play in 1993, and made that his final season.]

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