Hall Of Famer George Brett Talks Fastballs, Pine Tar, And How Baseball Has Changed

George Brett
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Major League Baseball has changed a lot over the last decade or so. A lot of us grew up with “runs batted in” being an important statistic, but antiquated stats have now been replaced by dozens of bizarre sounding things that the Moneyball era of “stat nerds” use to produce championships. It’s all confusing and exciting at the same time.

George Brett played from 1973 until 1993, all for the Kansas City Royals. Brett is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and is also currently vice president of baseball operations for the Royals – a team that happens to be the defending World Series champions. (It probably goes without saying, but as someone who went to high school in Kansas City, Brett is “Mr. KC.” Also, my 14-year-old self is still in shock that I got to interview George Brett.) But having played then, and still being a big part of the team now, it’s interesting to get Brett’s take on the old-school versus new-school way of thinking.

Brett is promoting the new documentary, Fastball (which is playing in select theaters and is currently available on demand). The documentary explores the art of the fastball and – in maybe the nerdiest and greatest way possible – breaks down the limits of human ability for both a hitter and a pitcher and tells us why a 100 miles per hour pitch is at that limit for both.

Ahead, Brett talks about the toughest fastballs he faced (of course Nolan Ryan is mentioned, but Brett swears Ryan was “fun” to face), the biggest differences between today’s game and the game 30 years ago. Also, yes, the infamous pine tar incident is featured in the film, so Brett tries to explain why we’re still talking about something 33 years later that at the time he figured would just “blow over.”

Fastball is somehow nerdy and includes a lot of baseball history at the same time.

You know, baseball is becoming more and more nerdy, you might say, with all these stats. They have stats I don’t even know what they mean. Wins above replacement, I tried to figure that one out. Before, it was just RBI, runs scored, ERA and home runs. That was it. Maybe on base percentage was a big stat. But, nowadays, there are so many different stats. And in this film, it’s players and historians and even scientists – and they all disagree who actually was the fastest pitcher in history. And the film does the math.

And the film does a good job of bridging the divide between the new stat people and the “old school” players together. You have to rely on what the players said about Bob Feller to get a sense of how hard he threw.

Did you see the clip trying to measure how fast Bob Feller threw a baseball? They had a motorcycle guy driving down the road while Bob pitched. That’s how they used to do it! Now you see all these scouts sitting behind home plate with radar guns. And everybody is intrigued by how hard a guy throws because they put it on the scoreboard all the time. They’re intrigued about that!

If they had done that when you played, would that have gotten in your head?

I would think it would get in your head a little bit. I faced Nolan Ryan who everybody said threw the hardest. Frank Tanana, when he came up, threw hard. He threw really hard when he came up. Then he had arm problems, so he became a finesse pitcher instead of a fireballer. If you’re sitting in the dugout and you’re seeing 99, 100, 101, you’re going, “Oh my God, this guy is throwing hard.” It might alter your swing a little bit.

There’s a part in the film that breaks down the difference between a 92 miles per hour pitch versus a 100 miles per hour pitch, and it is fascinating. Basically that to the human bran, the milliseconds of difference means everything.

And the amazing thing is, being a hitter, the faster a guy throws, the quicker you have to swing. Obviously, right? Well, if you watch a lot of young hitters, the faster a guy throws, the harder they swing. And the harder they swing, the slower it becomes. You’ve got to be quick.

Goose Gossage was recently quoted saying, “fucking nerds are running the game.” There might be some truth to that, but those stats are winning games. You played in Goose’s era, but are still very involved with the Royals. Where do you fall on this?

I think all the information you can gather is good. But I think you can do overload. You can overload yourself with info. The object of the game is to keep the game simple and not think. Your mind can only do one thing at a time. Yogi Berra said it best, you can’t think and hit … once the freaking game starts, you see the ball and hit it and hope your fundamentals carry over to the game. But if you go in there and you start thinking about your fundamentals and the guy is throwing a 94 miles an hour fastball at you, your mind can only do one thing at a time. If you’re thinking about fundamentals, your eyes aren’t going to focus on the ball and I’ll prove it to you. Do you ever watch Fox News or CNN?

With the scrolling text at the bottom…

Then all of a sudden something catches your attention and you start reading. All of a sudden you don’t even know what the guy’s saying! So, can you imagine being in a batter’s box worrying about where you’re going to stride or where your hands are? Guess what, the ball is by you by the time you swing. So, stats are good. All the information is good. But once the game starts, you just have to react.

What’s the biggest difference for you being involved with baseball in 2016 versus what it was like in 1985?

Well, it seemed like back in the old days, everybody had a superstar player on their team and they were known for being on that team. If you looked at the Dodgers, you’d see Sandy Koufax. If you looked at the Reds, they had a bunch of them. They had Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez – they had a bunch of guys. If you looked at the Phillies, they had Mike Schmidt. Who did the Cardinals have? Well, they had Ozzie Smith. Now, was Ozzie the greatest hitter in the world? No, but he was known for his fielding and stuff like that. They had one well-known guy, like the Yankees with Derek Jeter. Right now, the Washington Nationals have Bryce Harper. Who do the Kansas City Royals have?

Well, I could answer that. And the World Series helps. But I see your point.

They have a lot of good players. Who do the Texas Rangers have? They have a lot of good players. Look at the teams in the playoffs last year. They have good players. They don’t have superstars, but they have good players. If you’re lucky enough to have good players and that superstar, that’s great. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to win.

What pitcher did you have the biggest problem with?

It wasn’t a fastball thrower. It was the guys who changed speeds a lot, whose ball moved a lot. Those were the guys who gave me more trouble than a guy like Nolan Ryan. Nolan Ryan was fun to hit off of. He was fun! Goose Gossage was fun because he threw hard. He wasn’t going to try and trick you, he was going to come after you. But the Tommy John’s of the world, guys that didn’t throw hard, those were the guys who gave me the most trouble.

The pine tar incident is shown in this film. Did you ever think we’d still be talking about that in 2016?

No. No. I thought it would blow over, I really did. Obviously, if it were just a home run and if there wasn’t the argument and my behavior on the field? If they wouldn’t have challenged it, everybody would have forgotten that I hit a home run off of Goose Gossage in the 9th inning on July 24, 1983. They would have forgotten about it. But they remember the home run just because of the umpires taking it away from me and my reaction, that’s what it’s remembered for. If I would have sat in the dugout and not done anything, they would not remember that. But, what do I do? I run out there and question the umpires’ call and, the next thing you know, it’s played over and over again.

The film also has an interesting segment on Steve Dalkowski, who is said to be the hardest thrower ever, but couldn’t throw strikes so never made it to the majors.

They say he was the fastest pitcher in history.

It’s the real life version of Sidd Finch.

Right. And you know what I thought was cool about the movie? You see a lot of rarely seen footage from behind home plate that you don’t normally see. It’s just the history of the game and the confrontation between pitcher and batter…and rather than some guy who doesn’t enjoy the game of baseball, [producer] Thomas Tull enjoys the game of baseball. So, when Thomas Tull does a baseball movie, you know it’s going to be good.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.