"Home Runs Kill Rallies"

This kind of surprised me, but it turns out that you cannot always count on 140 characters of Twitter talk to give you the full account of a given subject. Sure, sometimes you can, like when Justin Bieber tweets, “Happy.” But other times, it might help to get a little bit more perspective and context.

For instance: The Kansas City Royals hired George Brett to be their hitting coach this week. It’s a long and lurid saga, but at the end of the day the Royals hired their signature player and Kansas City’s most famous athlete to come in and heroically save an astonishingly ineffective offense. It reminds of the (probably mythical) legend about a Texas town that was dealing with a fierce and terrifying mob. In desperation, the city leaders reached out to the legendary Texas Rangers -- not the baseball team but the originals, the law enforcement group known throughout the state for their bravery and effectiveness. The leaders explained that they simply could not handle the mob, and the Rangers sent word that help was on the way. The townspeople waited anxiously and excitedly at the train station.

And, one Texas Ranger walked off the train.

“One Ranger?” the townspeople asked.

“One mob,” the Ranger explained.

The Royals called on Brett -- one bad hitting team, one George Brett -- and he answered the call, at least for a while, there’s no telling how long. He made it clear right from the start that he’s only the “interim hitting coach,” -- it seems he insisted on the title -- and he said that they would meet in a month to see if it’s worth continuing. That doesn’t sound like the start of a long relationship, but, hey, it’s clear that Brett isn’t really sure he wants to do this or can be any good at it. He’s just sick and tired of watching the Royals flail around and so he’s willing to give it a try. The Royals, desperate as they are, they will take whatever they can get from the best hitter who ever wore the uniform.

I did not hear the press conference live so I first heard about Brett’s “Home runs kill rallies” quote through Twitter. He apparently said those exact words at his introductory press conference, and the statement obviously caused great consternation among Royals faithful because, let’s be honest, it’s overpoweringly stupid. Home runs kill rallies the way winning lottery tickets kill bank accounts, the way hit songs kill bands careers, the way raspberry sauce kills chocolate cake. I’m sure you could make some sort of circuitous argument to make these statements sound true, but they are primarily and fundamentally false as is any argument about home runs killing rallies.

To be honest, I kind of found it hard to believe Brett said it. I’ve known Brett for more approaching 20 years, and I’ve spoken with him many, many times about hitting and I’ve never heard him say anything remotely like “home runs kill rallies.” I have heard him talk about how important it is to have your mind blank at the plate. I have heard him talk about the importance of feel in a swing -- he often likens it to a golf swing. And I’ve heard him say, in a very Yoda way, that the key to hitting home runs is to not try to hit home runs.

But I never once heard him actually disparage the value of the home run. Hey, he hit more than 300 of them in his brilliant career, many of them famous like the tomahawk homer to knock out the Yankees in 1980 or the pine tar homer or the three he hit off Catfish Hunter in the ALCS or the two homers he hit in his amazing against Toronto and so on. The home runs kill rallies thing didn’t really sound like him, but, hey, it was repeated again and again on Twitter, so he obviously said it. Kind of weird, but, hey, whatever.

Then, Friday night, I mentioned on twitter that the Royals have been outhomered 24-3 since May 15 which doesn’t seem like a good trend. And a whole bunch of people responded by joking, one way or another, that Brett should be happy about this because that meant opposing teams had killed 24 rallies while the Royals had killed only three.

It was then I thought: You know, it might be a good idea to listen to the press conference and hear what the heck George Brett actually said.

It was kind of a strange press conference. Manager Ned Yost went on and on about the greatness of George Brett, his passion, worth ethic, his general awesomeness … I don’t know, that just seemed kind of weird and funny. It seemed like the mayor of Gotham City talking about how great Batman is. Isn’t the real question why the mayor of crime-ridden Gotham City still has a job?

In voice, Brett sounded even more reluctant to take the job than he had in print. Oh, he sounded passionate when talking about how he wants to share his life with the players and help them work through the bad times. But he admitted he was scared, admitted he wasn’t sure if he would like the job, admitted he had no idea if he would be any good at it. He talked about trying it for a month at least three times -- when our buddy Bob Dutton asked “George, just a month?” Brett’s response was a less than persuasive, “Well, I hope not..”

When it came to hitting, Brett talked in that zen way I’d heard him talk before -- he said he’s not much of a video watcher (there was so little of that when he played) and he’s not overly concerned about knowing intimate details about opposing pitchers. The key to hitting, he said, is to embrace the moment, to tackle the current situation, to be entirely AWARE. Brett said he did this by being scared out of his mind; his fear of failure heightened and focused his senses. Pitchers will throw differently on different days. Pitchers will pitch you differently depending on where you hit in the lineup and depending on the situation. You have to understand all that.

“I know how hard the game is to play,” he said, and he hoped he could do for these hitters what Charlie Lau had done for him. In 1974, as a rookie, Brett was hitting .232 and slugging .299 coming out of the All-Star Break. Lau reworked Brett’s swing, but more than that he reworked Brett’s mind. Think gap-to-gap. Do what you’re capable of doing. Sit fastball. Adjust to the curve. Brett hit .316 the rest of the season -- no homers, but Lau told him not to worry about that. The home runs would come naturally, a consequence of hitting baseballs hard. Brett would hit 11 homers the next year, 22 in 1977, 30 in 1985 when he led the Royals to their one and only World Series title.

Someone asked Brett if he is good teacher. He said he hoped so but then admitted that he actually hired someone else to teach his own kids how to hit. “I’ve found you can’t teach your own children,” Brett said, an amazing quote, one that I find much funnier than the home runs killing rallies bit. That rally-kill quote was on the last question. Here’s what he actually said:

“I’m sick and tired of watching guys try to hit three-run home runs with nobody on base when you’re down two runs in the eighth inning. A lot of times home runs kill rallies. Let’s do what you’re capable of doing. What are you capable of doing? Gap to gap, let’s hit the ball hard in the gaps. Hit a single, let the next guy hit a double. Let the next guy hit a single -- there’s two runs right there. But don’t try to be a hero. Be a soldier. Just go out there and do the best you can with what you’re capable of doing and try not to be somebody you’re not. Because when that happens that’s when you start hitting .200, .170, .180, you start pressing too much.”

OK, well, technically he did say “A lot of time home runs kill rallies.” I guess if you want to hold him to that, you can. But, you know, looking at the whole thing, I don’t think he meant what Twitter thought he meant. I think Brett meant that TRYING to hit home runs can kill rallies. His clear point when the quote is read in full is that when players try to do too much, try to carry the whole team, try to swing for the fences, a lot of times they hurt the ball club. I remember once Brett talking with a young Mike Sweeney about home runs. It went something like this:

Brett: “Michael, how many home runs did you hit last year?”

Sweeney: “Eight.” (This was spring training 1999)

Brett: “And how many of those did you hit when you were TRYING to hit a home run.”

Sweeney thought for a moment and said, “Zero.”

Brett: “Exactly. Now how many outs did you make when you were trying to hit a home run.”

Sweeney nodded, he apparently had made LOTS of outs trying to hit home runs, and the point was made. I have no idea at all if this little lesson had any impact at all on Sweeney -- or if he even remembers it -- but it was apparent that Brett was not telling him to stop hitting homers. He was saying that home runs are a by-product of a good hitting process, they do not come by swinging harder. “Be quick but don’t hurry,” John Wooden famously said. I thought Brett was making the same point.

And I think that was the point Brett was making in his press conference too. It might work and it might not work -- Brett himself is the first one to say that. But I’m pretty sure that the Royals won’t hit fewer home runs with George Brett whispering in their ears.