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 seven hits in a doubleheader, 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 flying 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 nine 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 6-6. 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 cancer, 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 bat feted a metal cart with his bat until his auger 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.