Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett gives advice Thursday to the younger players at the 37th annual Bobby Dolan Baseball Dinner to benefit the University of Nevada, Reno baseball program. (Photo: Thomas Ranson/NNG)
RENO — Since retired Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett played in Reno a half century ago, he quickly noticed the sweeping changes that have transformed the city from a small gambling town along the Truckee River to one of high rises, bright neon lights from the high-rise casinos and growing sprawl of more than 400,000 residents.
Likewise, the Major League Baseball Hall of Famer also noted the changes that have transformed the national pastime. Brett spoke Thursday at the 37th annual Bobby Dolan Baseball Dinner to benefit the University of Nevada baseball program and to offer sage advice and some pointers to this year’s players.
“I’ve been to Reno once in 1972 playing for the San Jose Bees who were playing the Reno Silver Sox,” Brett said. “I have not been back since, I think, I was at the airport once to play golf at the Tahoe celebrity event.”
More than likely at the old Moana Stadium, Brett would have faced infielder Duane Kuiper, who played for Cleveland and now broadcasts San Francisco Giants games, and Dennis Eckersley, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals. Eckersley is a color commentator for the New England Sports Network.
Brett said he enjoys attending events such as the Bobby Dolan dinner to help young players in their pursuit to play baseball. For a handful of current Wolf Pack players, their dreams of playing at the professional level may be a call away after college.
“One or two guys on this team might get drafted into the minor leagues, (and) one or two might make it to the major leagues,” he said. “For me being here is to stress the importance of an education. You’re here to play baseball but here to get an education.”
Brett, who was born in West Virginia but grew up in El Segundo, Calif., was the exception. He was drafted by the Royals out of high school and progressed through the minor leagues by making stops at Billings in the Rookie league to San Jose and finally to Triple-A Omaha. The Royals called him up in 1973. Brett also said he played for several good high school teams, one that won a California state championship and another that finished second.
Coming out of high school as a 5-foot, 10-inch, 170-pound senior, Brett didn’t receive a college scholarship. Instead the Royals, which was an expansion team several years earlier, drafted Brett as the 29th pick. He said the Royals probably saw him a late bloomer.
“When I was drafted, I gave myself five years to the major leagues or I was going to retire,” Brett said. “Thankfully for me, I was drafted by an expansion ball club. I moved up the ranks quickly. I got to the big leagues by 20 and was able to play for 20 (years). It was a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. I went through that process and hopefully, they go through the same thing.”
The pay has also changed in 50 years. When Brett first played for the Royals in the 1970s, he made $15,000 annually. Now, the minimum salary is $600,000.
Brett made the most of 20 years in the majors. By the time he retired in 1993, he had a .305. batting average, 3,154 hits, 1,596 runs batted in and 317 home runs. He was selected as a 13-time All-Star and was the American League Most Valuable Player in 1980. Five years later, Brett was named the American League Championship Series MVP and won a Gold Glove award as well as winning a Silver Slugger Award. Not to mention that in 1985, the Royals won their first World Series title.
The Royals retired his No. 5 in 1994, and the baseball writers voted Brett into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999 with a voting percentage. 0f 98.2%, the fourth highest percentage.
“It was a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication,” he recalled. “I went through that process.”
His idol was his older brother, Ken, who played for the Boston Red Sox. Ken Brett pitched in the 1967 World Series.
“Since we lived together in the same house, he was my big motivation,” Brett said. “I got a chance to play against him for five to six years, and in his last year, we were on the same team together.”
Brett said baseball is a tough game, and players need to correct their mistakes immediately. He added baseball is a team sport, and the grind wears on them at the major leagues, playing 162 games in 180 days. He likes the human side of the game.
“Players make errors. Players make mistakes. Umpires are going to make mistakes,” he said. “That’s all part of the game.”
Brett, though, isn’t as confident with the robot umpires that will call the balls and strikes at home plate.
“I don’t know how it will work,” he said.
Over the seasons, he said the game’s pace has lengthened the games. Brett pointed out that pitchers are throwing more strike outs, which, in turn, results in fewer balls in play. Something needs to be done, he said, to appease the declining fan base because the game has become too boring. He predicts the lockout between the baseball owners and players’ association will be over before the season starts. He said 90% of the players don’t care what’s going on.
“The higher ups and players’ association need to get together,” he added.