The conversation between two Royals officials could have been between any disappointed fans.
But on this late Tuesday morning following another discouraging loss by the team, John Wathan sensed a deeper level of frustration as he spoke with George Brett. The two men joined other past and present Royals at longtime team broadcaster Fred White’s Celebration of Life reception.
“We were asking ourselves, ‘What are we going to do?’” said Wathan, a former Royals player and manager who’s a special assistant with the club.
“It’s been terrible, and we were tired of looking at it.’”
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Brett’s competitive fires rekindled, and he did something about it. Or at least he’s going to try.
On Thursday, Brett left the front office and returned to the Royals’ dugout at age 60 as the team’s interim hitting coach, replacing Jack Maloof. It’s a temporary move that may only last a month, but Royals fans are hoping Brett’s connection to the franchise’s glory days will electrify a young clubhouse that’s trying to learn to win consistently.
It’s no secret the Royals’ current crisis centers on projected cornerstones Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, whose collective slump, dating to last year, has now cost three hitting coaches their jobs.
“Get rid of the (baby) bottles, let’s go,” Brett said the day he took over. “Let’s go.”
Brett’s investment in the Royals’ success has changed from a vice president’s job that didn’t include many day-to-day duties to a stake in the progress of the organization’s top prospects. He’s back in his No. 5 uniform, at batting practice before the game, in the dugout during and traveling with the team after.
“Man, I was surprised,” former Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said of Brett’s decison. “But they couldn’t keep doing what they had been doing.”
Brett becomes the latest high-profile player from the Royals’ glory era of six division championships, two American League pennants and one World Series title in the 1970s and ’80s to enter the dugout.
Wathan crafted a .515 winning percentage in four seasons as Royals manager. His successor, Hal McRae, won one fewer game in four seasons and finished with a .508 mark when he was fired after the strike-shortened 1994 season as the franchise started cost-cutting in the wake of owner Ewing Kauffman’s death.
They are the last Royals managers to post winning records. No one since has come close.
Bob Boone, who spent his final two years as a player with the Royals, led the team to a second-place division finish as manager in 1995. The Royals haven’t been that close to the top since.
In three seasons as the manager of the Wichita Wranglers, the Royals’ Class AA team, Frank White posted a 218-200 record and won a Texas League championship in 2006 with Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Zack Grienke.
That was White’s last year in the dugout. He joined the club’s player development department, and one year later entered the broadcast booth. He was fired from that job two years ago and has since disassociated himself from the Royals.
Seitzer was fired after last season largely because the offense didn’t produce enough runs and home runs. But he also had his successes, such as Butler’s All-Star season last year and Gordon’s development into a .300-plus hitter.
Now comes Brett, who not only shared a winning culture and clubhouse with all of those former players turned managers and coaches, he came to define it, all the way to the end of his Hall of Fame playing career in 1993.
Guy Hansen was the Royals’ pitching coach during Brett’s final three years. When Brett returned to the dugout, Hansen flashed back to the quintessential Brett moment — the final plate appearance of his career.
Brett asked Hansen to time him running to first base, because Brett wanted to show young players how the game was supposed to be played.
“By the end he was running on two bad knees,” Hansen said, “and he still ran as hard to first base as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
There’s a theory that superstars who have assumed coaching roles have trouble relating to mere mortals. This has been true in baseball and other sports.
Ted Williams managed for four seasons with a .429 career winning percentage. Frank Robinson never made the postseason in 16 years as a manager. Magic Johnson couldn’t end his coaching career quickly enough. Wayne Gretzky didn’t make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four seasons.
Unlike the others, Brett isn’t a manager or head coach. He’s working one-on-one with hitters, trying to impart wisdom from his coach, Charlie Lau, that helped Brett become a three-time batting champion and finish with 3,154 hits.
“I think the timing is perfect,” Hansen said. “He’ll get it done because he’ll take each player individually, identify strengths and maximize their abilities. And, he’s a natural born leader.”
But can players who aren’t old enough to remember even Brett’s final years, who made more money in signing bonuses than Brett ever pulled down in a season, relate? They say yes.
“He brings that confidence with him,” designated hitter Billy Butler said, “and I think that’s what all of our players need to have.”
Wathan, a former catcher who was Brett’s manager for four years, is convinced Brett will have the hitters’ attention.
“When George talks, you better listen,” Wathan said.
If they don’t, and Moustakas, Hosmer and others don’t battle through their woes, don’t look for Brett to get fired. Likely, the length of his tenure will be his call. Former players contacted for this story who didn’t want to be quoted said they don’t believe Brett has any desire to become the Royals’ manager.
But Hansen wouldn’t count it out.
“I could see it,” he said. “I know he cares deeply about the organization.”
The Royals have looked in many directions to improve the product through the years. Now they’ve tapped the most proven commodity in the team’s history.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll have an impact,” Wathan said.