DAVE SKRETTA,AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — George Brett took over as the Kansas City Royals’ interim hitting coach with the rudderless team mired in an eight-game skid. He leaves with them showing signs of life.
The Hall of Famer announced Thursday that he was stepping down from his on-field job and returning to the Royals’ front office, where he’s served as vice president of baseball operations since retiring as a player following the 1993 season.
“It’s been a tremendous experience for me to put on the uniform again after 20 years away,” Brett said during a brief news conference, breaking down for a few seconds. “It was special.”
Brett has helped out at spring training for years as a volunteer coach, but his stint as the interim hitting coach was the first time he’d worn his No. 5 jersey for games that counted since the last out of his last game as one of the game’s greatest third basemen.
Brett said that he’ll still be around for some home games. He may even throw batting practice on occasion, but he won’t be in uniform once games starts, instead sitting in a suite with general manager Dayton Moore as the Royals try to play their way into contention.
“When I took this job almost two months ago, Dayton and I talked about it on an interim basis. I didn’t know what interim was,” Brett said. “I just thought it was time for me to move on. I felt it was time for me to resign as the hitting coach. It was a tough decision.”
The Royals were hitting just .261 when he assumed the job along with Pedro Grifol, who will stay on as the permanent hitting coach. The team was averaging four runs a game and ranked near the bottom of the American League in just about every statistical offensive category.
They were 21-29 and in danger of falling out of contention by June.
Well, the team’s batting average hasn’t improved much, but the offense is no longer stagnant.
Young cornerstones such as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have started to hit — Hosmer cracked a pair of homers in Wednesday night’s win over Baltimore — and there’s a sense that the Royals could still make a move toward its first playoff berth since 1985 down the stretch.
With the July 31 trade deadline approaching, they were 47-51 and eight games behind Detroit in the AL Central heading into Thursday night’s series finale against the Orioles.
“George is a tremendous asset to our organization. To have him here for two months was fun,” said Royals manager Ned Yost, who along with Moore had unsuccessfully tried to lure Brett into coaching several times before finally succeeding on an interim basis. “We respect his decision.”
Brett took to his job with relish after agreeing to a monthlong tryout that ultimately lasted about eight weeks. He would arrive at the ballpark early and was easy to spot in the cages before games, overseeing early batting practice with the younger players.
He said at the time of his hiring May 30 that he always found the game easier to do than say — that is, he found it natural to play and difficult to instruct. That never did change.
“I found out I was a better player, a better hitter, in my opinion, than a teacher,” he admitted. “I was not a good mechanical hitting coach.”
Brett said he has played several rounds of golf with Fred Couples over the years, yet the former Masters champion never gave him any tips. Not long ago, Brett asked him why.
“He told me, ‘George, I know my swing, but I don’t know yours,” Brett said.
But the guys in the clubhouse — many of whom weren’t even born when Brett was having some of his finest seasons — universally praised him for the job he’d done, particularly with the mental side, where he helped an uptight bunch of Royals start playing like they were kids again.
“At the end of the day it stinks he’s leaving,” Hosmer said, “but the good thing is he’ll still around for home games. I’m disappointed. We’re going to miss him in the dugout. He’s expressed to us about he’s a phone call away.”
While Brett was fixing the mental part of the Royals, Grifol was doing the behind-the-scenes work on players’ mechanics, poring over video and tinkering with their swings.
The 43-year-old began his first season with the Royals as the hitting coach of the Surprise Royals. Before that, he was a manager for Class A High Desert in the Seattle organization, and had worked as an area scout, manager and minor league director over the past 13 seasons.
Now, Grifol has the chance to make a name for himself as the hitting coach.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Pedro. Pedro is a very knowledgeable guy,” Brett said. “He has drills I had never seen. He made my job easier. I learned a ton about hitting from this man. It was a good marriage with Pedro and will continue to be a good marriage. He and I saw eye-to-eye. I thought we worked really well together and will continue to work together.”
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