Thursday, November 20, 2003

Sports

Brett left his mark in many ways during too-short life

John Blanchette - The Spokesman-Review

Growing up the youngest of four brothers, George Brett idolized the other three -- and none more than Ken, five years older and the best athlete their hometown had ever seen.

So when the Kansas City Royals, desperate for left-handed pitching, glommed on to Ken in August 1980, it was a tossup as to which brother was more thrilled -- George, seven years into a Hall of Fame career with the Royals, or Ken, out of baseball for four months and released by three different teams in the previous year.

Teammates, finally, for the first time.

"I'll never forget the first time he came on in relief for the Royals," George recalled.

"The bullpen was out in right field and they opened up the gate, and he came running in like an airplane -- arms spread out like wings, banking left, banking right, banking left and banking right.

"I'm on the mound with Jim Frey, our manager, and Jamie Quirk, who I'd played with for years and was Ken's dear friend. And I looked at Jamie and he looked at me, and I said, `Now I know why he's been traded 10 times.' "

Ken Brett properly wore that baseball distinction -- 10 different teams, then a record -- as both a badge of honor and a badge of humor.

No surprise there, since he lived his life -- which came to an end Tuesday night at the age of 55 -- with equal measures of each, plus a spirit of fun, an uncommon fierceness and loyalty.

The brain cancer he'd fought for six years and through two operations finally took him, but it never truly consumed him. When he moved his family from California to Spokane five years ago, he ran the bat company owned by the four brothers, helped coach baseball at Whitworth College and threw himself into the lives of his teenage twins, Casey and Sheridan.

Pity was not part of the program.

"Being an athlete, you go through so many ups and downs and that's sort of how he approached it," said Bobby Brett, who headed the family partnership that bought the Spokane Indians in 1985 and later the Chiefs and Shadow.

"It was, `Yeah, I got a bad break, but you fight through it.' In sports, you'd better have a positive attitude because things don't always go well, and his attitude was always great."

And he had some practice at it.

At El Segundo High School, he was a phenomenal athlete -- the school's MVP award is still in his name -- who was twice California Interscholastic Federation player of the year, playing for a school of 800 kids against some five times that size. One of those years, he pitched wearing just one black cleated shoe and one white Converse high-top sneaker to support an ankle he'd broken in football.

"I was always nervous when he pitched until we scored our first run," said John Stevenson, now in his 45th year at ESHS, "and then I started to figure out where I was going to go for dinner, because the game was over."

Twenty three major league teams coveted him as an everyday player, but Boston made him their No. 1 draft pick in 1966 as a pitcher -- and a year later had him in the World Series, the youngest pitcher in history to do so at 19 years, 1 month.

But then he spent six months in the Army reserves, missed spring training and, in his first Triple-A outing back, was left out there for nine innings. He developed arm trouble and endured a couple of surgeries, and what had promised to be a special career evolved into something less than that -- yet with some remarkable moments, like winning the All-Star Game or homering in four consecutive starts.

You fight through it.

Or you roll with it. After his playing career, he made a TV commercial for Miller Lite, poking fun at his transcience by pretending not to remember what town he was in. Spokane was one of his guesses. The last was Utica, where mayor Louis Lapolla for some reason took great offense. Brett made a goodwill trip there on behalf of Miller -- and wound up managing Utica's minor league team the next year.

Leg3 31:9.6,14:10.8Embarking on a broadcasting career, he took some knocks from picky critics early on and worked hard to make his presentation better. But he also never hesitated to tell the story of the time he watched a reliever finish his warmup routine and then announced to his radio audience, "Well, Sherman Corbett has finished throwing up in the bullpen."

His was genuine character, too natural and too prized to be cultivated. Brother John, who as a kid first called him "Kemer" because he couldn't say "Kenny," wound up giving his son the same name. So did Quirk.

Keith Ward saw it at Whitworth, where Brett volunteered "though he could have given his time to anybody." So did others.

Over time, it was learned that Ken Brett's one great regret was not earning a college degree. Though recruited by some great schools -- Stanford, USC -- out of high school, he had only been able to take a few classes at Boston University during his Red Sox years. So Whitworth alum Dennis Beemer started the ball rolling on a project to grant Brett an honorary bachelor of arts degree.

It was not done lightly. Whitworth had only conferred one such degree before. But in a ceremony last month at Brett's home, president Bill Robinson did the honors. Among the witnesses, representing the Whitworth student body, was Dave Quisenberry, a senior religion major, whose father Dan was a delightful and legendary Royals reliever who played with both Ken and George -- and who, too, had died of brain cancer.

The only regret left, then, was the too-brief time Ken Brett was given on earth.

Which happens all too often to the ones who really know how to live.

Top rule