St. Louis — George Brett not only hits for both average and power, he swings the bat with a picture-book consistency that is the envy of just about all other major league batsmen. One of Brett's chief admirers, of course, is Whitey Herzog, who managed him for several years in Kansas City and now is on the other side trying to find ways to stop him in the World Series. Before every game, the St. Louis pilot goes over George's hitting style with his pitchers the way a member of the military might approach an unexploded bomb.
The one mistake Herzog doesn't want his hurlers to make when dealing with Brett is to get the ball up high, where he is likely to drive it into the next county. The idea is to work carefully to him, and maybe get him to hit a pitch that's a little bit off the plate -- a good idea any time, but especially smart when the designated hitter is not part of the World Series.
Normally when a team is playing Kansas City it can't afford the luxury of being too cute with Brett and risking walking him, because waiting in the on-deck circle is Hal McRae. Hal, now 39, is still a superb hitter who seldom strikes out and who also has some power. But because he has reached a career stage where he no longer can play the outfield or throw very well, Manager Dick Howser is using him basically as a pinch-hitter in this DH-less World Series.
Even without McRae's bat behind him, Brett has hit the ball hard so far, with a single, an RBI double, and a couple of other well-tagged shots that went for outs in the first two games, while also playing a standout third base. And before that came his explosive playoff series in which George brought his team back from an 0-2 deficit with a fantastic Game 3 performance (4-for-4, two home runs, three RBIs, and a great play in the field) and went on to earn MVP honors as the Royals beat out Toronto for th e American League pennant.
Coming through in big games and situations is nothing new to Brett, though, as he has demonstrated on numerous other occasions -- most memorably the dramatic ninth-inning home run off the Yankees' Goose Gossage that won the 1980 pennant. He also hit .375 in the World Series that year despite some physical problems.
Herzog, who has been with the Cardinals since 1980, managed the Royals during Brett's growing years from 1975 through 1979. George compiled some outstanding figures even then, leading the league in batting once and in hits three times, but basically this was the period when Herzog and his coaches molded him into a complete player. And Whitey was gone the following season when Brett just missed becoming the first batter since Ted Williams in 1941 to hit .400, eventually finishing at .390.
Today Brett and Herzog are still off-season fishing and hunting buddies. The subject of baseball has been known to creep into their conversation too.
``Back when I was just a kid and hadn't seen that much of the big leagues it was Whitey who taught me what it took to be a ballplayer,'' Brett told reporters here. ``I don't want to take anything away from Charley Lau, who worked hours with me on my hitting, or Chuck Hiller, who made me comfortable in the field at third base, but it was Whitey who made me knowledgeable about the game and also taught me patience.''
Lay those Brett lines on Herzog, though, and what you get is the other side of what has obviously become a mutual admiration society.
Explained Whitey, ``George is the only ballplayer I know who doesn't need a manager. He has the speed to beat out slow rollers, the power to hit for distance, and the patience to use all of the field. Besides that, he plays a great third base.''
What Lau did for the left-handed hitting Brett years ago was persuade him to take his bat out of the sky (a la Carl Yastrzemski) and bring it down nearer his shoulder where he had more control. Lau also got him to concentrate on hitting the ball over second base, partly because that's the biggest unguarded hole in the infield, but mostly because he wanted George to get the feel of establishing good contact.
In a way, Hiller's job was more tedious because if hitting is always fun, fielding 100 or so ground balls a day gets boring after a while. But to his credit, Brett did it. George also stopped overthrowing the ball to first base, again thanks to Hiller, who taught him the finer points of judging distance while still keeping his accuracy.
Asked what he is thinking when he's in the on-deck circle, Brett replied, ``To me that's like time spent in a laboratory. I watch the pitcher and I try to sort out all the things I know about him. Although I never decide ahead of time what I'm going to do until I actually get into the batter's box, I usually have a pretty good 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?
``But the main thing is I'm patient. Maybe I even take a pitch to see what he's got, or maybe if the ball is where I like it I'll go after it immediately. But I know what my strike zone is and I try never to go beyond my limits.''
Even while following Lau's basic theories and concentrating on making contact, Brett plumbed the depths of his natural power enough to become a consistent long ball threat. Going into this season he already had led the league in doubles once and triples three times, had hit more than 20 homers on five occasions, had driven in 80 or more runs six times, and over 100 twice. ca And this year the transition to slugger stepped up a notch as George hit 30 out of the ballpark for the first time in his career w hile driving in 112 runs. He didn't sacrifice anything in batting average either, with a .335 mark that was 21 points over his lifetime standard and second in his career only to that phenomenal .390 five years ago.