Chasing .400

Thirty-five years ago, George Brett nearly reached the unreachable plateau

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KANSAS CITY — Batting average, like Kodak, video stores and professional boxing, has seen better days. In the last few decades, more and more people have looked at the ingredients of batting average and realized, yeah, it has a few flaws as an all-encompassing  baseball statistic. For one thing, batting average treats walks and hit-by-pitches as non-events — never happened. It also treats bunts that move runners over as non-events but considers grounders that accomplish the exact same thing to be common outs. Fly balls that score runs get a batting-average exemption. Ground balls that score runs do not.

Also: Batting average can call you out even if you are safe; this depends on whether or not and official scorer deems that the defender should have caught the ball and awards an error. And all hits count the same — a seeing-eye single, a wall-rattling double or a titanic home run off the scoreboard — they’re all equal in the eye of batting average.

But batting average is pure Americana now — hits divided by at-bats has long been the first mathematical equation of childhood — and the statistic still thrives in the national language. Stockbrokers talk about their batting averages; so do lawyers and sales people and crass guys reminiscing about how well they did trying to meet women in bars. The other day, a mother — talking about how two of her five children had become doctors — told me she batted .400. She is not a sports fan. She instinctively knew, though, that batting .400 means something.

In the Major Leagues, the drought is now 74 years since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. Sure, he knew it was a big deal. Williams came into the final day technically hitting .400 (.39955) and his manager, Joe Cronin, suggested that he sit out the final game of a doubleheader to preserve the magic number. Teddy Ballgame spat on that nonsense, played both games, cracked six hits in eight at bats and kicked .400’s butt.

Yes, he knew it was a big deal. He just didn’t know that it was a BIG DEAL. Bill Terry had hit .400 11 years before, Before that, Rogers Hornsby had done it three times. Ty Cobb had done it three times, too. Not only was Ted Williams sure that someone would do it, Williams was sure that he would hit .400 again. And he almost did, in 1957, when he was 38 years old. Hit .448 the last two months of the season but still came up 12 points and five hits short. If his legs had worked at all, Williams often said, he would have done it.

But after Ted Williams didn’t hit .400 again, well, nobody else did either. Stan Musial topped out at .376. Joe DiMaggio never beat .381. Wade Boggs hit .418 at Fenway Park one year, .411 at Fenway another year. Unfortunately the Green Monster didn’t travel with him on the road, and he did not approach .400 either season. Roberto Clemente, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays, none of them came close.

There were only a few close calls through the years. Rod Carew was the man of a thousand batting stances each one specifically chosen for the pitcher and the ballpark and the occasion. He was an artist at the plate, and in 1977, he was hitting .403 on Independence Day. He seemed the right guy to finally hit .400. But on July 11, he had a 1-for-5 day in Anaheim and never again climbed above .400. The final two months were sheer misery for him. The media pressure was so overwhelming, he took to wearing disguises just to avoid reporters. Carew finished at .388, the same as Ted Williams 20 years earlier.

In 1994, Tony Gwynn made his greatest run for .400. Gwynn seemed born to hit .400. He studied hitting the way Bobby Fischer studied chess. He watched countless hours of video. He developed intricate plans of attack for each plate appearance. Ted Williams himself proclaimed that Gwynn was the man to do it. And on Aug. 11, 1994, Gwynn cracked three hits in five at-bats to lift his average to .394. The chase was on! Only, it wasn’t. The player strike began the next day. The season was stopped. The World Series was canceled.

A few months before his death, I asked Tony Gwynn if he would have hit .400 that year.

“Of course I would have,” he said.

Colorado baseball in the 1990s should have yielded a .400 hitter. Denver was a hitter’s dream. The ball carried so far (this was before the humidor partially deadened the effect of the altitude) that they had to put the fences back miles and miles. That left way too much open space for three outfielders to cover. In 1993, Andres Galarraga – a 32-year-old lifetime .267 hitter – hit .402 at Mile High Stadium, and .370 for the season.

In 1994, Mike Kingery hit .349.

In 1995, now in the new Coors Field, Dante Bichette hit .340 with 40 homers.

In 1996, Ellis Burks hit .344.

In 1997, Larry Walker hit .366. Then he hit .363. Then he hit .379. In the last of those years, 1999, Walker hit an almost unbelievable .461 at home. How do you hit .461 at home and NOT hit .400 for the season? Well, you hit just .286 on the road.

So none of them could quite get it done. The player who came closest was Todd Helton in 2000. Helton hit a robust .353 on the road that year, so he had a real chance. He got his batting average up to .399 in mid-August. But then the pressure began, and he faded, hitting just .295 the rest of the way. That was really the last time anyone threatened.

And now, well, a .400 run seems almost unimaginable. Heck, last year Justin Morneau led the National League in hitting at .319. It was the lowest batting average in more than two decades to win the title. With strikeouts up all around baseball, with hard-throwing relievers rushing in from every bullpen, with teams shifting their defense based on intricate scouting, with batting average itself losing favor, it seems like the very idea of a .400 season is fading.

Then again, if someone COULD make a run – if a Joey Votto or a Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout or one of the brilliant young hitters out there could somehow nudge above .400 in July or August – I imagine that there would be nationwide hysteria. That’s how it was 35 years ago, when George Brett made the last real run for .400. It was nationwide hysteria.

* * *

George Brett played every single game of 1980 scared out of his mind. What was he scared of? You name it. He was scared that he would let a ball roll through his legs. He was scared that he would drop an easy popup. He was scared he would strike out with the bases loaded. He was scared that he would overthrow the first baseman by 10 feet. He was scared of embarrassment, humiliation, laughter. He was scared that he would let Jimmy down. Who was Jimmy? Jimmy was an imaginary 12-year-old boy Brett had constructed in his mind, an amalgamation of all the 12-year-old kids who had pleaded for his autograph through the years, a huge baseball fan who had come from far away to see his hero play.

Most of all, George Brett was scared of that phone call that was coming (it always came) just a few minutes after the ballgame ended.

“What the hell kind of pitch did you swing at?” the phone caller would yell.

“Were you even trying on that foul ball?” the phone caller would yell.

“That hit in the first inning was pure luck,” the phone caller would yell. “You should give it back.”

Sometimes, at the end of the phone call, Brett would tear the phone out of the clubhouse wall. Other times, he would shake his head and laugh. Most of the time, though, he just listened and stewed because he had been listening to Jack Brett rant all his life. Once, in a Little League game, George struck out twice. Jack kicked him hard in the backside afterward. “That,” Jack said furiously, “is for embarrassing the family.” Yes, that was another fear George Brett felt: The fear of embarrassing the family.

Of course, there was a secret George and his father shared: George just played better scared.

* * *

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He began 1980 cold. George Brett always began seasons cold – he was a .264 lifetime hitter in April. Well, he was a California kid, raised in the El Segundo sunshine. He never wore batting gloves; Brett wanted to feel the sting of being jammed and the thrill of hitting a baseball just right. In Kansas City, though, the April chill deadened his hands. Everything hurt. That year, he was hitting .259 coming out of April, and early May wasn’t much better. It wasn’t until the last week of May that he started to feel warmth in his hands, and in the final four games of the month, he got nine hits in 17 at-bats to push his average over .300.

The word in America was “malaise.” President Jimmy Carter talked about a “fundamental threat to American democracy” — this was the threat of apathy. Ronald Reagan countered by saying America was a shining city on the hill. The nightly news kept a count of how long 52 Americans had been held hostage in Iran. Gas lines stretched into the streets. The Olympics went on in the Soviet Union without American athletes. Muhammad Ali was losing weight; he promised to come back and win the heavyweight title for the fourth time. A serial killer was murdering black children in Atlanta. “The Empire Strikes Back” hit movie theaters. “Three’s Company” was the No. 1 comedy on television.

In early June, George Brett hit three home runs in three days against the New York Yankees. For him, that was what 1980 was all about: Finally beating the Yankees. Three times, the Royals had reached the playoffs. Three times, they had been knocked out by the Bombers. Brett hurt his ankle stealing a base, but he came back in time to go to Yankee Stadium in July and drive in nine runs in three games. His batting average climbed to .375. “The only way to pitch Brett now is way inside,” Yankees pitcher Rudy May muttered to the press. “That way, the line drive won’t hit you.”

A summer-long heat wave suffocated Kansas City. The Royals’ groundskeeper, George Toma, had a thermometer at Royals Stadium designed to measure the temperature of the AstroTurf; it often registered at 145 degrees. During day games, Kansas City players would submerge their feet — cleats and all — in buckets of ice water between innings. The hotter the temperature, though, the better Brett hit. He got four hits in five at-bats against Boston to lift the average to .382. He went 3-for-5 in Toronto to lift his average to .390.

And on Aug. 17, with a 28-game hitting streak on the line, he faced Jim Clancy and the Blue Jays. Brett loved hitting against Clancy, a big right-hander from the South Side of Chicago. Clancy came at hitters straightaway; Brett liked that. “I wore that guy’s ass out,” Brett would say many years later. Brett reluctantly walked the first time up. The second time, he rifled a single to right to extend the hitting streak to 29 games. The average was .396.

In the fifth, he hit a high chopper off the sizzling turf and beat the second baseman’s throw. His average was up to .397.

In the seventh, he crushed a double into the gap in right-center, driving in the go-ahead run. The average was now .399.

The 30,000-plus at the stadium all knew exactly what was happening. Some had brought calculators. When Brett came up in the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, well, the Royals’ young director of sales looked out from the press box and realized he had never heard the place so loud. He had never felt such tension. He would say this was perhaps the most memorable moment of his young life.

And Brett stepped in to the box feeling the usual fear of failure. “Damn, I’m hot,” he said to himself, a reminder, and he looked out to the mound. Jim Clancy had been pulled. The new pitcher was the opposite sort of pitcher, Mike Barlow, a soft-throwing and deceptive lefty, the kind of pitcher Brett hated facing. Brett heard the voice of his old hitting coach, Charlie Lau, growling in head. “Wait, dummy!” the voice said, and when the offspeed pitch came, Brett waited and waited and waited and, at the last instant, uncoiled. He hit the ball just as it was about to plop into the catcher’s mitt. He smashed it to left field. A double. When he got to second base, the scoreboard flashed the batting average: .401. The sound was booming.

Brett stood at second base and lifted his arms in the air in triumph.

“Do you know what you mean to these people?” the young director of sales gushed to Brett when the game ended. “Do you know just how much you mean?” Many years later, that director of sales would remember the moment again, only by then he’d developed his own fame as Rush Limbaugh.

“I’ll never forget it,” Limbaugh would say.

* * *

The Elias Sports Bureau calculated the odds of George Brett hitting .400 at 1.7 quadrillion-to-1. Other mathematicians immediately railed against Elias’ methods and said the odds were closer to 9 million-to-1. But in Vegas, the odds had dropped to 4-to-1. In Milwaukee at the end of August, he went 5-for-5 — sparking two standing ovations from Brewers fans — to bring his average up to .407. “George Brett for President” bumper stickers began to show up on the backs of cars.

Jack Brett was as relentless as ever over the phone. Every game, he attacked George for something. Jack was a Brooklyn native, a World War II veteran, an accountant for the Datsun car company. He raised his four sons on baseball and winning. Ken Brett was his greatest hope. Ken was almost five years older than George, and he was the All-American kid — great student, great athlete, great pitcher, great hitter, great everything. Casey Stengel came to see him play. Yogi Berra came to the house to sell the family on the Yankees. “I wanted him to replace Mickey Mantle,” Jack would say.

George, meanwhile, was the screw-up. The kid who hid his report card. The casual ballplayer who would get cocky if he got a hit. “Poor George,” Jack used to call him, and Jack never let up on him, not ever. When George’s mother asked Jack to take it easy on George, he shook his head. “What’s going to become of him?” he asked furiously.

“Maybe I was too hard on him,” Jack would say later in life. Maybe. When George made the big leagues, Jack started to call. “Did you get any hits today?” he’d ask.

“No,” George said.

“Damn it, George. Your brother Ken got two hits, and he’s a PITCHER.”

Ken didn’t become the star Jack or anyone else expected. He had a nice 14-year big league career, made an All-Star Team, but by 1980, everyone knew it was coming to an end. He was 31 and his arm was shot. The Royals picked him up in September, largely to help George mentally. Ken pitched 13 innings in relief that September and did not give up a run. “I think George can do it,” he told the reporters who rushed to his locker.

And the reporters did rush in, they came in from everywhere, so many that the Royals weren’t quite sure what to do. Brett had always been a reporter’s dream; he enjoyed the give-and-take with the press. He loved the attention. For a week after the Milwaukee game, his average hovered over .400, and he had daily bull sessions with the dozens of reporters who were now following him. “This is fun,” he said.

It would be the last time he said that.

* * *

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The chase was inescapable. Both presidential candidates, Carter and Reagan, kept invoking Brett’s name (Neither one deserved “The George Brett Trophy,” George Will wrote in The Washington Post). It was said that the American hostages in Iran were being given updates about Brett’s chase. Papers across America had begun a daily “George Brett Watch.” Johnny Carson told George Brett jokes. Billy Graham told his congregations to be humble, for even George Brett sometimes goes 0-for-3. A comic strip called “Berry’s World,” featured a boy muttering to his parents, “What proof do you have that George Brett eats his Brussels sprouts?”

The editorial page of the New York Times came out strongly in favor of Brett hitting .400:

“September is baseball’s testing month. The pressure mounts, the autumn shadows lengthen, the playoffs loom. And the fans want to be there when history, real history, is made. If the gods are kind, they may see a secular miracle: Bobby Thomson’s home run of 1951, or Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, or Hank Aaron topping Babe Ruth’s Everest total of 714 career home runs. Now such rapturous fixation focuses on George Brett. We hope it helps.”

It did not help. The attention began to fray Brett’s nerves. The repetitive questions from the endless line of reporters — to go along with increasing intensity from Jack’s phone calls — began to drive him crazy. “Can’t you just copy someone else’s story?” he snapped at the Chicago Sun-Times reporter. “I never asked to hit .400,” he griped in general. Joe Klein was sent to do a daily diary on Brett, but he noticed that as time went on Brett started to get testier and angrier. He told author John Garrity that he abandoned the diary idea, fearing that his last entry would be, “Brett is looking at me now with murder in his eyes.” The New York Daily News wrote a story headlined, “Pressure Getting to Brett.”

But he kept hitting, at least for a while. On Sept. 19, after a week or two of dancing around the magic number, Brett singled twice against Oakland to lift his average to .3995 — technically .400. But this was not the celebration of a month earlier. “If I don’t do it, I’ll feel I let myself and a lot of other people down,” Brett morosely told reporters. “I need some padding. I need a four- or five-hit game to get up to .408 or .410.” Instead, he went 1-for-8 the next two days at home against Oakland, dropping the average to .394, and then the team shipped off to Seattle and then Minnesota.

Those six games would become the nadir of 1980. Nothing went right. The team had wrapped up the division title, and they lost their edge; the Royals descended into a what-difference-does-it-make eight-game losing streak. Brett couldn’t get anything going in Seattle, to the dismay of Mariners fans who had nothing else to cheer. In Minnesota, for a Saturday morning game, he expected a day off but instead found himself in the lineup against tough lefty Jerry Koosman. Brett went 0-for-4 and his average dropped down to .384. For the first time since the chase began, he refused to talk to the press.

“Thanks a lot, George,” said Mike McKenzie, the columnist for The Kansas City Star. “I spent all this money, flew all this way out to Minnesota to interview you and you’re not talking.”

Brett turned to teammate Darrell Porter and shouted, “Darrell, one (bleeping) day I want to go without the same questions. One (bleeping) day. You think there’s anything wrong with that?”

Porter confirmed there was not, in fact, anything wrong with that, but then Brett exploded to McKenzie, unleashing all the frustration and misery and pressure that had bottled up. The same questions. The daily pressure. The constant distractions. Brett was a one-thought hitter; one of his gifts was an ability to clear his mind of everything but one thought (Usually: Sit fastball, adjust to the curve). But now, a thousand thoughts buzzed. Baseball had stopped being fun. Hitting had stopped being fun. Dealing with the press had stopped being fun. None of it was fun at all.

“They’ll say I choked,” Brett said finally, getting to the crux of things, getting to that emotion of fear again.

“No they won’t,” McKenzie said.

“If they would leave me alone,” Brett said softly, “I could still do it. I could still hit .400.”

The next day, Royals manager Jim Frey — seeing that Brett had boiled over — gave him the day off. Many of the reporters had left the game. There were fewer than 7,000 fans at old Metropolitan Stadium. Brett sat on the bench and watched a stirring game and felt some of the old joy. He wanted to get in there! In the sixth inning, down by a run, the Royals loaded the bases against a right-handed pitcher named Pete Redfern. “Hey George,” Frey yelled out, “why don’t you go hit?”

Brett happily bound to the plate and he hit a grand slam the give the Royals the lead. His average was up to .385, and there was a week left in the season.

“It’s not over!” he told the reporters who stayed around.

* * *

With the benefit of hindsight, here is what we know about the last week of the 1980 season: Brett would come to the plate 24 times. He walked six times — twice intentionally — which meant that he got 18 official at-bats.

To hit .400, he needed 14 hits in those 18-at bats. He would need those 14 hits under the most intense pressure, facing mostly left-handed pitchers, and rarely seeing a good pitch. It was a daunting task. But with almost everyone having written him off, Brett felt loose and free again.

In the first game, against Seattle, he singled in the first and then singled in the third. The average was up to .388. So far so good. The game dragged into the 14th inning, where Brett hit a walk-off home run off of Mark Parrott. A three-hit game, but because the game stretched into extra innings, he also used three of his four outs.

In game two against Seattle, he was intentionally walked in the first inning, which ticked him off so much that he stole second base. He homered in the fourth, doubled in the fifth and doubled again in the seventh. His average was up to .391. His brother Ken got the save in the Royals’ 94th win of the season. There was still a chance.

But then the chance was gone. The next day, against Floyd Bannister — another pitcher he beat up through the years — Brett went 0-for-2, and (though he didn’t know it officially) he was mathematically eliminated from .400. Brett went 3-for-7 in his last two games, and finished at .390 — the highest batting average since Ted Williams’ .406 four decades earlier. Brett finished five hits shy of .400.

Brett continued his Hall of Fame career from there — he and the Royals finally beat the Yankees in 1980; he won another batting title; he twice led the league in slugging; he played in eight more All-Star games; he carried the Royals to their one World Series title in 1985 — but Brett never again hit quite like he did in 1980. Teams stopped throwing him fastballs, for one thing. But he also was changed by the experience. He stopped being the scared kid so hungry to prove himself. Brett’s greatness came out in the biggest moments – he hit nine homers in 27 playoff games, and hit .373 in two World Series. But that run at .400, well, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

In 1992, Jack Brett was told that he had cancer. He had just one request of the family: Don’t tell George. “He’s in a slump,” Jack said. “He doesn’t need to be thinking about me.” When his condition worsened, the family did call George who rushed home and was at his father’s side when he died. After the funeral, he returned. After a couple of days of rough days, he cracked three hits to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time hits list.

“I wish Dad would have been around to see it,” George said. “But he was around for a lot of good stuff.” It was true. Many years later, I asked George Brett about 1980, and he remembered how good it felt when he was hot, and he remembered how much the attention overwhelmed him, but mostly he remembered Jack Brett.

“Do you know what he told me when the season ended?” George asked. I shook my head.

“He said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that you couldn’t have gotten five more (bleeping) hits?'”