Monday, July 26, 1999

Brett gets choked up on baseball

Emotional speech tribute to brothers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sunday's inductees: Orlando Cepeda, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett
(AP photo)
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        COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — George Brett never made it to his message. He left four pages of his speech unspoken. On the day of his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Kansas City's consummate clutch hitter choked.

        “I can't keep my emotions in,” Brett confessed. “Sometimes if I'm sitting home watching Leave It To Beaver and something happens to The Beav or Lumpy or something, I'll get tears in my eyes. I guess that's the way I played — with my heart on my sleeve.”

        Nolan Ryan's oratorical delivery was so lifeless that he might have been addressing the Rotary Club instead of a crowd of 50,000. Robin Yount was so nervous that he had rehearsed his speech until it was rote. Orlando Cepeda was so determined to keep his poise Sunday afternoon that he deliberately avoided making reference to his parents.

        George Brett was himself — an exposed nerve in a pinstriped suit. He was thrilled and humbled and melancholy and sad, sometimes simultaneously. Brett's emotions run the gamut more quickly than Lou Brock ran the bases. He accepted baseball's most coveted career achievement award feeling equal parts pride and guilt.

        “I couldn't do anything as well as my brothers growing up — football, baseball, basketball, surfing, swimming, whatever,” Brett said. “Yet I'm here looking out and they're looking in ... for me to get an award like this and not for them, I don't understand it to this day.”

        If the ingredients of greatness were evenly distributed and evenly applied, there would be no point in

        Halls of Fame. George Brett is proof of the power of persistence and proper instruction. When Cepeda first saw him, while the two were teammates in the summer of 1974, he quickly became convinced the kid wouldn't cut it.

        “Sometimes,” Cepeda said Sunday, “you make mistakes.”

        Brett ultimately had 3,154 hits in the big leagues, won batting titles in three decades, and was elected to the Hall of Fame with a 98 percent approval rating that became grist for a beer commercial.

        Yet if his swing had not been shaped by Charlie Lau, the Royals' great hitting instructor and theorist; had his offseason conditioning not been challenged by Avron Fogelman, a Royals owner looking for a better return on his investment, Brett's career might not have amounted to nearly as much.

        More than most baseball greats, Brett is conscious of the unsteady hand of fate. His older brother, Ken, pitched in a World Series game for the Boston Red Sox when he was a year out of high school, but is remembered mainly as an itinerant left-hander who pitched for 10 teams in 14 major-league seasons. His other brothers, John and Bobby, never sniffed the big leagues.

        Speaking of them Sunday, Brett broke down at the podium. “All I ever wanted was to be as good as you,” he told them, his voice cracking, his eyes wet. All of the boys, he said, had loved and respected the game. Like the last survivor of an infantry outfit, Brett wondered what he had done to be so blessed.

        Immortality makes a mysterious impact on athletes. Dick Butkus, perhaps the toughest guy ever to play professional football, wept openly upon his enshrinement in Canton. Steve Carlton, the long-silent left-hander, suddenly became as gabby as Regis Philbin. George Brett said he had been warned by Hall of Fame veterans that induction would change his life.

        “I'm curious to see how,” he said. “(But) I've seen people looking at me differently. I guess it's almost like looking at a pregnant lady — you get a glow about you.”

        Brett was beaming now, the ceremonies complete, his speech finished. He complained that he had been made the day's last speaker, and about all the anxiety that had created.

        “I'm about six pounds lighter from sweat,” he said, weary but relieved. “I feel like I did when I got married. It's time to party.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at

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Hall of Fame coverage from Associated Press