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Hall of Fame legend looks back on career that began in Billings
Illustration by VICTOR ADY/Gazette staff

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - George Brett still wants the extra base.

Most fans know Brett had a Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Royals. He is the only Major League player to collect 3,000 hits, 300 homers, 600 doubles, 100 triples and 200 stolen bases.

What some may not know is that he spent his first professional season in Billings, playing 47 games at shortstop - committing 20 errors - and 20 more games at third base for the 1971 Mustangs, which was then a Royals farm club. He hit .291 that season, and in fact never broke .300 in three minor league seasons.

In the big leagues he hit .305, including a .390 average in 1980 - the highest average in the last 62 seasons. He had 10,349 big-league at bats, none with the aid of batting gloves. He hit rookies and polished aces equally hard, and is known for, among other things, taking out pivot-men on double plays, brawling with Graig Nettles and, of course, two famous home runs off Goose Gossage.

His 3,154 hits helped punch his ticket for the Hall, and he's the only Royal - and the only Mustang - enshrined. Which is a long ways from Billings, where his career began 32 years ago. He was the Pioneer League's All-Star shortstop that season, and he's easily the most famous Mustang alumnus.

Brett retired from playing after the 1993 season, and the Royals made him vice president of baseball operations. Since then he's scaled back his duties, to help his wife Leslie take care of their three sons: Jackson, Dylan and Robin. But he's still a fixture at Kauffman Stadium, and it was there, on Monday, that he agreed to sit down for an interview that stretched through an inning-and-a-half, and two 2-run homers by the Royals. Kansas City eventually improved to 11-0 at home with a 7-6 win over Boston.

He's 49 years old and despite several knee operations looks as if he could still stretch a single into a double. In the fourth inning of Monday's game he exhorted Kansas City outfielder Dee Brown to do just that. Brown singled off the glove of Boston's Todd Walker, and the ball stopped midway between the second baseman and right fielder Damien Jackson. "Go for two," Brett said. "Go for two! Go for two!"

Then, when Brown hesitated, Brett said with a trace of disappointment, "Nope, stay there."

Here's the rest of the interview:

 

FN: So this is what retirement is like. Do you manage to keep busy? Do you travel with the team?

Brett: No. When I first retired from baseball I was out here at every home game I could possibly get to, and did the minor league circuit. And the longer you do it, the more it wears you down.

When I retired, I had a seven-month old son. Now I have a 10-year-old, 8-year-old and a 7-year-old. All boys. It is just hard to justify traveling so much and leaving your wife home with three kids. So I have reached an agreement with the Royals where I'm not going be that involved with baseball decisions anymore, and just kind of come out as often as I like, and don't go to the minor leagues.

This year I didn't go to spring training - I went to one game. Brought my family down, did the family vacation rather than the "Leave the house at six in the morning, get home at six at night" vacation. I just kind of come out and still support them as much as I can. Today when I got here I saw one of the vice presidents, Mark Gorris, and he had the Fox people in, trying to reach an agreement on a television contract. I went in and visited with them for a few minutes. That's more what I do now, more PR stuff than the day-to-day baseball decisions.

 

Colorado comes to Billings every year with the Rockies' Caravan. Clint Hurdle had just been named the hitting coach, but we ended up talking about his days with the Royals quite a bit….

Brett: Clint, Jamie Quirk and I all lived together for two years, '78 and '79. And now Clint's the Colorado manager and Jamie's his bench coach. Jamie played a year in Billings, I know that.

 

Quirk played the year after you. Hurdle said that when you got your job (as vice president) he called you and questioned the Royals hiring' practices. And that when he was named the Rockies' hitting coach you called and wondered what Colorado was thinking.

Brett: Exactly. And when he got the managing job I said, "Are they trying?" He's doing a good job over there. He's paid his dues. I like to see people who've paid their dues get a chance. And he has definitely paid his dues.

 

You live here all year-round, but you're a California native. Do you ever think about moving back?

Brett: Once in a while. But - I married a girl from Kansas. My three boys were all born here. It's tough to move. I have a lot of friends, good ties. I consider myself more a Kansan now than I do anything else, so - I don't think its the right thing for me to do. The kids go to a great school, they're involved in athletic programs, all that.

 

I read an article in Sports Illustrated about how fans build such strong allegiances with their teams, whether it's the Royals or Red Sox, whoever. The author said the players don't have that because they don't really choose who they play for, and they often get traded. But you never were traded.

I didn't pick the Royals, the Royals picked me. Little did I know what was in store for me. I played in Billings. The next year I played in San Jose, next year I played in Omaha and the next year I started in Kansas City. Little did I know I was going to play there 20 years. You play some place 20 years, I think it's pretty tough just to pack up and leave when your career's over, because of the relationships you have with the city and the relationship you have with your friends, and the town, and the club. To this day, I get up every morning at 5:30 or 6 to try to get an hour of peace and quiet before my kids get up - you get up at the same time as 7, 8 and 10 year-olds get up, all boys, and it's chaos - and the first thing I always do is read everything about the Royals. I'm kind of excited about it. This year's been a lot of fun, compared to the last.

 

What I like, and I imagine you do, too, is the good young arms. Did you have any input in that, as far back as when these guys were drafted or signed?

Well, I was doing that stuff then. I was out the last two or three years looking at all our top No. 1 picks with our general manager, with our director of scouting and our farm director. I saw a lot of them pitch as amateurs, saw a lot of them pitch in college, and high school, prior to the draft. But it takes time. It takes time. And the younger you draft the longer it usually takes. I'm glad to see some of the decisions that they made four or five years ago are starting to pay off.

 

How concerned were you that the Royals would leave town?

I thought it was a possibility. I really did. It was pretty dismal out here last year. You'd come to a game last September and there'd be 3,000 people in the stands. The attendance would say 10,000, but that's how many season tickets they had sold. But the actual people that came to the games were three or four thousand people. It was bad. It was almost like - if somebody called the Royals and asked, "What time does the game start?" their response was, "What time can you get here? We'll wait for you." Instead of introducing the players to the fans, they'd almost introduce the fans to the players.

So, it was tough last year and the year before. This year they got off to a good start, playing within their own division. Our division is not very strong this year, but it showed these guys that, "Hey, we can play." And it's paid off. They just came off a terrible road trip - they went 3-6 on their road trip - but I was in the locker room before the game and their attitude is great. I mean, they still have that winning attitude, that winning feeling. Ten-and-oh at home. That says something. It really does.

 

Do you ever make it to Montana?

I haven't been to Montana since I left Montana, unfortunately. No, actually I was in Big Sky one time. I went fly-fishing up there. This year I'm going to - you know what, I think I am going to Montana. A friend of mine from St. Louis called me up and said, "Keep these dates open, I'm coming to KC to pick you up and we're going some place." I said, "Where are we going?" and he said it was a surprise.

I said, "John, I can't tell my wife I'm going on a surprise trip with you. I've got to know who's going, I've got to know where we're going." Sure enough, I think he said Montana, doing a fly-fishing trip. I think it's in August. I'm pretty sure it is Montana. I don't know where. And I have been to Bozeman. Jan Stenerud has a golf tournament there and I went there two years in a row. Great time.

 

How much do you remember from Billings? Did you actually live in the Northern (now the Radisson) Hotel?

I lived in the Northern Hotel. I remember I was making $500 a month. My paychecks were $202. I remember Cobb Field, and the Rims behind it. I remember my first game was in Caldwell, Idaho, and the bus ride from Billings to Caldwell, Idaho, was rather long. And it wasn't one of the luxury line buses that you see in the big leagues. It was a bus. It was an OLD bus. And it was a bumpy, bumpy ride. We got three dollars a day meal money. I remember we had a Styrofoam cooler. We'd get a loaf of bread and mayonnaise or mustard from the restaurants that we'd stop and eat at on the way. And you basically lived on bologna and cheese sandwiches.

It was a great team to play on - there were three of us straight out of high school, and the rest were all college kids …. How is that ballpark? Is it the same ballpark?

 

Same one. It needs an overhaul.

Who are they now?

 

They're Cincinnati.

They've been there a long time. Kurt Stillwell played there. I remember Kurt here with the Royals.

 

Jeff Montgomery played there, too.

That's right. And I remember a bar, Jekyll and Hydes. That was the big bar hangout. That's when foosball was really big. I wasn't old enough to get in. I was only 18.

 

That didn't stop you, did it?

Yeah, I kind of snuck in.

 

How about I just give you some names now and you can just respond how you want…

Woody Hahn, the general manager. I remember him.

 

I'm not necessarily talking about the Mustangs here. I'm talking about guys you've played with and against, and other things.

Fire away.

 

Natural grass. Wish it'd been here a little sooner?

Yeah. I disagreed with the decision. I played 20 years on Astroturf in the biggest ballpark in the American League. Two days after I announce my retirement they move the fences in 10 feet and put in grass.

 

You could've played five more years.

I could've played a few more years, I know that. But the artificial turf definitely … beats your body up.

 

The designated hitter.

The DH I love. I think it's great. It gave people like me who put in their time a chance to maybe extend their careers a couple years, after playing on Astroturf.

 

And get that 3,000th hit.

Well, I mean, I would have got that regardless. But it would've probably taken me an extra year because I probably would've blown out my knee again playing on (bleeping) Astroturf. I blew it out five times, four times. I am not an Astroturf fan. It made me a better hitter, because I wasn't a home run hitter. But I wasn't a home run hitter because I played in the biggest park in the American League. You play 81 games in one ballpark, you'd better be well adept at playing in that ballpark.

So our theory was we always had guys who could run and had guys who hit it to all fields. Now if I came up playing in Tiger Stadium or in Yankee Stadium, I probably would've been a completely different hitter, you know? But I took advantage of what I had. And I had the biggest park in the American League and a fast field. So what do you do? You hit grounders and line drives and run like a bat out of hell.

 

Dan Quisenberry.

Great friend. Unfortunate, untimely death with the brain tumors. The kind of guy you want out there when the game's on the line, and that's why he was so good. One thing that impressed me is he knew he had eight players behind him and all he'd try to do was have them hit it at somebody. He didn't try to strike anybody out. We used to joke about him all the time, the "30-30-30". He was a member of the 30-30-30 club, which was 30 saves, 30 strikeouts and 30 great plays behind him.

What I really liked about Dan is you couldn't tell after a game if he'd blown a save or got a save. He was always the same person. You have to have that mentality to be out there in that role. Some days he would say "I stink," some days he'd say "Hey, I'm the luckiest guy on the face of the earth. A guy hits a one-hopper, Frank White makes a diving stop, gets up and throws him out by a foot, and I get the credit. What did I do?"

 

Bo Jackson.

When he came to the major leagues he didn't know how to play the game of baseball. He was the rawest guy in the history of baseball playing the major league game. Obviously he had talent, but it wasn't matured yet. And I saw the guy go from that to two years later being an All-Star and being a great player in the major leagues. Unfortunately he decided he was bored in the winter and wanted to be a football player.

(Just then Michael Tucker hits a 2-run homer off Boston pitcher Derek Lowe. Brett stands up along with the 21,000 fans, yelling "Oh, yeah!" out the window. He sits back down.)

Ended his career. But, a very good friend of mine. He was fun to watch.

 

Graig Nettles.

Great friend prior to Game 5 in '77, and a great friend 10 minutes after the game. But, that was the Yankees-Royals rivalry. I see him once or twice a year at a golf tournament, and we sit and giggle. But a great player and a good friend. He's got a pretty good right hand, too. He's got a GREAT right foot, man. He kicked me right in the jaw.

 

Pete Rose.

Very intimidating human being. When I played in my first World Series, obviously he had played in a few of them. I remember he hit a ground ball foul to me and I was playing third base. I kind of bobbled it and threw it to the pitcher, and he looked at me and kind of smiled. And he intimidated me a little bit. But he's a guy I call friend now. I see Pete once or twice a year, and I have a lot of respect for what he did on the baseball field.

 

Even the baseball spike after the third out?

Everybody has their signature deal. A little obnoxious, yeah, when he does that stuff and the ball bounces 15 feet in the air. But that's Pete Rose. When you've got more hits than anybody in major league baseball, you can do those things. I don't think he would do that if he was a rookie.

 

How about the Hall of Fame? Yes or no?

If he bet on baseball? I don't think so.

 

Jamie Quirk.

Just a good friend. We went through a lot together. A lot of losses, a lot of wins. We're from the same area in Southern California, and ended up playing in Kansas City. I really admire his tenacity. Here's a guy who's been released five or six times, and had the tenacity to stick with it, and ended up having a real good career. His family lives in town, I'm good friends with him and his wife, and his three kids.

Last year he was in Texas as a bullpen coach, now he's in Colorado as the bench coach. Which means you're away from your family for six months. I admire him for doing that, because having three kids of my own, the longest I'll go on a trip is, maximum - seven days and I start feeling homesick. I couldn't imagine going six months, not seeing your kids, not seeing your wife. They'll come into Denver for a 3-game series, but a coach's job is to go to the ballpark at 1 in the afternoon and come home at midnight. You don't see your family, even when they're there. But he's been coaching since 1993 because he loves the game of baseball, and he wants to be a manager someday. And hopefully someday he will get the job of manager.

The one thing I get sick and tired of is when they keep just recycling guys. I love Don Zimmer. Don Zimmer is a very good friend. But when a manager would get fired and they'd give it to Zim? I was always kind of hoping they'd give it to a guy who'd paid his dues in the minor leagues. Like a Clint Hurdle. The first thing Clint Hurdle did was say, "I want Jamie." He called me up and said, "Tell me about Jamie. Why'd he get fired?" And I said, "I honestly don't know why he got fired." Clint says, "(Bleep), you're the vice president of the team," and I said, "(Bleep), I don't know! THEY fired him!" He asked me, "Could he help me?" and I said, "Clint, I'm going to tell you something. The son of a … knows what he's talking about."

So that's what I think of Jamie Quirk. Someday I think he will be a good manager.

 

Speaking of good managers…. Dick Howser.

Good manager. Didn't say much to any of the players. I had a little different relationship with him. I got along great with him. Once in a while he'd call me up and say 'Come on over to my room, we're having some drinks.' He didn't do that with anybody else on the team. We got along real well. Another Quisenberry deal. Unfortunate what happened.

You know, Whitey Herzog - Whitey would sit in the clubhouse with you and play cards. Whitey would take you fishing. Whitey would take you golfing. Whitey would do all things with you. Take you hunting in the winter time, bird hunting and stuff. Dick never really said much to any of the players. Whitey would be in the locker room all the time, Dick would always be in his office, door closed. You didn't know what he was doing in there. He might've been watching 'Wheel of Fortune," he might've been looking at reports. I don't know. We were never in there. The game started, he'd go out. He was a good guy.

 

That was my next one. Whitey Herzog.

He was the best manager I ever played for. Solid individual, knows the game inside and out.

 

Going back to recycling, do you think he belongs in baseball now?

No. He's too old. We had him here a couple years ago, and he couldn't do it. Two hearing aids now, and he's too old. I think the game has passed him by a little bit. Players have changed. When you have guys making $20 million, $25 million dollars a year, the manager can't tell them what to do anymore. The game has changed. I don't think managers have the same respect from the players as they did when I was young, coming up. Individuals have changed, players have changed and the managers - you can't be a hard-ass and expect people to play for you. And Whitey was a hard-ass.

 

Hal McRae.

Great influence on me as a player. Great influence on me as a manager. I spent a lot of afternoons out here with him and Charley Lau. Four o'clock out here, three o'clock on the road. Spent a lot of time with him, learning how to hit. Hal learned it as well as anybody. Knows it as well as anybody right now, and it's a shame he's not a hitting coach somewhere in the big leagues.

 

Mike Sweeney.

He's in a little defensive slump right now. Mike's got great potential. Probably one of the nicest men I've ever met in my life. Sincere. Trustworthy. People meet him for the first time and say, "Guess who I met last week? Mike Sweeney." And I say, "Isn't he a nice guy?" And they say, "George, he's too nice. There has to be a catch." And I say, "No, that's him." What you see is what you get. He's just one of the most sincere, nicest guys you could ever meet. And the guy can hit. He can rake.

 

Goose Gossage.

Goose and I have become good friends. All those years I played against him I never said a word to him and he never said a word to me. About four years ago in spring training I met him. He was there doing his little two week stint with the Yankees, and we had a game at Legends Field in Tampa, and I made the trip with the Royals. Somebody said, "Hey, Goose would like to talk to you." I was like, "I don't even know him." I started talking to him, and God, he was just a nice guy. Really, really liked him.

I have a golf tournament in town. I just changed it over to the Joe McGuff tournament, who's in the baseball writers Hall of Fame (McGuff covered the Royals for the Kansas City Star). I had the tournament for ALS (Lou Gehrig Disease), and Joe actually has ALS now, so I changed the name of it from the George Brett tournament to the Joe McGuff tournament with his blessing.

(Desi Relaford makes solid contact and Brett gets on his feet again. "Get out!" he yells. "Get out! Get out! Yeah! Yeah!" It's another 2-run homer. The Royals lead 5-0.)

But anyway, Goose came in played in it one year. I had a long visit with him at spring training this year. He's with the Rockies now. I went to see the Rockies one day, to see Clint and Jamie. Clint knew I was going to come see them and put a picture of me hitting that home run off Gossage up on the wall, and wrote, "Guess who the pitcher was?" Goose was there, and said, "You know what that Hurdle did today, that (bleep)?" But we get along great.

 

They're maybe not on the scale of (Bobby Thompson's home run against) the '51 Dodgers, but they're close; two of the most famous home runs you hit came off Gossage. Yet no hard feelings?

No hard feelings. There were plenty of times when he struck me out and I walked back to the dugout, ending the game. But those two hits I got - the pine tar home run and one was the home run to win the '80 playoffs - they both came off him, unfortunately. And (bleep), he doesn't hold a grudge, and I didn't hold a grudge when he struck me out.

 

I appreciate your time on this. When I talked to Montgomery a few years ago, he had great memories.

Everybody's first year of pro ball is memorable. It's a time that every ball player should experience, but you don't want to experience it too long. Three dollars a day meal money, $500 a month and 15-hour bus rides just aren't a lot of fun.

I remember on that team we had Craig Perkins from SC, Dave Landress from UCLA, Steve Staggs from Cal-State Fullerton. I was shortstop, Joe Zdeb was at third base. Rocky Craig was the center fielder. Mark Littell was a pitcher, obviously. Left field was Myron Pines. Right field was a guy named Jerry Mifsud. Those are the guys I remember on the team. Our manager was Gary Blalock, who was the hitting coach in Kansas City for years. Woody Hahn was the GM. I mean that was only 32 years ago, and then you remember it like it was yesterday.

So did I have a good time? I think so. I think I did.

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