Anaheim, Calif. — George Brett's bid to become baseball's first .400 hitter in nearly four decades has spurred comparisons with the feats of Ted Williams, whose .406 average in 1941 marks the last time anyone reached the magic figure. But so many things have changed since those days that the Kansas City third baseman really faces an entirely different situation.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle confronting Brett that Williams didn't have to contend with is the constant attention from press and television in these days of the "media event." Also, hitting .400, while a great accomplishment, wasn't anywhere near as rare a thing when Ted was going for it, since it had been done eight times in the 1920s and '30s alone.
In addition to these changes in the game, there is the difference in the two men -- for although Brett has become more selective at the plate of late, he is far from the scientific hitter Williams was.
In 1941, for instance, Williams got 145 walks in 143 games. Ted thus proved two things -- the importance of always getting a good ball to hit and of knowing when not to take the big swing, which can raise havoc with a player's bat control.
Brett, on the other hand, had only 51 bases on balls in his first 101 games this season. Basically George has swung at a lot of pitches that Williams would have ignored, and that probably would have been called balls by the umpires.
The point is, if Brett doesn't finish at or above the .400 mark this season, that will probably be the underlying reason, although a sudden diet of hot opposing pitchers could also accomplish the same thing.
Brett talked a little about his increased patience (for him) with the bat the other night, when I interviewed him prior to a game at Anaheim Stadium.
"I think maybe the biggest difference between me as a hitter right now and what I was in previous big league seasons is that this year I've been taking a lot more pitches," Brett explained. "Most pitchers are being overly careful with me, trying not to give me anything too good to hit, and the result is they have been falling behind in the count.
"When that happens, you know the pitcher either has to throw strikes or walk you. And Kansas City has such a good hitting team that to walk me to get to someone else in the lineup doesn't make sense. So by showing a lot of patience and controlling my swing, I've been getting the kind of pitches I can turn into hits."
What is Brett thinking when he is kneeling in the on-deck circle?
"Well, that period has been kind of a laboratory for me," George said. "I watch the pitcher and I try to sort out all the things I know about him in my mind. Although I never decide what I'm going to do until I actually get into the batter's box, I usually have an idea.
"I'm thinking things like should I try to pull this guy or should I simply ride with the pitch where it's thrown, or should I go to the opposite field?" he continued."But the main thing is I'm waiting awhile to see what he throws me before I react."
Williams, who was 6 ft. 3 in. and lanky, was 23 when he hit .406; 39 when he batted .388 in 1957, only four years before he retired from the Red Sox with a . 344 lifetime average and 521 home runs.
Brett is more like 5-11, 27 years old, and nothing like Williams physically. Early in his career writers began calling Ted the Splendid Splinter, but later his body filled out until he looked more like a telephone pole -- not meaning he was fat, just thicker.
Although Brett had a lot of potential when he became a regular for Kansas City in 1974, he was still struggling somewhere in the low 200s with the bat after the first two months of the season.
It was at this time that Charlie Lau (then the Royals batting coach) called him in for a conference. Lau persuaded George to cut down on his swing, shifted the top of his bat from up in the sky somewhere to a shoulder position, and told him to concentrate on hitting the ball over second base. Brett now has one of the most compact swings in baseball.
The result was a batting average that climbed steadily until it stabilized at .282; produced more extra base power; and a lot more runs batted in. The following year Brett went from 129 base hits to 195 and since then has twice gone over 200.
When a hitter is exceptionally hot most pitchers rely on breaking stuff just off the plate to try to get him out, although never throwing the ball in the same spot twice. That is what George has been seeing, and probably will for the rest of the season.
Probably the best way to stop Brett is to throw lefthanders at him. Against righthanders (when this was written) George was batting .430, but against southpaws the figure was just .333. It was also a lefthander, Jon Matlack of Texas, who ended his 30-game hitting streak earlier in the season.
With most of the nation's sports media descending regularly on Brett since Aug. 17, when he first climbed over the .400 barrier George, until recently, has had little time for himself.
Royals management has reacted by scheduling a general press conference two hours before game time during all of Kansas City's road trips; then requesting that writers not bother George on the field.
It is during these conferences, of course, that Brett must deal with the constantly asked question: Do you think you can hit .400 this year?
The fun-loving George always says yes, although I don't know whether to believe him or not. Anyone who would wear enormous custom-made gray cowboy boots with a semicircle of red hearts tooled into the leather high above the heel probably can't be trusted!