In the Year of George Brett, the American League season came to a most splendidly appropriate end tonight, with Glorious George hitting a titanic three-run, third-deck home run off Goose Gossage to win the pennant for the Kansas City Royals and gain clean-sweep revenge over the New York Yankees in their own stupified stadium.
No confrontation could have been more bristlingly chocked with energy, no denoument more stunningly dramatic than the one-pitch meeting between the 100 mile per hour fast ball of the Goose and the 200 mile per hour bat of Brett, which gave the Royals their 4-2 win tonight and a three-game blitz of the haughty Yankees.
"The harder they throw, the better I like it," said a beaming Brett, whose 450-foot seventh-inning blow turned a 2-1 deficit into triumph. "As soon as I hit it, I knew we were in the World Series. How many rows up in the upper deck did it land? Do I hear six? Do I hear 10? How about 15?"
Brett's home run did not end this majestic affair. The Yankees loaded the bases with none out in the eighth inning and were just one base hit away from drawing even and reviving memories of Royal defeats at Yankee hands in 1976, 1977 and 1978. But then, Kansas City got the supreme break of this playoff, just as Brett's homer was the supreme heroic act. Yankee catcher Rick Cerone blistered a liner that, had it been a foot higher, might have tied this game and perhaps catalyzed a New York victory. However, Royals shortstop U. L. Washington made a leaping, backhanded catch and doubled wandering Reggie Jackson off second base. The air went out of packed Yankee Stadium as Mr. October, who did not produce a single run in this playoff, jogged off the field under a cloud of base running shame.
Given that reprieve, Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry got the final four Yankees out quietly to secure his victory. However, Quisenberry knew who transformed this game just as he has illuminated this entire Kansas City season. When Willie Randolph took a called third strike on a full count fast ball to end the game, the pitcher did not jump or exault. He spun and pointed his finger directly at George Brett so no one could mistake where the credit belonged.
One instant will always remain locked in memory from this game. Gossage stands on the mound. Royals dance off first and third. Yankee Stadium is full of blue seats, white facade, blazing light towers, roaring fans and the black haze of chill evening.
In truth, the Yankees have been waiting for this moment throughout the playoff, just waiting for a chance to prove to the Royals that, once they open their bullpen gate, all hope of resistance is in vain.
Throughout this playoff, the Yankees have waited impatiently for the late inning instant when they could show the Royals the core of their strength. Seventy-nine times this year the Yankees took a lead into the seventh inning and 77 times they won. No one had ever heard of such a thing. Tonight, that string of sevens crapped out and the Royals rode that change of luck to the World Series.
Finally, in this drizzle delayed game, the Yankees scored two tainted runs in the sixth to take a 2-1 lead. Ironically, the defensive culprits of that inning were Frank White, who also homered this evening and after the game was voted unanimously MVP of the playoffs, and Brett. White made a wild throw and Brett bobbled the ball into the Royals dugout. This, however, was a night when no Royal wore goat's horns, only the laurel leaves they have sought unsuccessfully so long.
The Yankees, once ahead, were in no mood to wait before playing their bullpen trump. The instant Willie Wilson sliced a two-out double in the seventh, on came Gossage to relieve gutty Tommy John. The next batter, U. L. Washington, watched five of the hardest heaters imaginable as though he found them fascinating for spectating purposes but ill-suited to hitting. Finally, on a 3-2 pitch, he had no choice. He swung and hit a humble chop over Gossage's head, then beat Randolph's throw to first by a yard.
That brought up Brett.
"I was thinking about U. L.'s hustle," Brett said, "how he always plays the game right, always runs out everything. It's ingrained. And tonight it saved us the game, because the deadass player never beats that throw to first."
And Brett was thinking one other thing: "I was glad to see Gossage. Well, not glad, but I preferred him to John. I wanted to pull, I wanted to go for it. And I knew Gossage would come after me. I wasn't looking for change ups."
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who has been so vocal for the past two days, became silent as he watched this tableau from the press deck. This wrought-to-white-heat moment, with the highest average hitter, at .390, since 1941 facing the fastest pitcher of his generation -- yes, more intimidating than Nolan Ryan -- lasted only an instant.
Gossage's best murderball came in at light speed and Brett sent it out at warp factor 1. Make the jump to hyperspace, Wookie.
Everyone in Yankee Stadium knew. Except Steinbrenner. He didn't want to believe. From where he was standing in an aisle, the ball disappeared from view. It could have been a gigantic fly out. He bent his knees to try to glimpse the ball as it climbed as high as the highest light tower. When it landed, several rows deep in the third deck, only one part of his body moved. His throat clenched, every muscle, as though someone had stabbed him in the back.
"George Brett has to be one of the greatest players who ever lived," said the Royals' rookie manager, Jim Frey, who has seen Brett drive in 26 runs this year in a dozen games against the Yankees. "If there's a better player alive than George I'd have no idea who it is."
Such theatrics should have left no room for further climax. But this game had a superb anticlimax.
In the eighth, the Yankees loaded the bases against young Quisenberry on Bob Watson's triple and two extremely nervous and uncharacteristic walks to Jackson and Oscar Gamble. Up stepped Cerone, who, in the sixth against Quisenberry, had put the Yankees ahead with a liner over a pulled in infield.
"I was worried," said Frey. "Cerone hits Quiz as well as anybody in the whole league. I just prayed he'd hit it at somebody. I was hoping for a double play, but not the way we got it."
This time, Cerone produced a near instant replay as Washington had to race, leap and snag the ball backhanded for the out. That was breathtaking enough, but Washington discovered, upon making a swift inventory of the bases, that one Yankee had wandered 50 feet from his perch -- an awful mistake with none out.
And who should that Yankee be? Why, the man-child of autumn, Reggie Jackson.
Washington doubled him off second by 20 feet. Pinch hitter Jim Spencer grounded out. And, ere long, full vengence was accomplished.
Among the Royals' heroes -- Brett, Paul Splittorff, who went 5 1/3 credible innings, and Quisenberry, who got the last 11 outs -- White almost seemed lost. Yet he was a perfect insignia for these Royals. His homer into the left field seats in the fifth broke a scoreless game and proved John vincible. To start the sixth, his acrobatic catch robbed Bob Watson of a hit and, as the two-run Yankee inning developed, saved at least a run. In all, he hit .700 for this playoff, going seven for 10 and was a defensive treasure.
For five years, a fine Royals team has hovered at the edge of baseball's consciousness, never quite coming into focus or getting its due.
This evening, the one unforgettable Royal -- George Brett -- carried his team to its first World Series.
"I never thought that the happiest moment of my career," he said, face lit from within, "would be making 56,000 people shut up."