HAINES CITY, Fla. -- Another day in his 19th spring-trainin camp has ended with rivulets of perspiration rushing toward the rising reservoir at his feet. Two months from turning 38, George ++ Brett is seated at his corner locker talking about racing Robin Yount to 3,000 hits in the next two years, about feeling younger than his years and about playing baseball through the 1994 season and maybe even beyond that. It is the talk of a man who survived the ballplayer's version of a near-death experience and came back with a renewed zest for the game.
It was early one evening last May in Texas when one of the Kansas City Royals' coaches approached Brett in the clubhouse and said solemnly, "Duke wants to talk to you in his office." Duke is John Wathan, the Royals' manager.
"I said, 'Oh, no,'" Brett said. "I knew what it was. They were getting rid of me. I've seen it happen to a lot of guys younger than me and a lot of guys older than me."
Brett was hitting .200 at the time. He looked so feeble at the plate that he said the worst part was not the failure, but that "it was embarrassing." He read and heard reports in every city he visited that he was done, that the proper thing to do would be to retire and not languish as some fading, pathetic star. He believed them.
"I was 5 1/2 feet into the ground," Brett said. "I heard it all. If you hear things enough, you start believing it. Yeah, I thought I was done."
Said pitcher Steve Farr, a former teammate who since has joined the New York Yankees: "He didn't say much at the time, but you could see it was wearing on him. The thing about George is when he's hitting .200, he's not exactly a great guy to get a cold beer with. When he's hitting .320, he is."
So when the manager called for him, Brett believed it was to tell him he had been released. "It turned out," Brett said, "that all he did was drop me from third [in the batting order] to fifth, and Duke and the coaches weren't sure how I was going to take it. It was scary. It was almost over for me. I was knocking on the door."
Brett then began a roll in which he batted .356 after May 7. Soon the sky seemed bluer, the sun brighter and the Astroturf greener.