Nearly 36 years later the mere sight of those blue and white uniforms of the Kansas City Royals brought it all back for Larry Bowa this Fourth of July weekend.
While the Phillies were taking two of three against the reigning World Champions, he was instantly transported back in time to the 1980 showdown between baseball’s two perennial bridesmaids. Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Bowa and the Phillies had come up short in the NLCS from 1976 to '78, while in the ALCS George Brett's squad had struck out three straight times versus the Yankees those same years. After both missed the playoffs in 1979, they bounced back to finally make it through to the Fall Classic.
“It was two teams who got close but never got in, though both teams had a lot of talent,” recalled 70-year-old Bowa, who had what he calls one the best series in his career hitting .375 with three steals, the first triggering a five-run inning in Game 1, with the Phils down 4-0 and needing a spark. “Both teams had a lot of talent.
“We were basically cloned after one another. They had their super star third baseman [Brett]. We had ours. They had good pitching. We had our big guy [Carlton]. They had [Dan] Quisenberry in the bullpen. We had [Tug] McGraw. Good players all around.”
The Phils came from behind to win the first two games at the Vet, even with rookie Bob Walk forced to start the opener since manager Dallas Green had depleted his staff in an unforgettable NLCS with Houston, where four of the five games went extra innings. But the Royals battled back to win the next two and knot the series with a signature moment coming in Game 4 when Phils’ reliever Dickie Noles sent Brett sprawling to ground with a knockdown pitch.
Game 5 proved the turning point, as the Phillies again staged a dramatic ninth inning rally off Quisenberry to pull it out, 4-3. Pinch hitter Del Unser doubled home Schmidt, who had singled to start the inning to tie it. Manny Trillo’s single brought home the winning run, though not before McGraw escaped a harrowing bases loaded situation in the bottom in the ninth by striking out former Phil Jose Cardenal to end it.
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But Schmidt points to a moment in Game 4 that may have made that all possible.
“I bunted in Game 4 when we were getting beaten badly,” said the Hall of Famer, who was named the Series MVP, hitting .381 with two homers and 7 RBI. “Then the next game when I led off the ninth Quisenberry remembered that and screamed at George to move up little in case I bunted again — which I would’ve never done in a 3-2 game. So I hit a ground ball off Brett’s glove into left field. If I wouldn’t have bunted the game before that ball might’ve been caught.”
Instead the Phils had a 3-2 series lead heading home for what they hoped would be the clincher. Bowa says he’s never before or since been as confident.
“As much as I respect the game of baseball I never think ‘We’ve got this game.’” admitted the Phils’ bench coach who never made it to another Series as a player. “But when we came home, up 3-2, I just told people close to me, ‘This thing’s over.’ I just felt it was our time. Winning that big game in Kansas City, with Carlton going, with this crowd. I felt this place is gonna be electric — and it was.”
Things were going as planned, with a 4-1 lead and McGraw on the mound in the ninth and the city ready to explode when a strange thing happened. A dozen or so police on horses paraded out of the bullpen and set up a ring around the perimeter to discourage any fans from taking their celebration onto the field.
“Everything sort of stopped when those horses came out,” said Bowa, that moment forever etched in his mind. “It was sort of surreal.”
Moments later, after Pete Rose made that memorable catch on Frank White’s popup which bounced off Bob Boone’s glove into his, then McGraw fanned Willie Wilson with the bases loaded to end it. Philadelphia had its first World Championship.
It was followed the next day with a parade down Broad Street into JFK Stadium.
“That parade was quite a spectacle,” said Schmidt, weekend color analyst in the TV booth. “Going down Broad Street they were lining the streets. At JFK, I got on the microphone and said something like ‘Take this World Series and cherish it. You all deserve it.”’
More now than ever, since there’s only been one other — in 2008 — to show for it in the 36 years since.