Earlier this month, the Kansas City Baseball Historical Society scored big with the appearance of George Brett, and a guest blogger over at Kings of Kauffman posted some choice quotes. For obvious reasons, this is the one that particularly struck my fancy:
On Rickey Henderson: "I hated that guy, but we are now very cordial. I don’t send him Christmas Cards, he don’t send me Christmas Cards, but we get along." Brett then relayed a story about the final days of the 1990 Batting Title race where Henderson had ducked four pitchers down the stretch of the season and then called Brett a "weenie" in his book for only playing half of the final game of the season. "He called me a ‘weenie!’"
I don't believe that Rickey Henderson called George Brett a weenie in his book. I've got it sitting right here and there is (surprisingly) an index, so it's not difficult to check. That said, it's pretty clear how Henderson felt about losing that batting title in 1990 ...
As the season wore down, the batting title was in my grasp, but I got cheated out of it. George Brett won it after sitting out several games down the stretch so he could preserve his average. I didn't think that was right... George didn't catch me until mid-September, and by September 25 he was leading me .330 to .320. After that, he started sitting out to preserve his lead. There were times I could have sat out to protect my average. But I played, and I played hurt. My right thumb had been sprained in early September, and I was in pain every time I picked up a bat...
Just throwing this in quickly ... The numbers are close, but not exactly right. Brett was hitting only .267 at the All-Star break, then got incredibly hot in the second half. He was hitting .330 on the 25th ... and also the 26th and 27th, playing on all three dates. The race was .330 to .320 before the games on the 25th, but after the games on the 27th it was .330 to .325 because Rickey went 2 for 3 against the Rangers.
With the bad thumb, I could barely swing the bat as it was, and my decision to keep playing backfired on me when George asked out of the lineup four of the Royals' final five games. He wouldn't play against left-handers, and he sat out most of a series against the Angels because they were throwing guys like Chuck Finley and Mark Langston. He couldn't hit lefties like he could hit righties.
That last bit is true; Brett like just about every other hitter, had a significant platoon split.
But the rest of it? Well, yeah, it was pretty bad. Even on the 27th, Brett was bumped in the eighth inning for a pinch-hitter -- a lefty-hitting pinch-hitter, no less -- in a game the Royals were leading 4-1. In the absence of an injury, there would have been no reason to make that move, except to protect Brett's batting average.
After the 27th, though ... With Finley starting for the Angels on the 28th, Brett didn't play. With Langston starting on the 29th, Brett didn't play. On the 30th, Brett did start against Angels right-hander Scott Lewis, went 0 for 3, and was replaced by Jeff Conine in the seventh inning of a tie game. The Royals were off on the 1st of October. On the 2nd, with knuckleballer Tom Candiotti starting for the Indians, Brett didn't play. On the 3rd -- the Royals' last game of the season -- with Sergio Valdez pitching for the Indians, again Brett didn't start, even though Valdéz was (and presumably still is) a right-hander.
Which set up perhaps the most regrettable incident during Brett's run for the batting title.
In the fifth inning, the Royals were losing 3-0. Russ Morman, who'd started at first base in Brett's place, led off with a double. Again, the Royals were losing 3-0. Manager John Wathan -- relevantly or not, an old teammate of Brett's -- ordered the next batter to lay down a sacrifice bunt, pushing Morman to third base. Why? Next, Wathan sent Brett up as a pinch-hitter, with a chance for a sacrifice fly that wouldn't hurt his batting average (which is a really stupid rule, but that's for another day). And in fact, Brett did hit a sacrifice fly. He stayed in the game, and later singled to push his batting average to .329. By then, the batting title was safely in hand; in Oakland, Henderson was going 1 for 3 to finish at .325.
Back to Rickey:
I still respect George because he's still a great hitter, but I do think he should have battled me game by game. I would have played if I were in his position. If you're going to win it, you're going to win it. Julio Franco could have sat out to preserve his lead over Wade Boggs in '91, but Julio said, "Forget it." He kept playing and ended up hitting a lot higher than Boggs. There's the famous story of Ted Williams entering the final day of the '41 season hitting .400, but refusing to come out of the lineup to preserve his average, then getting six hits in a double-header to end up at .406.
Yes, there are famous stories like that. There are more stories about players who did sit out to preserve their batting averages. It's sort of a shame that everyone can't be like Ted Williams and Julio Franco, but those guys have been in the distinct minority in these situations. And we can't know what Rickey Henderson would actually have done, if he'd been in Brett's position.
That said, it really does tarnish, in small degree, my memory of Brett and his admirable legacy. At least once since then, he's expressed regrets about how everything happened. He says he was listening to everyone who told him how much a third batting title would mean, however ill-gotten, when he should have just listened to himself.
He's right. He should have. That batting title is just the answer to a trivia question. Winning it squarely would have meant a lot more. As would losing it.