The Kansas City Royals have said with pride for years that they play a tough "National League style" of baseball. But tonight, in the first game of the 77th World Series, the Royals were introduced to real here's-spit-in-your-eye ball by the Philadelphia Phillies.
This Series got exactly what it needed: the first Classic victory by the Phils since 1915. Their 7-6 come-from-behind triumph over the clearly favored Royals dramatically improved the potential for bristling theater in this confrontation between two often-scorned franchises that have been inured to failure for decades.
The Phils gave the nation their new calling card tonight -- the one that has come into circulation only in the past two months -- with the motto that reads, "Don't Tread On Us."
The Phils might have folded tonight, even before 65,791 fans in their own Veterans Stadium. After all, this game seemed a throwaway when the Royals tattooed the Phils' desperation rookie starter, Bob [Whirleybird] Walk for a pair of two-run homers -- one by Willie Mays Aikens and one by Amos Otis -- in the first three innings for a 4-0 lead. What chance had they against the Royals' three-time 20-game winner, Dennis Leonard?
But this team in Phillie maroon-and -white is not like any of its predecessors. It has been imbued with the spirit of one of the game's great players and personalities, Pete Rose. Tonight, Rose did not get a hit, but, many Phils say, he changed this game.
In the box score, you will not find Roses's moment of gamesmanship and leadership. Instead, you will see that the Phils scored five runs off Leonard in the third -- capped by Bake McBride's three-run homer -- to take a lead they never lost. You will see that they built that margin to 7-4, then called on 36-year-old Tug McGraw to get the last six outs after Aikens had hit his second two-run homer of the game off the wild, hittable, but gutty Walk to cut that lead to just one run.
The psychic sequence that will not show came in the third inning. In the top half, after Aikens had taken Walk deep with one on, just as Otis had the inning before, the Royals continued their romp with a walk and two singles. That final hit -- a single to left by Clint Hurdle -- should have loaded the bases and knocked Walk out of the game. Manager Dallas Green admitted after the game that he was already walking up the dugout steps to hook him.
But the Royals made a double blunder. First, third base coach Gordy MacKenzie sent slow Darrell Porter home from second base. A strong throw by rookie Lonnie Smith from left field had Porter out to end the inning by 20 feet. However, Porter commited a worse sin. He practically tiptoed the last 10 feet in to Bob Boone's arms and allowed himself to be tagged out to end the inning with two men on base.
That could only be interpreted two ways in a big league dugout. Either the Royals didn't have the gumption to play hard in the biggest series of their lives, or, more likely, they held the Phils, in a sort of professional contempt and thought their 4-0 lead would suffice. "Why rub it in?" the good manners play said. "We can beat these guys easy. Why get bruised in the process?"
Immediately, the Phils rallied as Larry Bowa singled, stole second and scored on the first of two RBI doubles by Boone. Next, wild and woolly Smith singled to left, moving Boone to third. However, Smith, as is his wont, allowed his flying feet to out-run his brain.He was trapped rounding first and run down as Boone scored.
The Royal slate seemed clean. They still led, 4-2, and Leonard had the bases clear with two out.
Then Rose appeared. After falling behind two strikes, Rose stepped into a low-inside Leonard pitch and deliberately took it on the calf. He was the aggressor and Leonard the aggrieved. But Rose seized the moment. Instead of rubbing his leg, or looking at the umpire, he charged the mound. For a second, it seemed Rose wanted to precipitate a brawl. He was halfway to Leonard. And then he got what he wanted. Leonard stepped back, not forward.
That was all Rose wanted. His point was made. Porter wasn't alone. The other half of the Royal battery wanted to play clean fingernails baseball, too. So, Rose made an abrupt right turn and sprinted to first.
Leonard was shaken. He walked Mike Schmidt and then threw a low fast ball the McBride, with his 31-inch, 31-ounce toy bat, golfed over the right field wall. This game had changed for good.
"The key to this game was when Pete got hit in the knee," said Green, who also had the brainstorm of batting McBride cleanup for a day, on a hunch. "He got us juiced. He doesn't have to get a hit to get us going."
"Rose tried to intimidate them, and he did, especially their pitcher," said McGraw. "We've got some things to prove. People are talking like the National League champions couldn't beat the Taiwanese Little League. My strongest desire is to prove Howard Cosell wrong. He said they went to the well one too many times by calling on me on Sunday. Howard doesn't know enough about the game of baseball to say that."
That blast is simply part of a general Phillie mood of trying to prove that they are no longer the placid, laid-back, take-what-comes, too-bad-we-lost-again Phillies.
"This team has learned to fight together," said Rose. "In the last few weeks, these guys have finally got their act together."
"For the last month, it's been like we were trying to find our way out of a forest," said McGraw, who fanned Willie Wilson to end this game with a flourish. "I'm not going to compare this team to the ('69) Miracle Mets. That was a different forest. No time to think about that. You just want to find your way out of this woods, and then get drunk on Irish Whiskey."
Each Phillie had his own good reason for celebration this midnight. Boone responded to the mild embarrassment of batting last by getting three hits. The 23-year-old Walk, the first rookie to start and win a Series opener since Joe Black of the Dodgers in '52, was delighted to survive three two-run gopher balls for an unesthetic but glorious victory. "Call me 'Boom-Boom,'" joked the kid who has won only one game since Sept. 4, but now joins Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander as the only Phillie pitcher ever to collect a Series W. "When you don't got the fast ball, you're courtin' the devil. I realize that with our staff worn down they didn't have any choice but to start me. But I didn't feel like any sacrificial lamb." And spindly McBride, so often at odds this year with Green, and likely to be traded, got the most symbolic and crushing blow with his unexpected homer.
The Royals, on the other hand, have a lot to forget, about this vital game, since the Phils now have Steve Carlton (24-9) ready to start Wednesday (8:15 p.m.) against Larry Gura. "What's this mean?" said a testy Manager Jim Frey. "It means we can't win it in four games. We'll have to go to a fifth game," he said, perhaps betraying a bit of residual Royal hubris.
Would Frey have liked to see Porter do a different dance with Boone on their play at the plate?" "If Porter had tried to knock him into the cheap seats, he might have gotten hurt himself," said Frey. "But, yes, I'd certainly rather have seen him slide."
The Phils are far from being out of their forest. After 97 years of wandering, it's hard to get the proper compass setting. But, on a baseball field, Pete Rose is always true north. Tonight, the Phils took his lead and the woods around them now seem much less dark and deep.