By George, I think he's got it
Brett's Game 3 homer in 1980 ALCS lifted Royals over Yankees
KANSAS CITY -- Dennis Leonard predicted the biggest homer in Royals history.
During Game 3 of the 1980 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, Leonard, the team's ace, was sitting in the training room with public relations representative Dean Vogelaar.
Leonard and Vogelaar were watching the game on closed-circuit television when George Brett came to bat against reliever Goose Gossage in the top of the seventh inning. With the Royals down, 2-1, with two on and two outs, Leonard turned to Vogelaar and said, "Man, I have a feeling George is going to hit one."
Brett did, blasting a 98-mph fastball off the closer into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium and giving the Royals a two-run lead.
"I knew Goose was going to throw his best pitch, and that's a fastball between 95 and 100 miles an hour," Brett said. "I was just trying to hit the ball hard somewhere, and if I get it in the air, it's a bonus."
The ball was crushed. Utility man Jerry Terrell compared it to hitting a 300-yard drive off the tee.
"George, with his quick hands, just got up on top of that thing," Terrell said. "It's kind of like one of those nice golf shots that will kind of rise and take off like that. It was out of here in a few seconds flat."
Everybody exhaled. Kansas City, which had taken the first two contests of the ALCS, had a chance to beat the Yankees and reach the Fall Classic for the first time in franchise history. New York had delivered crushing postseason blows to Kansas City in three of the previous five years, which included beating the Royals in Game 5 of the best-of-five ALCS in 1976 and '77 and in four games in '78.
"It was probably the most important swing I ever took," Brett said.
But Kansas City still needed six outs, and it wasn't easy. In the eighth, the Yankees loaded the bases with no one out against closer Dan Quisenberry. But Rick Cerone lined into a double play to end the threat.
"That's when I knew I could breathe again," Brett said.
In the ninth, Quisenberry struck out Willie Randolph to win the AL pennant for the Royals.
"It's probably the most relieved I have ever been in my life," Brett said. "I was so happy the game was over."
Still riding an emotional high from beating the Yankees, the Royals dropped the first two games of the World Series and lost the Classic to the Phillies in six games -- a series that was more famous for Brett's hemorrhoids. But for Brett and several other teammates, the final memory wasn't losing to the Phillies or Brett's constant pain.
"We beat the Yankees," Brett said.
So as Giants slugger Barry Bonds has now broken the baseball's most hallowed home run record, MLB.com looks back at Brett's historic drive, the most memorable homer in Royals history.
It almost happened five years earlier. The Royals and the Yankees split the first four games of the 1976 ALCS. In Game 5, Kansas City scored three runs in the top of the eighth, tying the game at 6. But Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth, sending New York to the World Series and continuing an intense rivalry that lasted into the mid-80s.
"They didn't like us and we didn't like them," Brett said. "We were kind of a little gnat that always got in their way in the playoffs and made them struggle and made them go to the last out to beat us. They were the big perennial team from New York that everyone thought should kick our butt. It developed into a great rivalry."
It was a rivalry that continued to be one-sided, as the next season produced a similar result. The 1977 club was, in many respects, the greatest Royals team ever. It set a franchise record for victories (102).
But the Yankees still won the AL pennant, defeating the Royals in another intense five-game thriller. Instead of a walk-off homer, they beat the Royals softly, scoring three game-winning runs in the ninth inning in Game 5 on several seeing-eye singles and bloops.
"I was thinking we just needed a couple more outs," Leonard, the losing pitcher, said. "That was really tough to swallow."
A season later, the two teams squared off again. This time, New York won in four games, capturing the last two contests by one run apiece.
But 1980 yielded a different ending. Led by Brett, the Royals swept through the regular season and again faced the Yankees in the postseason. This time, Kansas City won the first two games at Kauffman Stadium. In Game 3, New York appeared to have the edge when it brought in Gossage to protect a one-run lead.
After two quick outs, the Royals put two men on for the reigning AL MVP. Brett, who batted .390 during the regular season (the highest average since Ted Williams in 1941), had swung the bat well in the first two games, but had no big numbers to show for his efforts.
|"It was probably the biggest hit of my career."|
|-- George Brett on his two-run homer against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS|
A relaxation that always seemed to produce results in clutch situations. During the season, Brett became one of the few players in history to drive in more than a run per game (118 in 117 games). His .469 season average with runners in scoring position is a record that still stands.
"The thing about George Brett is that he was the toughest player mentally that I have ever known or seen," Denny Matthews, Royals broadcaster, wrote in his book "Tales from the Dugout." "That's why to a large degree, he was so good in the clutch. He loved clutch situations. He loved being the guy who made everybody else more productive and better, because there wasn't much pressure on him."
This was a pressure situation. And once again -- with Leonard predicting the homer in the training room -- Brett came through, smacking Gossage's neck-high fastball into the upper reaches of Yankee Stadium.
"It was probably the biggest hit of my career," Brett said.
The hit also produced another famous, albeit painful moment for Brett. He suffered from painful hemorrhoids against the Phillies in the World Series, but he played through the pain. During half-innings, he would run up the tunnel leading from the dugout to the clubhouse and scream to release some of the pain.
Terrell and Jamie Quirk would come down the hallway, pick Brett up, walk him into the dugout and sit him on an inner tube to ease the pain. But Brett never complained, batting .375 and playing in every game. The injury helped Brett earn a new, higher level of respect from his teammates and peers.
"It was phenomenal," Terrell said. "No one knew except for his teammates in the dugout."
But after all those years of losing to the Yankees, Brett wasn't going to let anything stop him from playing in his first World Series, a trip aided by his famous Game 3 blast.
Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.