Late last month, George Brett made his way back into the dugout for the Royals when he was named interim hitting coach for the ballclub. For Royals fans -- at least those of us of a certain age -- seeing No. 5 back on the field is both fun and nostalgic. But for Brett, the return to uniform is all about the here and now rather than a stroll down memory lane.
It is not much of a secret that the Royals have struggled offensively so far this year. Those struggles are even more magnified because the pitching staff has put up numbers ranking them among the best in the American League. So what can be done to turn the offense around? What can be done to bring the talent out of young players that have reached the big leagues, only to struggle to meet their own high expectations?
As it turns out, Brett has experience with just such a scenario.
The script 40 years ago had Brett in the role of struggling young player, and the mentor was Royals hitting coach Charley Lau. There are differences, for sure: Brett is a Hall of Fame player known by all, whereas Lau had a much less successful playing career. I talked with Brett several years ago about his relationship with Lau, and I think it reveals some of what might be his motivation in getting back on the field.
“I don't know what would have happened if I didn't have that relationship,” Brett recalled about Lau. “He always studied the game and loved to study hitting.”
But even Brett admits he wasn’t much of a listener until the game humbled him with early struggles in Kansas City.
“I was a callup when Paul Schaal sprained his ankle. I played in two games, then was sent back down to the Minors.”
His first exposure to the big leagues was rough to say the least.
“I got called up and played sparingly. I didn't do much to warrant starting the next day. I was 5-for-47 the last month of the season.”
The next year was a new beginning, but it didn't seem that way at the start.
“Charley Lau watched me for about 40 to 50 games without saying a word. I was the type of hitter that tried to pull the ball and I had the bat straight up in the air like Carl Yastrzemski. I stood close to the plate, trying to pull the ball. He thought it would be better if I moved off the plate. He said he thought I had the chance to be a good player, but he said he was the only coach that thought I could hit.”
The results were proving that Brett’s approach wasn’t working, but Lau still showed persistent patience before deconstructing Brett’s swing and overall hitting approach.
“I think he waited and waited and waited because he wanted me to hit rock bottom, because once that happens to your soul, you'll listen and give 100 percent.”
It is very much a cliché that the game of baseball will humble even players with immense talent, but it often does, and midway through the 1974 season, the future Hall of Famer and three-time batting champion was a humble 21-year-old.
Brett recalled it this way: “If he said in order to hit better in the Majors, I'd have to jump off the Broadway Bridge into the water and swim to the side, I'd have done it. That's how rock bottom I was.”
Finally, Lau sensed that his young pupil had reached the point that he would be ready to listen.
“He said if I was willing to put forth the effort, he'd work with me.”
There were, of course, no guarantees, but Lau believed Brett had the skills to be a good hitter. The results were not instant, but they did come pretty quickly after the two set some initial, seemingly modest goals.
“When Charley Lau and I started to work together in 1974, we set a goal to hit .250. I was hitting a little over .200 at the All-Star Break and I was going to the ballpark every day -- 3 p.m. on the road was extra BP, 4 p.m. at home. Didn't matter if I got three or four hits the day before.”
He remembers the results finally started to surface.
“Sure enough, we worked and moved me off the plate. Use the whole field, not just the right side. Use the whole field.”
Together, they bested that goal of hitting .250, and Brett finished the 1974 season with a .282 batting average. He would hit .308 the following year and .333 in 1976 to win his first batting title.
Brett has been candid about the debt he feels he owes to the Royals organization, which he has been a part of since he was an 18-year-old, second-round Draft pick in 1971. He recently said, "I owe this organization a tremendous amount. Everything I have, I owe to them. Everything I've done in my life, I owe to this organization."
Of course, Brett has earned his place in baseball history, but in some ways, his latest contributions to the Royals organization could be viewed as his way to "pay it forward" in recognition of what Charley Lau did for him 40 years ago.
“He just taught me fundamentals and kept a keen eye on me, and became a stepfather to me and a relationship grew. A strong one. And I think he helped me more than anyone in baseball achieve the things I've been able to achieve.”
Brett plans to try to do for this generation of Royals what his mentor did for him.
“I’ll use the same philosophy that worked for me as a hitter, and that’s the one Charley Lau taught me ... I’ll be Charley Lau’s ghost.”
Curt Nelson is the Director of the Royals Hall of Fame and has worked for the Royals since the 1999 season. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.