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Why this road trip is crucial for George Brett

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, June 14, 2013, at 5:15 p.m.

George Brett took on this new life out of frustration. That’s not the whole thing, but it is a big part. Pride. Disappointment. Frustration. Without those emotions he wouldn’t be in uniform again, that old No. 5 on his back as he tries to help one of baseball’s worst offenses.

That’s the fan in him. The Royals were struggling, so he wanted to help. Well, no. It’s more than that. His Royals were struggling, so he needed to help. He feels a genuine debt here. The Royals made him a vice president as soon as he retired, with a nice salary and little responsibility in the two decades since.

Brett is the best thing to happen to the Royals, of course, and the feeling is mutual.

“All of this,” he said on the patio behind his house the other day, “the Royals bought all of this for me. My parents didn’t buy it. The stock market didn’t buy it. The Royals did.”

Emotions can only last so long, though. Brett began this new life two weeks ago. He is exactly halfway through a one-month commitment as hitting coach, and this road trip may be the most important time he has with the team.

Not just for the coaching, either. But for himself. To figure out not just whether he can do this job, but whether he wants to. People have mostly missed this so far. Brett hasn’t talked much about it, and the focus has been more on his hitting philosophies and the Royals recent winning streak to see it.

That comes into focus now, because that frustrated life of a fan is two weeks in Brett’s past. He and assistant Pedro Grifol are waist-deep in long days. Staff meetings and video work and swings in the cage and teaching moments never stop.

And, now, Brett is doing all of this away from that home the Royals bought him. This is the crucial part. He calls this the “first real road trip” of this new life, and it will determine so much.

“When I retired, it wasn’t because I couldn’t play anymore,” Brett says. “I was still a good hitter. Not what I was, but I led the team in RBIs my last year. I retired because I got tired of the travel and being away from my family.”

One moment from back then particularly sticks in Brett’s memory. A road trip to Seattle, late in his career. He’d always told his wife how beautiful it was there, so she flew ahead to meet him. The Royals played the night before in another city — Brett can’t remember exactly where, which is sort of the point — and didn’t get to the hotel until 4 in the morning. He thought then this was no way to spend the rest of his life.

He thinks about that now, too.

Brett’s first game as hitting coach was in St. Louis, but everything was so new then. One game there, then three in Texas and he was back in Kansas City. No grind. It was a long weekend as much as anything.

He thinks this might be different. Four games at Tampa Bay, then a flight to Cleveland for three more. Hotel to hotel, seven games in seven days. This is more like that big-league life he left behind.

He could be golfing, barbecuing. Sharing a bottle of wine at home with his wife. Brett turned 60 last month. This is the time when most men work less, not more. Their lives simplify, not complicate. Brett has never lived the life of most men, of course, but no one — including Brett himself — is sure how this will end.

Brett is into this. Invested. More than he expected, perhaps, and more than when he first took the job. He didn’t know he’d be this nervous during at-bats, or find himself praying for success.

This is all so new to him, and he’s not sure how much help he can be. All he can do is try. Share ideas. Grifol dissects video, and Brett tries to work through it. Here is what you look like now, they’ll say, and this is what you look like now. Let’s get back to this.

But how can you tell? Eric Hosmer hit his second home run of the season on Thursday and is having more success on pitches inside, which is nice. Mike Moustakas is working differently in batting practice now, but hasn’t seen the success in games. This is all such a delicate balance.

Ultimately, Brett’s impact will be measured by numbers, and until Thursday the Royals weren't hitting any better than before. Maybe this is a sign of better times. Brett and the Royals have to believe it will be, because the organization’s future may rest in the outcome.

Brett’s basic charge is to practice so hard on fundamentals that your mind clears during games. Hitting is difficult enough, even in ideal times. If you’re thinking about loading too soon, or where your stride foot lands, you have no time to adjust from a 95-mph fastball up to a slider on the black. This is Brett’s philosophy, passed on from his old hitting coach, Charley Lau, complicated and simple at the same time.

That part of it is fun and challenging and terrifying and addicting. Brett is at the ballpark, that old No. 5 on his back again, and he’s having a blast. But that also means he’s not at home, away from the easy life he earned and enjoyed.

That point will drive itself home during this week-long road trip, and as much as anything else, determine how long Brett lives this new life.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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