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A look back at the 1980 American League Championship Series

The Royals finally slay the Yankees.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees

The summer of 1980 was one of the hottest summers on record. The blazing summer heat gave way to three brilliant pennant races in major league baseball. In the National League East, it took a two-run home run in the top of the 11th inning in the second to last game of the season to propel the Philadelphia Phillies, past the people’s choice, the Montreal Expos by one game. Peine d’amour in Montreal. In the National League West, the Los Angeles Dodgers went into the final series of the season needing to sweep the division leading Houston Astros, and they did just that, winning each game by one run which forced a one-game playoff. The Astros prevailed in the playoff game, 7-1, to earn the first division title in the team’s history.

In the American League East, the New York Yankees needed 103 wins to best the runner up Baltimore Orioles, who stayed home despite having the second-best record in all of baseball at 100-62. The only division that did not generate any late summer heat was the American League West, where the Royals, powered by the virtuoso performance of George Brett easily outdistanced the Oakland A’s, winning the West by a 14-game margin.

The fireworks continued into the National League Championship Series, as the Phillies advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1950 by beating the Astros three-games-to-two. Just saying it like that makes it sound pretty boring, but the truth was, this was one of the most exciting five games series ever played. Philadelphia took game one, 3-1 behind a strong performance by Steve Carlton. Houston captured Game Two with a 7-4 ten inning win. The series shifted to Houston for Game Three, which went to the Astros by the score of 1-0, as the Astros scrapped together a run in the bottom of the 11th against Tug McGraw. In Game Four, the Phillies held a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the ninth before the Astros rallied for a single run to send the game to extra innings. The Phillies answered in the top of the tenth, with hits from Pete Rose, Greg Luzinski and Manny Trillo to stake them to a 5-3 lead. McGraw put the Astros down in order in the bottom of the 10th to tie the series at two games apiece.

The series spun on Game Five. The Phillies started Marty Bystrom, while the Astros countered with Nolan Ryan. You’d have to assume the Vegas odds-makers favored the Astros in this one. The game was tied going into the bottom of the 7th before the Astros broke loose, capitalizing on three hits, a walk and a wild pitch to push across three runs. With the score 5-2 and Nolan Ryan throwing heat, it looked bleak for the Phillies. The Philly bats woke up and chased Ryan with three singles and a walk. Then the flood gates opened. With two outs, Del Unser stroked a single to right and Manny Trillo followed with a triple into the left field gap. When the dust settled, the scoreboard read Phillies 7, Astros 5.

In the bottom of the 8th, the Astros managed to string together four singles, good for two runs and a tie ballgame. In the top of the tenth, the Phillies Del Unser hit a one out double and Garry Maddox grooved a two-out double for the RBI to put Philadelphia ahead 8-7. Dick Ruthven set the Astros down in order in the tenth to deliver the Phillies to the World Series. The series remains to this day one of the most exciting series I have ever seen.

Over on the American League side, it was déjà vu all over again. For the fourth time in five years, the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals would do battle. Game One, played at Royals Stadium, went to the Royals 7-2 behind a strong pitching performance by Larry Gura. Gura was a Yankee castoff and usually reserved his best for his former team. In this game he scattered ten hits while pitching a complete game. There was some tension early on as Rick Cerone and Lou Piniella tagged Gura for back-to-back home runs in the top of the second, giving the Yankees a quick 2-0 lead. Kansas City got one back in their half of the second on a Frank White double, which brought home Amos Otis.

The Royals took the lead in the third with Brett working Ron Guidry for a one-out walk. Amos Otis came through with a two-out ground rule double to score Brett. After intentionally walking John Wathan, Willie Mays Aiken dropped a single into left field to score Brett and Otis and give the Royals the lead. The score stayed 4-2 until Brett mashed a one-out home run off Yankee reliever Ron Davis in the 7th. The Royals added some security in the 8th when Darrel Porter reached on a two-out error. Frank White singled to left and Willie Wilson brought them both home with a double to center.

Game Two was played Thursday evening, October 9th in Kansas City. The Yankees started left-handed Rudy May and the Royals countered with their workhorse, Dennis Leonard. May went the distance for New York and only allowed six hits. Unfortunately for him, four of them were consecutive hits in the Royals third. With one out, Porter stroked a single to right. Frank White followed with another single. Willie Wilson then delivered the big blow, a triple into the right field corner. U.L. Washington followed with a double to center, giving the Royals a 3-0 lead.

Leonard was cruising until the Yanks nicked him in the fifth. Graig Nettles, who always seemed to be a burr in the Royals saddle, hit a one-out inside the park home run. Leonard got Bucky Dent on a ground out but gave up a two out walk to some stiff named Bobby Brown. Willie Randolph, another Royal burr, made him pay when he delivered a double to right. 3-2 Kansas City. Dan Quisenberry came on to work the ninth and with two Yankees on base, induced Nettles to hit into a game ending 4-6-3 double play, much to the relief of the 42,633 partisans in attendance. Upon further review, Brown wasn’t quite the stiff I recall. He managed to stay in the league for seven seasons, getting 1,277 at bats with four teams, and delivered a .245/.295/.355 slash line.

The series shifted to New York for Game Three, which was played on Friday evening, October 10th. 56,588 fans packed into Yankee Stadium for the game and it was a classic battle of crafty lefties: Paul Splittorff against Tommy John. The Royals struck first, grabbing a 1-0 lead in the top of the fifth, thanks to a Frank White home run. New York answered with two runs in the bottom of the 6th. Reggie Jackson hit a one out double, chasing Splittorff. Royals manager Jim Frey went to his best reliever, calling on Quisenberry to get the final 11 outs.

It didn’t start out too promising. Oscar Gamble and Rick Cerone hit consecutive singles off Quiz to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead as the crowd roared its approval. This set the stage for perhaps one of the most famous innings in Kansas City baseball history. Tommy John got John Wathan on a ground out and set down Frank White on strikes before giving up a double to Willie Wilson. Yankee skipper Dick Howser walked to the mound and gave the ball to Goose Gossage.

The Goose was the epitome of a bad-ass reliever. Gossage stood 6’3 and sported wavy hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. His demeanor on the mound suggested a man who was perpetually pissed off and just looking at him was enough to frighten most sane people. He had a high leg kick which helped propel his fastballs toward the plate in the upper 90’s. Between 1975 and 1986, he was one of the best relievers in the game and in 1980 he was in his snarling prime.

In this game it didn’t matter. U.L. Washington coolly beat out an infield single, which brought George Brett to the plate. Watching the game on television in my parents living room, I had the feeling that the entire series hung on this at bat. George didn’t disappoint. 1980 was his year and no one could stop him. Brett knew a fastball was coming. Power vs. power, mano a mano.

George didn’t miss, depositing the ball into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. Announcer Al Michaels said that over his entire career, this moment was the quickest transition from a loud ruckus to absolute silence that he’s ever experienced at a sporting event. Just to remind the Yankee fans and Gossage who their daddy was, Brett took 23 seconds to round the bases. Believe me, I timed it. After his leisurely stroll around the bases, Brett was mobbed by his teammates. Quisenberry worked a clean 7th, then escaped a bases loaded, no out jam in the 8th, thanks to a sweet 6-4 double play, which froze the Yankee runner at third. Howser went with Tom Underwood in the 8th, sending Gossage to the showers to search for his missing testicles. In the ninth, Quiz sat down Nettles and Brown on fly balls before getting Willie Randolph looking and the party was on.

For Royal fans, it didn’t get much better than this, sweeping the Yankees with Brett delivering the coup de grace in dramatic fashion.

Next week: The 1980 World Series

Phillies v Royals Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images
1980 World Series - Game 4: Philadelphia Phillies v Kansas City Royals Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images
World Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Kansas City Royals - Game Five Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images