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Brett looks back with Royal pride Puts Series win above own lofty achievements

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When that inevitable day comes and George Brett is enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y., at the baseball Hall of Fame, someone will wax rhapsodic about the more than 3,000 hits he collected, or about the season he flirted with .400, or the fact Brett is the only man to win three batting titles in three decades.

The words will be nice, but they'll miss the point for, in Brett's mind, the game has never been about personal accomplishments, but rather about sacrifice, desire and commitment.

That's why when Brett is asked to list the most important memories of his 20-year career, the three batting titles, the 1980 Most Valuable Player award or the Gold Glove he won in 1985 don't show up.

Instead, Brett's most cherished memory is of the seventh game of the only World Series he has ever won, 1985 over the St. Louis Cardinals, and the wave of happiness that he felt after fulfilling a lifelong dream.

"Winning it the way we did is something I'll never forget. Winning that last game 11-0, the kind of game you can really enjoy and joke as opposed to Game 6, where Dane Iorg pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth and got a base hit and Jim Sundberg scored on a headfirst slide around the catcher. If we'd had another game like that, I probably would be dead right now of a heart attack," Brett said before last night's game at Camden Yards.

"But to be able to relax in a World Series game that decides the world championship still brings chills to me and that was eight years ago. That was the best memory of this game that I'll ever have."

There may yet be other memories left in Brett's storied career, but, at the age of 40 and with the collection of injuries he's accumulated, this pennant race could be his last.

Brett, who is batting .254, has only played three times in the last nine games, all three times as a pinch hitter, because of an abdominal strain. Last night in the ninth, he got a run-scoring, pinch-double with two outs.

Brett, always a slow starter, has not made a definitive decision on whether he will come back next season, and the Royals have not offered him a contract for 1994.

"I always said I would play until the game was dull or wasn't fun or until I felt I was embarrassing myself," said Brett. "It just depends on how I feel.

"If we're in a pennant race, if my knee is right, if I help the team win, I'll take it. I think it's going to come down to that and how I play down the stretch. If I stink up the joint and don't help the team win, it's time to go home."

If Brett, in fact, does go home to his wife and baby, then he will take with him a remarkable list of accomplishments.

His 3,078 career hits rank 13th on the all-time list and his 652nd career double, which came July 4 against Toronto, moved him into fifth place on that list, past Honus Wagner.

Brett, a lifetime .305 hitter, has the 11th lowest strikeouts to at-bats ratio among hitters with at least 9,500 career at-bats, and is one of two players to collect 3,000 hits, 300 home runs, 600 doubles and 100 triples. Former St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial is the other.

"It's shocked me that I played 20 years in the big leagues," Brett said. "When I first signed out of high school, I never thought I'd make it here and now, being 40 years old and in baseball for 20 years and accomplishing 3,000 hits, it's amazing to me."

Brett's manager, Hal McRae, was a former teammate, and has marveled at Brett's hitting technique, elements of which have turned up in the stroke of Toronto's John Olerud, who is flirting with .400 in much the way Brett did in 1980.

"He was just a hard-nosed guy when he came up," McRae said of Brett. "But he worked hard to perfect his swing and he has developed one of the better swings in the game. It's a picturesque swing and a swing that a lot of young kids know. He has developed into one of the best clutch hitters I've ever seen."

That picturesque swing set up one of baseball's most celebrated incidents, the infamous "Pine Tar Homer," which took place 10 years ago this week.

The date was July 24, 1983, and the place was Yankee Stadium. Brett had just hit a two-run, two-out homer in the ninth to give Kansas City a 5-4 lead when New York manager Billy Martin charged out of the dugout, yelling at home-plate umpire Tim McClelland to check Brett's bat.

McClelland, at Martin's insistence, invoked a little known rule regarding the distance a foreign substance is allowed up the bat, waved off the home run and called out Brett for having pine tar more than 18 inches from the end of the bat.

Brett was irate and had to be restrained from McClelland.

"That was about as mad as I've ever been in my life and I think it showed," said Brett. "It's funny, because 10 minutes after the game, I was fine, but for that one instant, I just lost it. I've lost it before and gone through the clubhouse or the dugout throwing helmets when you're a little frustrated, but never like that."

McClelland's ruling was eventually overruled by American League president Lee MacPhail, though the incident led to two separate court cases.

For all the humor the homer brings now, it is indicative of the kind of passion and professionalism George Brett brings to baseball and will take with him when he leaves.

"Nowadays, you have people in other organizations who don't run balls out. If the stars aren't going to run balls out, the other guys aren't going to run them out," said Brett. "That's what's happened to the game. You have a lot of guys who hit ground balls and don't even make it to first base. If my father were alive, and he saw me dog it, he would jump on a plane to wherever I was and he would kick my [rear end], regardless of how high I was hitting. That's the way I was brought up. They need to get some good young stars in the game that play and hustle on a regular basis. If they get some people like that, you won't see baseball going backward."

McRae said: "When it's all over with, a baseball person like myself will think first of his hustle and desire, not his stroke. You remember him as a guy who gave all he had. There have been a lot of guys who were great hitters and had a lot of talent, but there haven't been enough who left it all on the field. Each ground ball, whether it was hit at the pitcher or in the hole, he left home plate as hard as he could. There's no cruise in George Brett."

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