The reality is that baseball spring training photographs from my work with the Kansas City Royals as well as my years in Arizona could easily make up a year’s worth of weekly Images posts and more. There is nothing I have ever been blessed to enjoy more professionally than spring training.
My first full year covering the Royals began in the spring of 1977. Kansas City was coming off their first American League Western Division title and a five-game American League Championship battle with the New York Yankees that made Royals’ players nationally recognized. No one was more widely recognized than George Brett. At 23, Brett won the American League batting title in a season-long race with teammate Hal McRae. Given all that, Brett is the perfect person to reflect on as spring training nears an end and the current American League Champion Royals prepare for the coming season.
The first Royals’ player to stick out his hand and introduce himself to me after I walked into the clubhouse in February in Fort Myers, Florida, was George Brett. He and a few other players arrived a week ahead of the reporting date for pitchers and catchers to begin their preparations. I will never forget that Brett was the one introducing himself to me. That is not how introductions usually go, but that was and still is the way Brett lives. Within a week, we were fast friends and the rest of the team quickly followed.
The work I was doing was for a book I planned on the wonders of spring training. These were the days well before the masses of communication that document, tweet or Instagram every players’ move. Salaries of all but a few players had yet to reach exorbitant levels. Rookie salaries were not that far removed from regular working salaries, but still well removed from mine. Going to Florida for baseball seemed completely exotic to me. I was in a world apart and would be coming back to Kansas in late March completely tanned to people still wearing their winter pallor.
The pictures were great and the fun was endless. I was single and only two years older than Brett and other players who included me in every aspect of their life. It was quite the time on the field and off.
The key lesson for me was that as professionals, the players respected professionalism in others. They respected me because I knew that even in the midst of all the fun there were boundaries and many things still remain unspoken. Eventually my time with the Royals dwindled as the players I knew moved on, retired and, in a few cases, passed away. Every time I see Brett, though, it would seem our time together never ended. Laura is always amazed how quickly the laughter returns and the respect remain mutual.
When the All-Star Game came to Kauffman Stadium in the summer of 2013, numerous people asked whether I could help them get tickets. One went so far as to say, “Call up your good buddy, George Brett, and ask him for some tickets.”
My reply came quickly, “The reason Brett is still my buddy is that I never asked and never will.”
An accident in May after that first spring training killed my book hopes. The publisher enforced a clause in the agreement for such delays. That did not stop Brett from calling my home one night in late summer after I began to get on my feet again. He offered to publish the book with his own money and a sponsor or two he could lean on for additional help. I respectfully declined.
That is why the man who stuck out his hand to introduce himself to me over and over will always be one of the all-timers on the field and off.