George Brett and the magic of chasing .400, short season or not

In a sport as old as baseball, every day is the anniversary of something. The "This Date in Baseball" file, sent out daily by The Associated Press, used to be a staple as filler on the agate pages of daily newspapers. Such lists remain popular even in the digital age. At ESPN, we get regular lists of anniversaries from the indispensable ESPN Stats & Information. They always send this history-curious hardball fan down all kinds of research rabbit holes.

This season is so unusual that, on a nightly basis, we are seeing things that are unprecedented. We've never had a season start so late or scheduled to be so brief. There are a gaggle of new rules and guidelines. The playoffs will feature the same number of teams that made up the entire major leagues from 1901 to 1960. (And no, Federal League fans, I'm still not calling that a major league.)

All of this is unfolding in real time under the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, which reminds us daily that, while the season could be halted at any point, every game we do get feels like a gift. With so much happening in the present, it's hard to tie the 2020 campaign with all that has come before. But let's try.

This week, the 40th anniversary of an event came and went that I would argue was one of the iconic baseball moments of a generation. That number of years -- 40 -- is startling for me personally, because it was an event in which I was very much invested. Also, one week after it happened, I attended my first major league game in the same stadium where it happened. I'm referring to the real Summer of George, 1980, when my favorite player ascended to a place that no other player has ever reached and stayed in for so long.

The iconic moment happened on Aug. 17, 1980, at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. It wasn't about the team. The Royals were already 32 games over .500 and led the American League West by 13 games entering that day. This was right smack in the middle of the franchise's salad days. That night, a Sunday, Kansas City led Toronto 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth, with star closer Dan Quisenberry halfway through a two-inning save.

Yet despite those seemingly calm circumstances, the crowd at the ballpark was in a frenzy, and so was the Royals' dugout. After two quick outs, U.L. Washington had singled to center against the Blue Jays' Ken Schrom. Then Amos Otis had walked, bringing John Wathan to the plate. In the on-deck circle stood the reason for the bedlam: George Brett.

Brett had already walked, singled twice and doubled in the game. His batting average at that moment was .3993. Everyone in the stadium knew it. Everyone in baseball knew it. The hot streak that Brett had been riding since the All-Star break had become the biggest story in baseball. It had become a story that transcended baseball.

"I figured there was no way he was going to walk me," Wathan later said, the details of the moment preserved in "The George Brett Story," a 1981 biography written in medias res by John Garrity. But after Schrom's third pitch missed, the blare of the crowd amped up even higher. Schrom's fourth offering missed badly. "He didn't even come close," Wathan said. "I was very surprised."

With his cheek characteristically bulging with tobacco, Brett strode to the plate in the middle of the uproar. On the scoreboard, his average -- .399 -- was flashed. The anticipation of the moment was prolonged by a pitching change: Toronto manager Bobby Mattick summoned righty Mike Barlow from the bullpen. Barlow had struck out Brett the night before.

After the game, Brett told reporters what was going through his head. "When I got to .399, I said to myself that if I hadn't chased a bad ball last night, I'd be at .400 already. The adrenaline was flowing."

Barlow snuck a fastball over for a strike. The crowd ahhhed. Then he missed low with a sinker. The crowd roared. The third pitch, another sinker down, Brett fouled off and admonished himself because he had pledged to lay off any low ones. "I didn't want to let those 30,000 people down," he said.

He didn't. He rarely did. Barlow's 1-2 pitch caught too much of the plate and Brett lined it into the opposite-field gap, just past left fielder Garth Iorg, who might have misread the drive. The ball bounded off the fence. The three runners on base all raced home. With the crowd in the throes of an ecstasy that it seems only Kansas City fans can reach, Brett found himself on second base. The moment was captured by Kansas City Star photographer Fred Blocher, Brett standing on the bag, his arms raised, batting helmet in his right hand, soaking up the adoration. Brett's average was .401.

After the game, Brett offered a one-word reaction to the moment. "Goosebumps" was all he said.