TORONTO — Darkness has fallen. Swords are drawn. Damsels in distress wait atop the castle wall, hands to their foreheads. The time has come for heroes. The time has come for George Brett.
Slowly he peels off his tie, his dress shirt, his loafers. His belt, his pants. He opens a can of chewing tobacco, stuffs a wad into his mouth, chomps on it, lays out the cup next to his stool and spits. All this while he is semi-naked. Heroes never blush.
On comes the uniform, the sweat vest, the socks pulled up high. The shoes are laced, the hat slipped over his blond locks. He reaches for the lumber.
The time has come for heroes. He struts out through the tunnel, the Canadian chill greeting him when he steps onto the field.
Get in line. Eyes on the cage. A few practice swings. He must prepare for what he’s about to face, muster all he can muster for the challenge that will come in just a few hours in the American League playoffs against Toronto, swirling off the fingertips of a major league pitcher.
Unforgiving, unrelenting, undeniable . . .
Junk. Why pitch to him?
That’s right, junk.
Rubbish. Scraps. Trash. Balls in the dirt, balls way outside, balls low and in, balls grazing his chest, his ankles, his bat handle.
No one wants to pitch to George Brett. They are too afraid of what he’ll do.
And they have good reason.
He hit .335, blasted 30 home runs and knocked in 112 runs this year for the Royals — and that’s just when he got something to swing at. Much of the time, pitchers just pitched him out of the strike zone. If he wanted to swing foolishly, fine. Otherwise, take your base. A free pass, 103 base-on-balls this season. Mahatma Gandhi did less walking.
How can a hero rise to the occasion when the pitches are sinking to the dirt?
“You wait,” said Brett, chomping on the chaw. “You have to wait for them to make a mistake. To get a pitch in there.”
He spits juice. “And then,” he said simply, “you hit it.”
There you go. You hit it. Easy. Forget that with many batters, it’s the pitcher challenging, daring them to get wood on the ball. With Brett, the bat is the given, the feared object. Like an alligator in a moat. You know he’s there, and you don’t want to test him. You just want to get past without his taking a chunk out of your butt.
And here, in the playoffs, the tradition continues. “There’s no way we’re going to let Brett beat us,” said Toronto manager Bobby Cox. Translation: Don’t expect any letter-high fastballs, George. Toronto has already walked Brett more than any other team this year.
“It doesn’t frustrate me,” Brett said. He knows it’s a badge of respect, a hosanna to the man who hit .390 a few years ago — gave Ted Williams a scare
— and is considered by many the toughest out in baseball. Oh, hell, he is the toughest out in baseball. Last week, during the pennant stretch, when the opposition was acutely aware of how dangerous he was, he still hit five home runs that propelled his team to the title. Five in one week. At crunch time.
“One of those,” marveled teammate Jim Sundberg, “an inside- the-park home run to left field . . . that pitch was down and in. It’s amazing to hit like that.” A flesh-and-blood textbook
Amazing. Incredible. Brett, 32, is no stranger to the words anymore. He’s been viewed as our era’s hitting machine, the closest we have to a flesh-and-blood batting textbook (no slight against Boston’s Wade Boggs, who is probably in that same category).
But like all big-name stars, Brett wants one of those World Series rings to go with all the accolades. He has played in five league championships already, and only once advanced to the World Series. That was against Philadelphia in 1980, and, well, you remember, that was the — shhhh — hemorrhoids problem year. Of course, he hit .375 in the Series, which proves what you can accomplish when you don’t want to sit down.
“I still think I had my best season ever this year, though,” Brett said. “I played 155 games, and I played as good as I can defensively, I hit 30 home runs. This is the best one. Now I just want to finish it up right.”
He goes into the cage, takes a swing, and sends the ball into the seats.
The armor is clanking. The fires are lit. The wolves are howling at the midnight moon. The time has come for heroes. The time has come to weave gold out of junk. The time has come for George Brett, once more.