SURPRISE, Ariz. — George Brett juggles three baseballs near the mound of a practice field, then loosens up his right arm and delivers a pitch to Mike Moustakas to start off batting practice.
The Hall of Fame third baseman is a vice president of the Kansas City Royals these days, his time at work more likely to be spent in a board room than a bullpen. But with that familiar blue No. 5 on his broad back, and a hat pulled down over his piercing eyes, it becomes clear that for six weeks in the warm Arizona sun, he relishes this opportunity to be a ballplayer again.
“It makes me feel young,” Brett says, his turn on the mound over, a trickle of sweat having formed on his brow. “I feel great. Come out here, throw BP, hit fungos, travel to all the games. I get to hang around these guys, and it’s like I’m playing ball again.”
Brett isn’t alone in feeling that way. Look closely, and there’s plenty of Hall of Fame help hanging around spring training.
Over in Glendale, Ariz., just a short drive from the Royals’ complex in Surprise, the inimitable Sandy Koufax is taking in spring training with the Dodgers, while three-time MVP Mike Schmidt is doling out batting advice to the Phillies’ Ryan Howard down in Clearwater, Fla.
For each of them, spring training is a chance to reconnect with their youth.
The game that captured their imagination as boys still holds a place in their hearts, and the chance to throw a few pitches in batting practice, or hit a few fly balls for outfielders in camp, helps satisfy what has become an almost insatiable thirst.
“I decided in 1993 that I wasn’t the player that I once was, and I couldn’t live with it,” Brett says. “I realized in 1993 that the game didn’t mean that much to me anymore. Winning didn’t feel that good, losing didn’t hurt as bad. If I did something good, had the winning hit in a game, I didn’t get goose bumps.
“I quit, basically. I retired.”
It’s not enough for Brett to simply show up at the crack of dawn, though, and pull on his stirrups in the Royals’ spacious clubhouse and yank his white jersey off a hanger.
He spends time before batting practice with Kansas City manager Ned Yost, talking about all manner of things. He roams around the half-dozen fields that make up the Royals’ spring training home, and when the team boards the bus for an exhibition game, he ambles up the steps, too.
When the Royals line up for the national anthem, the 59-year-old Brett emerges from the dugout and stands at attention — and if you squint hard enough, you can just imagine him tracking down a ball at third base, or maybe racing out of the dugout after an umpire.
“It’s amazing, the simple fact that I get to see George Brett in baseball camp, and not just camp. I get to hang out with George Brett,” Moustakas says. “It’s crazy, you know? It really humbles you, and makes you realize where you’re at. I play the position of one of the greatest players to ever play the game, and now I get to sit here and pick his brain.”
Brett quickly points out that he merely offers suggestions. He’s not a full-time coach, nor would he want to be, and players can take what he says with a grain of salt.
They usually take it as gospel.
Koufax is the same way in Dodgers camp, always wary of stepping on toes.
“Rick Honeycutt and Kenny (Howell) are the pitching coaches,” the 77-year-old left-hander says while taking in a recent workout. “I’m just here to help them, and if they hadn’t been OK with my being here, I wouldn’t be here.”
It’s been more than two decades since Koufax last wore a major league uniform, but his old team lured him back into blue this spring as a special adviser to owner Mark Walter.
He mostly works with Dodgers pitchers and their regular coaches in the mornings, passing on the wisdom that earned him three Cy Young Awards. Of course, Koufax downplays his input far beyond the point of humility, but it’s evident that Los Angeles pitchers are paying attention.
“Players, they’re having a good time, and they’ve kind of included me in some stuff,” Koufax says. “A couple of catchers, too. A.J. (Ellis) has said, ‘What can I look for here? What can I do to help this guy?’ Talking to everybody, it’s kind of fun.”
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw recalls sitting next to Koufax on a flight to spring training in 2010, and insists he learned more in two hours than in years of playing the game.
“That’s nice of him, but he knew a lot going in,” says Koufax, now nearly 46 years removed from his early retirement. “If you hang around enough talented people, you look smart.”
Howard, the Phillies’ three-time All-Star first baseman, is trying to absorb a bit of that wisdom from the 63-year-old Schmidt, one of the greatest players in franchise history.
The Hall of Fame third baseman is a regular around Phillies camp, often working as a special hitting instructor, but he’s spending more time than usual in Florida this spring.
One of Schmidt’s pet projects has been to help out Howard, who hit just .219 last season.
“Ryan Howard to me is very interested in my input in his hitting,” Schmidt says. “That makes me really feel good. We’ve chatted over the years about hitting. I’ve always been a Ryan Howard fan, but he’s picking my brain a little bit more.”
Nice brain to pick.
All of them are, of course. That’s why Brett, Koufax and Schmidt are in the Hall of Fame.
They were the among the best players of their era — of any era — and are now passing along some of the knowledge they earned through years of hard work and success to a new generation of ballplayers, and at the same time reconnecting with their own youth.
“It’s fun,” Koufax says. “If I wasn’t having a good time, I wouldn't be doing it."