One in an occasional series of stories on the unsung heroes from the Phillies’ first World Series championship in 1980
His nose was scruffed, his lip was fat, an eye was swollen, and his breath still reeked from an alcohol-drenched night that started with a game of pool, escalated into a crazed bar fight, and ended in a holding cell shared with the biker with whom he traded blows.
Yet hours after being released by police, Dickie Noles still reported that morning to spring training in Clearwater, Fla. Five months earlier, he was credited with changing the course of the World Series. The Phillies were slated to receive their 1980 championship rings in 10 days at Veterans Stadium and Noles had already secured a place in the starting rotation.
And then he walked into the clubhouse with his face battered. Noles explained why he was late by saying he overslept and had to pick up dry cleaning. But news of his arrest the night before -- another chapter in an alcohol addiction that gripped his baseball career -- had already reached the front office.
Dallas Green and Paul Owens, the Phillies’ manager and general manager, were waiting to tell Noles that he was being sent to the minor leagues. No opening day. No ring ceremony. Noles ripped his name from above his locker, stuffed his equipment into a duffel bag, and wished to be traded.
The World Series hero would begin the 1981 season in Oklahoma City instead of South Philly.
“I think they were trying to save my life,” Noles said.
Not only did Game 4 of the 1980 World Series seem decided when Noles returned to the dugout after the third inning, but the momentum of the series was also beginning to turn.
The Kansas City Royals led the Phillies by four runs when Noles relieved starter Larry Christenson with one out in the bottom of the first inning. They had turned singles into doubles, hit home runs that seemed to leave the ballpark, and would soon tie the series at two games apiece. For the Phillies, another October disappointment felt near.
And that’s when Tug McGraw and Marty Bystrom found Noles in the dugout to tell him he had to throw at a Royals batter.
“I will,” Noles said.
Noles, a 6-foot-2 right-hander from Charlotte, N.C., was drafted in 1975 and spent five seasons in the Phillies farm system, which was overseen by Green before he became manager.
“A lot of guys on that club, we came up through the Dallas Green School of Pitching,” Noles said. “That school of pitching was when people start to dig in and do things like that, every now and then you have to kind of let them know that you’re out there. Saying ’I will’ meant I would move someone outside the box. The National League style of pitching. It’s making someone move their feet. It’s not necessarily knocking someone down.”
The right chance appeared in the next inning as Willie Mays Aikens, who already homered twice in the game, was due up third. Two innings earlier, Aiken’s second homer was a towering blast that Noles said traveled nine miles. Aikens flipped his bat and stayed at home plate to watch his homer soar, much to the chagrin of Noles. Revenge, Noles thought, would come in the form of an inside fastball.
Noles started the fourth by retiring Frank White and then threw two fastballs past George Brett to work an 0-2 count with Aikens on deck, waiting to be plunked.
“Dallas Green used to tell us ‘Why wait?’ You wait on the guy you want to hit and sometimes it won’t happen,” Noles said. “So if you get 0-2 on somebody, let them know. Come inside right there. So I decided to come in right there.”
The Phillies denied Noles’ wish to be traded after being sent to the minors in 1981, but he pitched well enough at triple A to return to the big leagues in early August, following a two-month player strike. A month later, Owens told Noles that he was proud of him for climbing back to the majors as they sat at the lobby bar of a Chicago hotel.
So why, Noles asked the GM, was he even sent to the minor leagues? Owens, nicknamed “The Pope”, became incensed.
“Let me tell you why,” Owens said, poking Noles in the chest.
Noles walked backward, but tripped over a raise in the floor and brought Owens down with him before Owens could answer his question. A hotel security guard, believing a fight had broken out, called the police. Owens told Noles to return to his room and that he would talk to the cops.
Nights like this were a theme throughout the first part of Noles’ 11-season career. He had a gun pointed at his head in the parking lot of a Clearwater motel but was too drunk to be scared, was kicked out of Venezuela after drunkenly trashing his winter-ball apartment, and fought with police outside a Cincinnati bar.
“Baseball didn’t make me a drinker. I had already gone down that road. But baseball enabled me to be a little bit more of a crazier drinker,” Noles said. “My life was out of control in baseball. I was really scared in my heart forever. I don’t know what I could do on the mound if I took baseball seriously. I thought I took it seriously. No one worked harder than me. But did I work smart? Did I take care of myself? Because when you’re drinking and doing these things, there’s no way you’re going to prepare for every game the way you should. Most times, when I went out to the mound, I just let it fly."
Now his own general manager was being handcuffed. Owens was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, and posted $35 bail.
“The next day I’m in the clubhouse at Wrigley Field and thinking I’m going back to the minor leagues,” Noles said. “Owens came in, came right over to me. ‘You all right?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. Are you?’ He said, ‘Yep. Now go out and pitch.’ ”
Noles had no plans of changing the course of the World Series when he uncorked his fastball toward Brett. He didn’t even decide to throw at him -- and not Aikens -- until he had already started the delivery of that 0-2 pitch. Maybe Brett would back off the plate and shake his head. Or perhaps the pitch would smack Brett’s elbow.
But the fastball roared straight for Brett’s face, leaving the left-handed batter scrambling for safety. Brett landed on his right side, flipped onto his stomach and glared at Noles after hitting the dirt.
“I was on the mound thanking God that it didn’t hit him. I got that a little too close,” Noles said. “I was a nothing pitcher knocking down a Hall of Famer. If it would’ve hit him, it probably would’ve taken his jaw off. The way we were taught to come inside, and this is crazy but it was to throw up, throw up and in, which is dangerous. But that’s what I did. They always seemed to get out of the way. I’m not throwing to hit him. I’m throwing to get him out of the way.”
Royals manager Jim Frey rushed onto the field, argued with plate umpire Don Denkinger, and pointed at Noles. Frey even tried shoving Denkinger away so he could charge the mound. The Phillies’ Pete Rose rushed over from first base and told the Royals manager to worry about his own team. Noles wasn’t even trying to hit Brett, Rose told Frey. And how would Rose know, the manager asked. If Noles was, Rose said, he would have hit him.
“I don’t think Frey knew how to answer that. He told Frey to get off the field,” Noles said. “You couldn’t out-talk Pete. He was the best teammate. Pete took care of young players. Pete was smart enough to take that opportunity to say ‘Dickie Noles didn’t throw that pitch, we threw that pitch.’ ”
Brett struck out on the next pitch. The Phillies lost that game, 5-3, but they did not lose the momentum. A night later, they left Kansas City with a one-game series lead after coming back with two runs in the ninth. Two nights later, the Phillies were finally world champions. They had outscored the Royals, 10-4, after Noles sent Brett to the dirt.
“That pitch turned the faucet off. The faucet was open as wide as possible and the water was gushing out and all of a sudden Dickie shut the faucet off,” said Mike Schmidt, the MVP of the 1980 World Series. “People often talk about a home run or a big play that changed the momentum of a World Series. Seldom would you say that one pitch did. But all of us that played the game know that that pitch changed the momentum of the series and it needed to happen at that point.”
The Phillies traded Noles in December of 1981, moving him to the Chicago Cubs just three months after Owens was handcuffed in the hotel lobby. The deal reunited Noles with Green, who left his post as Phillies manager to become the Cubs’ general manager.
“Dallas Green was determined to get me straight,” Noles said. “So determined that he took me everywhere he went until I got straight.”
A year later, Green ordered Noles to go to rehab after he was arrested for assaulting a Cincinnati police officer. Noles first refused, but then he thought that maybe three weeks off the mound would be good for his sore knees. He sat in the back of the classroom of a Chicago rehab facility with ice packs on his knees and chewing tobacco in his mouth, passing the time until he could pitch again. Noles listened to people share their stories, questioning why they couldn’t just handle their own problems.
“I had been sued three times, kicked out of a country, and sat there like I didn’t have any issues,” he said.
On the third day of rehab, the counselor called Noles to the front of the class for a role play. He told Noles to imagine that he was on a crowded city bus headed to Wrigley Field and someone stepped on his foot. The counselor then smushed Noles’ toes and asked him why he didn’t retaliate with a punch. Noles said he didn’t know why. The counselor asked Noles if his reaction would have been different if he drank two beers? Had he ever been in a fight sober?
“If I was drunk, I would’ve drilled him,” Noles said. “I kept just asking him why he did that. That was a different language. That got me. Ninety-five percent of the times throughout my entire life that I was in trouble or was fighting, I was drinking. That made me want to get sober.”
His mind clear and his outlook altered, Noles left rehab and returned to baseball. He pitched parts of seven major-league seasons after becoming sober. In April, he marked 37 years of sobriety. He retired in 1990 after returning that season to the Phillies.
David Montgomery invited him to stay around the team and share his story with players while offering assistance with drugs and alcohol. Noles went to college, became certified as an Employee Assistance Professional, and has been the Phillies’ EAP ever since. He meets with players, travels to minor-league affiliates, and offers the advice he wishes he had heard earlier in his career.
“The first case changed my life. Once I got through that case, I was addicted,” Noles said. “As recovery people, people stepped out and helped us. So I think we have a desire to help others. There’s help for people who have addiction problems, but you have to be willing to help yourself. The help is there. My message is one of hope and improving and getting better.”
“We all have people in our life who want to help us. I had Dallas Green and Paul Owens and Lee Elia and Larry Rojas and John Vukovich always staying on top of me. They didn’t change me, I had to learn to change myself. But they are the reason why I learned that I needed to change.”
The Phillies honored Noles last season with the David Montgomery and Richie Ashburn Special Achievement Award, which is given annually to an employee “who demonstrates the same loyalty, dedication and passion for baseball as the award’s namesakes." It was his second career -- his work as an EAP -- and not the fastball that changed the 1980 World Series that earned Noles the recognition.
Owens died in 2003 and Noles was a pallbearer at his funeral. But before Owens died, Noles was finally able to get the answer to the question he asked that night at the hotel bar. Owens, over breakfast in Clearwater, told Noles that the Phillies sent him to the minor leagues just five months after he changed the World Series because they knew the trouble he was getting into away from the field. They wanted the pitcher to go to the minors, become responsible and accountable. Finally, Noles would. In 1980, he changed the course of the World Series. Three years later, he changed the course of his life.