Baseball Digest - April 1998

One-Time Foes Recall Famed Pitch of 1980 World Series


George Brett and Dickie Noles rehash knockdown throw that gave impetus to Phils in battle with Royals


by Rich Wescott


Dickie Noles and George Brett in the same room?


Signing autographs in the same booth?


It may not have been quite the same as Grant holding a friendly reunion with Lee- or even Mitch Williams getting together with Joe Carter. But the two old adversaries finally met up with each other some 17 years after they were the key figures in one of the most memorable moments in Phillies history.


You remember the situation. Game 4 of the 1980 World Series against Kansas City. The Phillies are leading two games to one in their first trip to the Fall Classic in 30 years.


But the American League champion Royals were coming on strongly, winning the third game and threatening to turn the whole series around.


The Royals had scored four times in the first inning off Larry Christenson, who’d managed to retire just one batter. One of the runs had come on a triple by Brett, victimized earlier in the Series and forced to the bench with an embarrassing attack of hemorrhoids.


In came Noles to relieve the battered Christenson. The hard-throwing right-hander surrendered a second-inning home run to Willie Aikens- his fourth homer of the Series and second of the game- but otherwise withstood the hard-charging Royals.


Now it was the fourth inning. The Royals had a 5-1 lead and the Phillies were going to sleep. Brett stood confidently at the plate. Noles got ahead in the count, 0-2, then fired a blazing fastball straight at Brett’s head.


As the ball buzzed perilously close to his noggin, the Kansas City third baseman spun around and hit the dirt like he’d been shot. Before Brett could even pick himself up, Royals’ manager Jim Frey was streaking out of the dugout, screaming at Noles, the umpires and anybody else within earshot. Within seconds, he was engaged in a nose-to-nose argument with Phillies first baseman Pete Rose.


After order was restored and both teams were warned about throwing knockdown pitches, Noles went on to strike out Brett and Aikens in the inning before completing four and two-thirds innings of standout relief.


The Royals got no more runs during the game. And although they eventually won it, 5-3, they were finished. Brett would get only three singles and Aikens one single the rest of the Series. And the Royals would drop meekly into oblivion as the Phillies roared back to win the next two games and capture the only World Series title in team history.


The world champion Phillies had many heroes. But to most observers, the turning point of the Series came when Noles floored Brett with a high, inside fastball.


The pitch not only took the heart out of the Royals, who were never the same the rest of the Series, but it woke up the Phillies, and pumped a fighting spirit back into their veins.


Noles, now a key member of the Phillies community relations staff as a speaker on substance abuse prevention and a consultant to Phils’ minor league teams, has never quite admitted that he was throwing at Brett; he says that he was trying to use both sides of the plate. In fact, he contends that the knockdown pitch was clocked at a mere 90 miles-per-hour while most of his other fastballs were timed in the 94-95 mph range.


But the point remains: That one pitch was the pivotal play of the Series.  And since it occurred more than 17 years ago, hardly any incident involving the Phillies has been more widely discussed.


The pitch has indelibly linked Noles and Brett in Phillies lore; one a well-traveled pitcher with a career 36-52 record, the other a Hall of Fame-bound hit-machine with a .305 lifetime batting average.


Since that October day long ago, the two had not really come face to face until they were paired for one hour in the same booth at a Phillies autograph function at Veterans Stadium last year. It was- to say the least- an unusual experience for both Noles and Brett.


“Actually, I felt kind of uncomfortable signing my name with a great player like George Brett,” Noles said. “But he’s a super guy. We were able to chat a little bit. He was extremely nice.”


The conversation did not focus on the legendary knockdown pitch, although to add a moment of levity to the meeting, Brett showed up with a ball taped to the side of his head.


Brett, now the Royals’ vice-president for baseball operations, said before the meeting that he was looking forward to getting together with Noles. He added that, although he occasionally thinks about it, he holds no hard feelings as a result of Noles’ pitch.


“That’s the way the game is played, or used to be played- it’s not like that anymore,” Brett said. “I didn’t take offense to it. I was swinging the bat decently, but not great, and he was trying to intimidate me.”


Brett does not subscribe to the theory that the pitch changed the tone of the whole Series.


“I didn’t go to sleep after that,” he said. “I was still swinging the bat pretty well after that at-bat. It was just one of those things when I came up, and that’s what happened. It doesn’t happen like that anymore.


“I have no idea if that turned the Series around. All I know is we lost.  Someone had to lose. They were a great team. We were a great team. We did one thing very uncharacteristic of what we did all year. Whenever we had a lead in the sixth or seventh inning, we won the game. But we had leads in the first two games and lost.”


Over the years, Noles has similarly rejected the notion that his knockdown pitch turned the Series around. But so many people have told him otherwise that he has started to think differently.


“I used to think that saying that one pitch turned the Series around was absurd,” he said. “I laughed at that theory. But I’ve talked to Hal McRae (Phillies batting coach and a Royals outfielder in 1980) and Amos Otis (another Kansas City outfielder) in recent years, and obviously it made a bigger impact than I thought.


“I do believe now that it was an inspiration to our team. I was throwing the ball extremely well that day, and I think there was a change in momentum. Of course, it didn’t win the Series for us. People like (Steve) Carlton, (Mike) Schmidt, Rose, (Manny) Trillo, (Tug) McGraw and a lot of others won the Series for us.


“One thing I remember about the pitch was that George got right back up to his. He gave me a little look, and the whole stadium was going crazy. Frey was screaming and hollering. Then Rose came over and stood beside me, and he was kind of saying, ‘Pitch your own game. You want to knock somebody else down, go ahead.’ Pete sized up the situation, grabbed it and turned it into a we versus them thing. It wasn’t me who knocked down Brett, it was the Phillies. He was saying, ‘We did it, now what are you going to do about it?’ I think that intimidated them.


Brett has his special memories of the Series.


“I remember Del Unser hitting a wicked one-hopper down the first base line to score Schmidt, and us ending up losing game 5,” he said.


“I remember (Phillies catcher) Bob Boone going over to catch a popup with the bases loaded (in the ninth inning of game 6), and it popped out of his glove. Of course, Pete (Rose) was standing right there, and he catches it, and one out later, that was the end of our season. Then I remember the horses and dogs coming out.”


Seventeen years later, George Brett and Dickie Noles got together.  Former combatants in the same place at the same time once again. Stirring memories of one legendary pitch.