This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 3 Music issue. Subscribe today!
MAKE THAT 3,155. Twenty years after George Brett retired from baseball with 3,154 career hits, he's getting credit for another one -- "Royals," the song by Lorde that has been near the top of the Billboard charts for months. In an interview with VH1 in September, the 17-year-old singer from New Zealand revealed the inspiration for the haunting tune about real life in a dream world: "I had this image from Nat Geo of this dude signing baseballs, a baseball player, and his shirt said 'Royals.'"
That "dude" was the Hall of Fame third baseman. "It's cool to think that some magazine she found in a dentist's office grew into this enormous song," Brett says. "I love the song. My tastes run to Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra now, but I was young once. I had my Go-Gos and Bangles phase. I listened to Cyndi Lauper on my Walkman on the bus to the ballpark."
The photo was taken by Ted Spiegel for the July 1976 issue of National Geographic, which celebrated America's bicentennial. "What I remember was sheer adulation," Spiegel told The Wichita Eagle. "In Lorde's interview, she talked about how the Royals were rock stars in their day. George Brett proved to be a sports star in his day." At the time, Brett was 23. "I remember the scene vividly," he says. "The Royals had autograph sessions in the concourse of the stadium, and it was the season of my first batting title. The photo was totally natural, nothing posed about it."
Lorde, whose real name is Ella Maria Lani Yelich O'Connor, grew up in Devonport, Auckland -- her Croatian mother is an acclaimed poet and her Irish father a civil engineer. When she saw the photo, Lorde envisioned "Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece." But Brett was a blue-collar guy who was hard on himself. Once, after making an out, he disappeared into the tunnel and was found in a trash bin. "I quit," Brett said. "I can't hit anymore."
Luckily, he didn't quit. He made the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1999 with 98.19 percent of the vote and could also have inspired Lorde's next hit, "Team." As it happens, she's playing Kansas City's Arvest Bank Theatre on March 21 -- she sold out the 2500-seat house almost immediately. "I'd love to go," Brett says. "My sons think it's cool that their old dad inspired a hit song. Unfortunately, I'll be in Surprise [Arizona], coaching with the Royals."
Turns out the Royals are on the road that day. US Airways and Southwest both have nonstop flights from Phoenix to KC. Surely there's a way for the woman who wrote "Royals" to meet the man who embodied them.