Philadelphia Inquirer - June 18, 2004

Noles recalls the Brett knockdown

The Royals return to town for the first time since that 1980 World Series.


By Jim Salisbury 


Dickie Noles couldn't help it. When he got his first look at this year's schedule and saw that the Kansas City Royals would be in Philadelphia for an interleague series with the Phillies this weekend, the onetime excitable boy felt a little of that old-time excitement.


"I thought it might be a good omen," the former Phillies pitcher said. "The last time Kansas City was here, we won the World Series."


For Phillies fans, the 1980 World Series championship - the only one in the franchise's 121-year history - remains a cherished memory, one that was pulled even closer to the heart with the deaths of Tug McGraw and Paul Owens last winter.


So many images from that World Series remain fresh: Pete Rose and Bob Boone teaming up on The Catch. McGraw striking out Willie Wilson for the clinching out. Owens, the team's architect, tearfully embracing manager Dallas Green.


All these years later, one still wonders if the tears and the champagne would have flowed in the other clubhouse if it hadn't been for Noles, then a fearless, 23-year-old, second-year big-leaguer with a mean streak as long as Broad Street.


"What he did was huge," said Larry Bowa, the Phils' shortstop in 1980. "I mean, huge."


The Royals lost the first two games in Philadelphia, then won Game 3 on a Friday night in Kansas City. The next day, the Royals exploded and knocked starter Larry Christenson from Game 4 with four first-inning runs.


Kansas City built its lead to 5-1 in the second inning when Willie Aikens hit his second homer of the game, this one off Noles, who had relieved Christenson.
Aikens' second homer electrified the crowd at Royals Stadium, and confidence swelled in the towel-waving Kansas City dugout.


The Phillies could feel their World Series slipping away.


"We were struggling," Green recalled. "We needed to back them down."


Noles, who at that time in his life lived for baseball, barrooms and brawls, was just the man to do it.


He hadn't liked the way Aikens posed in the batter's box after clubbing his homer in the second inning. After the inning, Noles spoke with fellow pitchers McGraw, Bob

Walk and Marty Bystrom in the dugout. Walk and Bystrom had come through the Phillies' system, where Green's theory of pitching ruled: The pitcher is the boss, an iron-fisted dictator, and the hitter is his subject. Noles told his fellow pitchers that he was "going to bury a fastball in Aikens' ribs." They all nodded. It needed to be done.


Aikens was due up in the fourth inning. But first, Noles had to get through George Brett, the future Hall of Famer who had hit .390 that season and was having a strong series.


With one out, Noles got ahead of Brett, 0-2, then became agitated when Brett took his time getting in the batter's box after fouling off a pitch. Noles' mind was racing. Aikens, the guy is his crosshairs, was on deck, but now he had Brett 0-2.


What the heck, I'll become the dictator right now.


"I needed to stop the bleeding," Noles said. "I decided to flip George. I wanted to come inside and knock him on his rear end. I didn't want to drill him. I wanted to drill the next guy."


Noles' fastball went right for Brett's head. Brett flipped onto his back.


As a shocked Brett lay on the ground, Royals manager Jim Frey bolted from the dugout and demanded that umpire Don Denkinger eject Noles and stop the potential beanball war. Rose came in from first base and, in support of his young pitcher, jawed with Frey.


"Pete also shouted down their dugout," Noles said. "In a way, he said this wasn't a Dickie Noles thing. It was a Philadelphia Phillies thing."


There were no ejections. Brett got to his feet and struck out. Up came Aikens, the Phillies' tormenter to that point in the series. He also struck out and had just one more hit the rest of the series.


It has been said by people who played in the game that Noles' knockdown of Brett turned the series around. Sure, the Royals hung on to win Game 4, but they scored just four runs in the next 22 innings and the Phils won the next two games.


Brett claims he was never intimidated by Noles' pitch, and he doesn't believe the pitch changed the series.


"It didn't affect me," Brett said in a telephone interview this week. "I'd been thrown at before. When it's 0-2 in a big game, you better be on your toes. He knocked me on my butt. I tip my hat to him. But I wasn't intimidated by Dickie Noles. Facing Tug in that Series, with that screwball, was more intimidating.


"That's not why we lost the Series. We lost because we couldn't hold late leads, and that was very uncharacteristic for us. We blew leads."


Green didn't order Noles' knockdown pitch, but he was glad it happened.


"I don't think you can say that was the one thing that turned around the Series," Green said. "But it was a big piece of the puzzle. We were struggling, and it brought us back into focus."


To Green, the pitch is one of the more underrated plays in Philadelphia sports history.


To Noles?


"I think it's one of the most overrated," he said. "I'm flattered some people feel the way they do. But when you play on a great team like that with people like Tug and Pete and Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, it's hard to think your one head-hunting pitch turned around the World Series. I tend to believe it had an impact, and I talked to Kansas City players over the years who said it did turn the momentum. But I think it was a small part of the Series.


"If anything, it changed the atmosphere. The next day you came out and there was no joking. It was time to play ball."


To this day, Noles, now an employee assistance specialist with the Phillies, remains thankful he didn't hit Brett.


"I didn't mean to throw at George's head," he said. "Don't get me wrong, when I was young I was a headhunter, and I hate that about myself. I still believe in pitching inside, but not at the head."


The two men were reunited in 1997 at a charity event in Philadelphia. They signed autographs together and shared some laughs.


"I think the people in Philly were worried about putting us together," Brett said. "I had no hard feelings. If I did, I would have said, 'No way do I want to be with that.' It was part of the game, something that had to be done. I understood that."


Noles recalled that Brett broke any tension that day in 1997 by showing up with a sponge baseball stuck to his face.


"Here was George Brett, one of the classiest hitters and human beings in baseball, signing autographs with this nothing pitcher," Noles said. "He treated me with such dignity. I'll never forget that."


All these years later, Brett and Noles can now call themselves friends.


But for Phillies fans, they are forever fierce adversaries, Noles uncorking a mean fastball and Brett hitting the dirt. One more unforgettable image of the 1980 World Series as the Royals come back to Philadelphia.