Big brother was Brett's inspiration
ST. LOUIS -- They are young and strong and vibrant, their hair blowing in the wind, their smiles incandescent, their eyes awash with confidence in their own specialness. We call them larger than life. We call them immortal.
It is no different now than it was in 1967, when another Red Sox team played the Cardinals in the World Series and captured the hearts of New England. Imagine life without Manny and Pedro, Johnny Damon and 'Tek, Schill and Big Papi. As unthinkable as imagining life without the Impossible Dreamers.
Elston Howard was the first from that '67 team to go, the proud catcher who integrated the Yankees before he came to the Sox, dead of a heart attack in 1980, at age 51.
Then it was Tony Conigliaro, at 37 suffering a heart attack that left us numb. That was in 1982. By 1990, at age 45, he died of a lung infection and kidney failure.
Joe Foy, the third baseman. Heart attack, gone at age 46 in 1989.
Jerry Adair, the supersub, dead of liver cancer at age 50 in 1987.
Johnny Wyatt, the former Negro League star who came out of the bullpen to win Game 6 against the Cards, heart attack in 1998. He was 63.
Don McMahon, another relief pitcher, dropped dead of a heart attack while pitching batting practice as a Dodgers coach in 1987. He was 57.
Bob Tillman, the catcher, heart attack, 2000. Sixty-three years old.
There is at least one more name on that list.
"You have to be a Red Sox fan, if you hate the Yankees as much as I do," George Brett said yesterday afternoon.
We remember George Brett for his Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Royals, the pine tar incident, his run at becoming the first since Ted Williams to hit .400 (he finished at .390).
But you may be surprised to know that Brett, who still works for the Royals, walked around Kansas City this summer wearing a Red Sox cap -- "a red hat with a blue B" -- reflecting a loyalty that began in 1966, when the Red Sox drafted his older brother, Ken, out of El Segundo (Calif.) High School, in the first round. A year later, Ken Brett was in the big leagues with the Sox, a late September call-up, and when Sparky Lyle went down with an injury, Brett was added to the World Series roster.
"I was 13, maybe 14 years old," George Brett was saying yesterday. "The next thing you know, your parents are saying, `We're going to the World Series.' How great is that?
"I remember riding on the buses to the ballpark, sitting next to Yaz and Jim Lonborg, meeting all the guys on the club."
In 1967, at age 19, Ken Brett became the youngest pitcher to appear in a World Series game, a distinction he still holds. George Brett idolized him.
"I remember him coming home, driving a 1967 GTO -- it was burgundy," Brett said. "He'd come home for Christmas, people were always around him.
"He was a great, great big brother. Those were tough shoes to fill. The Red Sox were the only team that wanted him as a pitcher. The other teams scouting him would have drafted him as a center fielder. He might have been a Hall of Famer, he was just such a natural. The ball jumped off his bat.
"Every year, the coach of our old high school team, who is still there, would have an alumni game to raise money for the school. Every year, my brother would beat me in the home run-hitting contest. A lot of people said he was the best hitter in the family, and maybe he was."
But the following season, 1968, Brett hurt his elbow and never came close to fulfilling his promise with the Sox. In 1971, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, and would play for another eight teams before his 14-year big-league career came to an end. He finished, in 1981, playing with his brother, George, by then a perennial All-Star. "It was a lot of fun," George Brett said, "playing together."
About five years ago, George Brett said, he received a phone call from Ken, who had gone into broadcasting. "My youngest boy, Robin, had surgery when he was 17 months old," George Brett said. "He had some internal bleeding in his brain, and we took him to a hospital in Arizona and they removed a blood clot from his brain. Kemer was aware of that, of course, and he called me and asked, `When Robin had seizures, what were the symptoms?' "
That was hard to say, George Brett responded. The toddler wasn't old enough to tell mom and dad that he was having headaches. "I don't know," George Brett told his brother. "Sometimes it seemed like he would just freeze in his tracks.
"Kemer said, `I think I'm having seizures, too. When I drive my car, I feel numbness in my toes and my fingers.' I said, `Well, maybe you're having circulatory problems or something, but go get it checked out.' "
Ken Brett went to the doctor, and they found a tumor in his brain. He had surgery, underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and seemed to be OK for the next four years -- until doctors found an even bigger tumor. This one was cancerous.
Last Nov. 18, Ken Brett died at home in Spokane, Wash. He was 55. George Brett was at his bedside. "I was the one who told his wife he had passed," George Brett said. "I had the unenviable task of calling his old teammates, Jerry Moses, Jim Lonborg, Mike Ryan. Somebody had to do it. They took it hard. The oldtime Red Sox really are like family.
"One of the last things he told me was he wanted to see his kids graduate from high school. He'd say, `I had a good life.' He never felt sorry for himself."
Next June, Sheridan Brett, Ken's daughter, and her twin brother Casey, are scheduled to graduate from high school. Sheridan, a volleyball player, is hopeful of attending Brown. Casey, who plays baseball, has designs on Cornell.
"My brother would be so proud," George Brett said.
Yesterday morning, George Brett, who was in town as part of a promotion for the mortgage company Ameriquest, had breakfast with a father and son from Maine. They had won World Series tickets in a contest in which first prize was to go with a legend. They went to last night's game with three Hall of Famers: Brett, former Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, and former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda.
"It was so weird," George Brett said. "The dad brought up my brother's name. It brought back great memories.
"The neatest thing, when I go back to Boston, is that everybody remembers my brother, even though he was there for a short time and never really lived up to the expectations or fanfare, but they still remember him, and they don't remember him as a failure but as a success."
Brett was rooting like crazy for the Sox, for these ballplayers young and vibrant and strong. The kind we call larger than life. The kind we call immortal.