The Day .400 Slipped Away

It was the hottest summer on record, if I remember right. It sure felt like it when I was out delivering newspapers.

I was 10 years old, walking to the city pool every day and playing little league baseball in the evenings. Most of my free time was spent poring over baseball cards and throwing a tennis ball against the brick school wall.

The broiling heat of 1980 finally subsided, but not before school started in the fall. As August rolled into September and football season kicked off, things finally cooled.

Everything that is, except George Brett.

The Royals were steamrolling toward a playoff berth, and back then, people paid attention to the team even in September. KU and K-State were both bottom feeders in football, and the Chiefs weren’t much better.

That was the season that George Brett transitioned from all-star to legend, and in September he became a statistical standard.

Nearly every season, some hitter gets off to a torrid start and sustains an abnormally high batting average for a few weeks. A special hitter might keep it up for a couple of months.

But the grind, the sample size and human limitations always win out. By mid summer, fights for the batting title are waged in the .320 to .350 range.

But in 1980, George Brett continued to blaze even when the sun finally relented.

By the time school started, “George Brett for President” bumper stickers had appeared, and the nightly newscasts lead off with reports of Brett’s up-to-the-minute batting average.

Tragically, my local cable station decided not to carry many of KC’s games that season. What turned out to be a magical season for Royals’ fans had to be followed by a central-Kansas 5th grader via radio, newspaper, and nightly TV newscast.

On Sept. 4, Brett’s average stood at .401, and the buzz around the nation was whether he could become the first man since Ted Williams in 1941 to finish the season above the .400 mark.

American League pitchers couldn’t stop Brett, but sadly his own health did. After going 1-7 over the next two games and watching his average drop to .396, Brett went to the bench for the next nine games.

When he finally returned to the field, 11 days later, he made history. On Sept. 17, he went 4-8 against California to lift his average to .398. Roughly two weeks of the season remained.

Brett added a 2-3 night on Sept. 18, to reach .398.

The magic culminated on Sept. 19.

In his first at-bat that day against the A’s Brian Kingman, Brett lofted a sacrifice fly to center, driving in the first run of the game, but avoiding an out against his batting average.

In his second trip to the plate, Brett singled in the 3rd inning off Kingman to drive in the second run of the game.

Brett also singled to lead off the 5th inning, this time against Dave Beard. At that moment his average was firmly established over .400.

Even though he flied out in the 6th and struck out in the 7th, Brett finished the night with his season average at .400. The team improved to 92-56 and the only thing left to be decided was Brett’s pursuit of the illustrious mark.

During his chase of .400, Brett held a press conference before and after every game. The nation’s focus on Kansas City ratcheted up to a fever-pitch. Brett tried to be accommodating, but the media pressure wore on him.

The next day, Brett and the Royals finally cooled off.

On Sept. 20, Brett went 0-4 to dip to .396. That began a plummet unlike any he’d seen all season. It saw him go 4-27 and sink all the way to .384. The team dropped eight straight. The media all went away to leave Brett and the Royals to play out the rest of the season.

Finally out of the spotlight, Brett surged back to .391 on Oct. 1 – mathematically, at least, there was still a chance. But when the Royals entered their final game on Oct. 5 with Brett sitting at .390, their focus turned to the playoffs.

Brett recounted recently that he wanted to play that final game in 1980, confident that he could put together one more of those special games that could raise his average back to .400. He would have needed to go 5 for 5 that day – something he said he’d done several times in the past.

But manager Jim Frey, aware of Brett’s ultra-competitive nature, feared an injury to his star would doom their playoff chances. So at .390 Brett would stay, just short of the .400 mark but well rooted in history.

Since 1941, only Tony Gwynn has topped Brett’s .390 (.394 in 1994). Only one other player has even topped .380 (Rod Carew batted .388 in 1977).

Fans were left to wonder what might have been, if Brett hadn’t been so plagued by injuries during the season. Could the injuries have turned five hits, somewhere during the season, into outs?

The Royals’ third baseman wasn’t the only Brett who recognized just how close he’d come to the illustrious mark. George Brett recently told Ryan Lefebvre that when he visited his parents’ house in California that winter, the first thing his father asked was “Are you telling me you couldn’t have got five more (expletive) hits?”

Sept. 19, 1980 still holds great significance to Royals fans because it is the latest any player sat over at or above .400, by a long shot. The closest since was John Olerud, who in 1993 was over .400 as late as Aug. 2. That’s much more than a month shy of Brett. In 2000, Todd Helton sat at .399 on Aug. 18, so Brett outlasted him by a month. None other made a serious push into August.

To put it in modern perspective, consider the stellar season Alex Gordon has had. Good as he has been, Gordon’s average is nearly 100 points below Brett’s at this same point in the season.

I can still remember the famous photo of Brett standing on second base, arms held aloft, celebrating one of the many hits that put him at .400. As a 10-year-old, I was too young to fully grasp how long it had been since Williams achieved the mark. But I can now fully appreciate that in 31 years since Brett made his bid, no one has done it. That means it’s now been 70 years since anyone accomplished what Brett almost did.

Someone may actually hit .400 someday. But until then it’s a joy to those of us who remember that it was the Royals’ own Brett who came the closest.

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