If you’re going to hit .400, or even have a shot, it helps to put together a summer like George Brett did in 1980.
The Royals third baseman got off to a slow start, hitting just .259 in the first month of the season. Brett was just starting to get hot in June when an ankle injury cost him 35 games. He didn’t return to the lineup until after the All-Star break and it was anybody’s guess as to how he’d do. He spent the layoff thinking about hitting, visualizing at-bats and pumping himself up.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘You’re hot, you haven’t been gone at all.'” he told the Associated Press.
Hitting a baseball at the big league level is among the toughest things in sports and timing is a huge part of hitting. Missing a month of action doesn’t help and neither do torn ankle ligaments. But none of that mattered to George Brett.
A Triumphant Return
Brett assumed his normal spot in the Royals batting order on July 10th and began a seven-week hitting spree the likes of which has rarely been seen in baseball history. In his first seven games, Brett went 17-29 with six doubles and a triple against Detroit, Baltimore and Boston. He also drew six walks during that span for a ridiculous seven game OB% of .636. Red Sox lefty John Tudor held him to an 0-4 evening at Fenway Park on July 17th, but it would be more than a month before Brett went hitless again.
The hitting streak began at Yankee Stadium. In the three-game series against starting pitchers Rudy May, Doug Bird and Ron Guidry, Brett went 7-14 with a homer and nine RBI. After that was a 7-16 four-game set against the White Sox. By the end of July, Brett was batting .390 and riding a 13-game hitting streak. Over the next month, his batting average would go UP.
August began with a modest (by Brett standards) 4-13 performance against the White Sox followed by a three game series against Detroit at Tiger Stadium. In the second game, Brett homered off Detroit starter Milt Wilcox to extend his streak to 18 games. In his next at-bat, Wilcox knocked him down twice before getting him to fly out. On his way back to the dugout, Brett and Wilcox exchanged words and the benches emptied, resulting in a brawl that must have had Royals skipper Jim Frey extremely nervous.
“I thought about going after him the second time he knocked me down, but he was too big,” said Brett of the 6-2, 215 pound Tiger pitcher. “Then, after he was staring at me a bit I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ It was a matter of honor.”
Brett escaped with just a scratch under his right eye and held no grudges.
“I’m not mad at Milt, that’s just baseball,” he said.
After the Dust Up in Detroit, Brett rapped out eight hits in seventeen at-bats in a four game series against the Blue Jays in Toronto, then returned to Kansas City and went 13-24 in a six-game homestand, including a 4-4 day against those same Blue Jays that boosted his average to .401.
“It was electrifying to stand at second base and see a standing ovation,” he said after the game. “That was really something. I was getting goose bumps out there.”
When he reached the magical .400 mark, the scrutiny and media attention increased dramatically. No one had finished a season above .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Rod Carew flirted with the mark in 1977, but he dropped under .400 on July 11th and never got back.
Brett’s quest had a different feel. First of all, he reached .400 on August 17th, some six weeks later than Carew. Secondly, George Brett was enjoying the season of a lifetime.
From the time he returned from the disabled list until the day he finally reached .400, Brett played in 37 games and recorded at least one hit in 36 of them. From July 10th through August 17th, he hit .473 and struck out a total of three times. His manager had no doubt Brett could deal with the pressure.
“You’re talking about a guy who can handle it better than almost anybody else,” said Jim Frey. “He’s one of those unusual guys who doesn’t spend any time thinking about what could go wrong.”
Over the next nine games hardly anything did. His hitting streak may have ended at 30 games, but his average continue to climb, culminated by a 5-5 effort against the Brewers on August 26th to bring his batting average to .407 with 36 games left in the season.George Brett hit .456 over a 7 week span in 1980. #Royals Click To Tweet
“I really feel no pressure because there’s such a long way to go,” Brett told the media. “I imagine I will feel more pressure if I’m at .395 or .400 with a week to go in the season, but not now. I just want to have fun playing baseball and fun to me is hitting and driving in runs.”
Late Season Struggles
Brett’s average stayed at or near .400 as late as September 19th, with just 14 games left in the season. Unfortunately, he experienced his first real slump over the next seven games, hitting just .148. He hit “just” .304 over the last two weeks of the season and finished at .390.
“It would have been better if we’d been playing games that meant something,” Brett said after the season. “That way they’d have to pitch to me and I’d also have had to be more selective. The way it was, those trips to Seattle and Minnesota two weeks before the season’s end were just awful.
“I knew I was running out of time, and I was swinging at bad pitches and I couldn’t do anything. I was just hacking and digging a hole for myself. There just wasn’t anything I could do.”
Hacking, digging holes for yourself, swinging at bad pitches and still hitting .390 is a good problem to have.