For years they'd been branded as losers -- and worse yet, as teams without heart. Kansas City, it was whispered, just couldn't beat the Yankees in a big game. Philadelphia never beat anybodym when it really counted.
But surely the events of this past week have at last dispelled all doubts about the courage and character of the two clubs that go after baseball's biggest prize in the 77th World Series opening here Tuesday night.
The Royals, with George Brett captivating the public in his bid to hit .400, weren't really tested in winning their foourth regular season title in five years. They had to prove their mettle in the playoffs, however, against the New York team that had beaten them every time they got that far. But this year finally produced a happy ending as the 12-year-old expansion club swept the storied Bronx Bombers in three games to put Kansas City in the fall classic for the first time ever.
As for Philadelphia, which hasn't been in a World Series since the days of the 1950 Whiz Kids, the City of Brotherly Love has its own tale of overcoming a long history of frustration. After falling in every imagineable way. -- and a few unimagineable ones -- while losing every post-season series they played over the years, the Phillies silenced their detractors for good in 1980 with a succession of late-season and playoff victories that could serve as a textbook for determination, will to win, and never-give-up spirit.
Tied with the Expos going into the final weekend at Montreal, the Phillies rode the home run bat of Mike Schmidt to two late- inning victories to win the National League East crown on the next-to-last day of the season. Then in what has to be called the greatest playoff series ever in terms of excitement, drama, and sustained pressure, they overcame Houston in five exhausting, emotionally draining games to capture that so-elusive pennant.
After taking the opener behind 24-game winner Steve Carlton, the Phillies blew all sorts of chances and left 14 men on base in dropping the second game 7- 4 in 10 innings. It was just the sort of loss that had seemed to take the fight out of so many other Philadelphia teams, and when thier bats went silent in a 10 -inning, 1-0 loss in Game 3 at Houston, it looked as though the cynics chanting "same old Phillies" had been right all along.
Then came that bizarre fourth game when some adverse umpires' decisions gave them still another excuse to lose - if that's what they wanted. But unlike their predecessors, these Phillies kept fighting back and eventually won 5-3 in 10 innings. Finally in the dramatic finale they fell behind 5-2, stormed in front 7-5, saw the Astros tie it 7-all to force extra innings for an incredible fourth straight game, and still battled to score in the 10th for a pennant-winning 8-7 victory.
Much of the credit for the new fighting spirit evident this time around goes to Pete Rose, the fiery sparkplug of so many great Cincinnati teams who was acquired as a free agent two years ago with just such a role in mind. Last year in his first season in a Philadelphia uniform, Rose didn't get a chance to do his thing, for like th Royals, the Phils failed in their 1979 bid for a fourth straight division title. But this year they got to the championship series once again -- and in a sense Pete took it from there.
"Pete Rose just won't let us quit," one player told reporters during the playoff series. And indeed that seemed to be the case.
The veteran first baseman led by example, too, making some big plays in the field, getting timely hits or walks, and scoring the winning run in Game 4 on one of his patented daring bits of baserunning winding up with a jarring collision at home plate.
Another important new face is Dallas Green, the "rookie" manager who stepped down from the front office late last season to handle the team on the field. Green is a big man with a "tough guy" image, and many of his players made no secret of their dislike for him and his methods. Through all the controversies, however, he stuck to his convictions -- especially the one that said what this team needed most was that inner drive that separates the winners from so many talented losers.
"I started in spring training talking about character," Green said after the playoff victory. "I felt we needed character to win. I think the last month, and especially the last five days, showed that we certainly have it."
The rest of the cast includes such familiar faces as sluggers Schmidt and Greg Luzinski; outfielders Garry Maddox and Bake McBride; shortstop Larry Bowa; catcher Bob Boone; and a pitching staff featuring Carlton, Larry Christensen, and reliever Tug McGraw. Key newcomers include former Chicago Cub second baseman Manny Trillo (the MVP of the playoffs via his timely hitting and spectacular fielding), rookie speedster Lonnie Smith, and veteran right-hander Dick Ruthven, whose presence helps solidify a mound corps that has been a bit short on depth in previous post-season efforts.
All-in-all it is a solid-looking team -- and it will have to be to handle a Kansas City club that features quite a bit more than the incomparable Brett, though he's quite a handful all by himself. George couldn't sustain that .400 average, but his final .390 figure was still the best since Ted Williams hit . 406 in 1941. The Kansas City third baseman has always been a great pressure player, too, as shown by his previous playoff efforts and again this year when he hit the three-run homer that brought his team from behind to victory in the clinching third game at Yankee Stadium.
That series showed at lot about the Kansas City team's character too, for like the Phillies, the Royals went into it with many people wondering about their ability to handle clutch situations.
As for the World Series matchups, the Royals have the speed to test Boone on the basepaths just as Houston did, with Willie Wilson (79 stolen bases) and U.L. Washington the biggest threats. They have some excellent defensive players in the key positions, including second baseman Frank White, who like his counterpart Trillo was named MVP of the American League playoffs. And with hitters like Hal McRae, Amos Otis, and Willie Aikens, they have enough clout in their lineup to deter opponents from pitching around Brett too often.
Kansas City's pitching features familiar starters Dennis Leaonard, Larry Gura , and Paul Splittorf plus this year's relief sensation Dan Quisenberry, whose submarine delivery will make TV viewers think they're in a time warp watching Pittsburgh's Kent Tekulve in the 1979 Series once again.
Amazingly, the Royals also have a rookie manager in Jim Frey, a long-time Baltimore coach who was named last year when Whitney Herzog -- like Philadelphia's Danny Ozark -- was fired when his team failed to make it four division championships in a row.
The Royals have the advantage of two extra days' rest, allowing Frey to open with 20- game winner Leonard, and follow up with fullly rested pitchers thereafter. Green has no such luxury after the wild series against Houston; indeed, he used six pitchers, including three starters, in the fifth game alone. So the Philadelphia rotation figures to be pretty much of a scramble -- especially in the first two games here tonight and Wednesday night.
After that the best-of-seven series moves to Kansas City for Games 3, 4, and (if necessary) 5 on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, then returns to Philadelphia for the possible 6th and 7th games Oct. 21 and 22.