50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #6: Aikens’ Big Day Helps Royals Tie Series (October 18, 1980)

Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.

In the 25 World Series games the Royals have played, you would be hard-pressed to find a better one from a hitting perspective than Willie Aikens’ performance in Game Four of the 1980 Series. Unless you wanted to pick his performance in Game One of the Series, but that didn’t take place in Kansas City, so here we are.

Aikens celebrated his 26th birthday in that first game with a pair of home runs and four RBI. Unfortunately, the Royals couldn’t hold a 4-0 lead and lost, then fell in Game Two. When the Series arrived in Kansas City, the Royals needed two wins to stay alive. They got the first in Game Three, with Aikens driving in the game-winner in the 10th. They were back in the Series, but really needed a win in Game Four, which would make the rest of the showdown a best-of-three.

Game Four was played on a Saturday afternoon (yes, kids, World Series games used to be played in the daytime). A sunny but cool and windy afternoon, with the breeze blowing toward the right field corner. Dennis Leonard, who had been unable to hold that four-run lead in the initial game, took the mound seeking to redeem himself. A scoreless first inning was a good start.

The Phillies sent Larry Christenson to the mound, and he had one of the worst starts in World Series history. Willie Wilson singled, then raced to third when Christenson threw wildly on a pickoff attempt. Frank White flied out to right; with no outs, the Royals played it safe and kept Wilson at third. George Brett tripled to right, putting the Royals in front. Aikens stepped to the plate and blasted a Christenson pitch into the water spectacular in right field, his third home run of the Series.

“It was a fastball I didn’t get inside. It was a hitter’s pitch. I’m not taking anything away from him, but if I was up, I might have hit it out, too.”–Christenson, quoted by Jeff Gordon, St. Joseph News-Press, October 19, 1980

The crowd roared as Aikens circled the bases, and it was a welcome moment for the slugger; brought in to provide power and protection for Brett in the lineup, Aikens had started the season slowly after knee surgery over the winter. He hit much better in the second half, but first impressions are hard to shake, and he was somewhat overshadowed by the MVP season Brett had and the MVP-caliber season Wilson enjoyed, not to mention another solid season from Hal McRae.

“That was a big thrill for me. I think that’s the first time the fans have ever called me back out for an ovation.”–Aikens, quoted by Bob Kelly, The Salina Journal, October 19, 1980

Speaking of McRae, he followed Aikens’ blast with a hustling double. Amos Otis lined one off the center field fence, scoring McRae for a 4-0 lead. After 22 pitches, Christenson’s day was done. Reliever Dickie Noles stopped the bleeding, eventually getting Wilson to ground out with the bases loaded.

The Phillies got one run back in the second, an unearned run thanks to a throwing error by U L Washington. But the Royals got it right back. With two outs and no one on, Noles left a curve ball thigh-high and over the plate. Aikens absolutely destroyed it, depositing it in the back of the Royals’ bullpen in right field. Aikens dropped his bat and admired his handiwork for a few seconds before starting his home run trot.

“I gave that second one a long look. I guess I kind of copied Reggie on that one.”–Aikens, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1980

It was definitely a moment to savor. Aikens had just become the first player ever to have two multiple-homer in the same Series. His four home runs in one Series put him one behind the all-time record of five, set by Reggie Jackson just three years earlier. And Aikens joined a group of players that included Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Duke Snider, among others. To top it off, Aikens’ mother had traveled from South Carolina to Kansas City and was watching her son play professionally for the first time.

So yes, Aikens did enjoy giving the fans a second curtain call. And now the Royals enjoyed a 5-1 lead. Leonard took it from there, scattering nine hits and a walk over his seven innings. He was not overpowering, with only two strikeouts, but made the pitches he needed to work around baserunners.

Noles did much the same for the Phillies. He also was central to the game’s controversial moment. In the fourth inning, he threw high and inside on Brett, sending the third baseman sprawling in the dirt. Royals manager Jim Frey charged on to the field, demanding Noles’ ejection, but the umpires let him stay in the game, although they did issue warnings to both dugouts.

Philadelphia came up with single runs in the seventh and eighth. The seventh inning could have been much worse for the Royals. Manny Trillo doubled with one out, and Larry Bowa singled down the left field line. Wilson had been playing close to the line and was able to reach the ball quickly. Bob Boone hit a line drive to left center, but Wilson was able to track that one down, and it was merely a sacrifice fly.

“If we’re in Philadelphia, that’s a three-run homer. You can pitch a little more aggressively here. There is a little more space here. You have to take advantage of the home field situation.”–Leonard, quoted by Jeff Gordon, St. Joseph News-Press, October 19, 1980

Pete Rose doubled to start the eighth, and Frey called on Dan Quisenberry to finish the game. Although Rose came in to score, cutting the Royals’ lead to 5-3, it happened on a ground ball and a fly ball. Quisenberry got four straight grounders to end the game and earn the save. Quisenberry had now finished all four games in the Series for the Royals, pitching 6 ⅔ innings.

“About 45 minutes.”–Quisenberry, on how long he could pitch in Game Five, quoted by Dick Kaegel, The Sporting News, November 1, 1980

Of course, most of the postgame discussion was centered on Aikens.

“The kid is just on a roll.–Phillies manager Dallas Green, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1980

“I consider myself a pretty good hitter. I’m a streak hitter. I’m seeing the ball good. It seems like every time I get a good swing, I hit the ball hard.”–Aikens, quoted by Jeff Gordon, St. Joseph News-Press, October 19, 1980

All of the postgame attention could have been stressful for Aikens, who was normally shy around reporters, and with good reason.

“We got some crazy guys on this club, and they got Willie out of his shell. He was afraid to talk before because of his stutter. But just look at him now.”–Royals outfielder Clint Hurdle, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1980

“I’m sometimes able to talk pretty good. Sometimes I will have no problem stuttering. But talking on TV, I have a tendency to stutter a whole lot. I was afraid when I was a kid to go into a store and ask for anything. The kids used to laugh at me all the time. I’d get so upset I’d want to fight. But I’m around adults now, and they’re able to accept me for what I am. I’m a stutterer and I’ll be one for the rest of my life.”–Aikens, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1980

Unfortunately for the Royals, this was their last hurrah of the season. Aikens struck out and walked in his final two plate appearances, and was on deck when the bottom of the eighth ended, so he could not join Jackson in the “three home runs in one World Series game” club. Kansas City could not take advantage of 12 hits in Game Five, and the Phillies finally figured out Quisenberry, scoring two runs in the ninth for the win after he had pitched 1 ⅔ scoreless innings already. The Phillies then closed it out behind Steve Carlton in Game Six. Aikens went 1-5 in the last two games, but did walk four times; Philadelphia had obviously gotten the message to pitch carefully to him.

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