Del Unser’s uniform was drenched in the champagne that soaked the clubhouse, and the incredulous joy that covered his face seemed to match the feelings of an entire region.
The Phillies, after years of heartbreak, were finally returning to the World Series in October 1980. And it required quite the journey — heartbreaking finishes in 1964, 1977, and 1978 mixed in with years of bad baseball — to reach that destination.
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But those crushing losses — Chico Ruiz stealing home, the meltdown on Black Friday, and a rare blunder by defensive whiz Garry Maddox — became a bit less painful when the Phillies soaked each other inside Houston’s Astrodome, inching closer to a championship that always felt out of reach.
The champagne sprayers included two future Hall of Famers and a number of All-Stars, but one of the leading heroes that night was Unser, whose path to that celebration was just as hard-traveled as the road the franchise took.
Unser was a 35-year-old bench player who had spent 9 1/2 of his first 11 major-league seasons on losing teams. A year earlier, he thought his career was finished before ever reaching the playoffs until the Phillies invited him to spring training just as camp began. Unser parlayed that 1979 invite into a roster spot, and 18 months later he stood in the center of a dripping clubhouse and tried to describe his two hits that kept the Phillies’ dream alive.
“Nothing can compare,” said Unser, wrapped arm in arm with broadcaster Richie Ashburn as champagne sprayed through the air. “Those last two at-bats were my whole season, maybe my whole career. I can’t. don’t know. I’m all choked up.”
The Phillies have played in 14 postseasons, but no playoff game has ever been as dramatic as the deciding game of the best-of-five National League Championship Series against the Astros. The Phillies had assembled one of baseball’s most talented rosters in the late 1970s, but they fell short each October. And now their season came down to Game 5 in the Astrodome with Nolan Ryan on the mound for Houston. Another heartbreak was one loss away.
“It was the loudest noise I ever heard in my life,” Unser, 75, said from his home in Arizona. “Continuous noise. There’s nowhere for it to go. Obviously, there’s no open roof in Houston. It just reverberated amazingly.”
Unser played for the Phillies in 1973 and ’74 when they were first beginning to show hints of the team they would become by the end of the decade. But his career dimmed just as the Phillies were coming of age. He hit just .196 in 1978 with Montreal and went unselected that winter in baseball’s short-lived reentry draft for free agents. Perhaps, Unser thought, that was it.
“Those are thoughts you definitely have,” Unser said.
Without a team to play for and spring training near, Unser entered a three-day racquetball tournament in January of 1979 in Las Vegas. The tournament pitted players from the NHL, NBA, NFL, and MLB, with the winner netting $124,000. Unser lost his first-round matchup but won his career back while he was still in Vegas when Phillies general manager Paul Owens called. Unser had an invitation to spring training.
“I told him, ‘I just want a chance.’ I kind of surprised him because I went home, packed, and was in his office the next morning after flying a red-eye,” Unser said. “That’s how bad I wanted a job.”
Unser started just 22 games in 1979 but had the fourth-most pinch hits in the National League (14 in 46 at-bats) and batted .298 for the season. He played four positions, carving a role with a contending team as a valuable bench player. His racquetball career could wait. In 1980, Unser led the team again in pinch-hitting (12-for-38) before ending the regular season in the starting lineup while manager Dallas Green squabbled with center fielder Garry Maddox. It was that stretch of regular playing time that proved vital when the Phillies needed Unser the most.
The Phillies trailed the Astros, 5-2, in the eighth inning, Ryan was still on the mound, and the 44,802 fans inside the Astrodome were ready to blow the roof off. But then Larry Bowa and Bob Boone singled and Greg Gross dropped a daring bunt to load the bases. The Phillies had life.
They scored twice to bring up Mike Schmidt with one out and the tying run on third. But Schmidt, who that year led the majors in homers and the National League in RBIs, struck out against right-handed reliever Ken Forsch. The fate of the inning — and maybe even the season — would come down to Unser, pinch-hitting with two outs.
Schmidt walked back to the dugout with his head low, crossing paths with Unser as he approached the plate. If Schmidt couldn’t get the job done, how could Unser? It had been a week since his last hit.
As Unser headed to the batter’s box, he thought about the extra tosses he received from hitting coach Billy DeMars that afternoon to calm his nerves inside the ratty batting cage. He thought about the week he spent in the starting lineup and how it sharpened his swing before the postseason. And he thought about what pitches he would see from Forsch.
It was Unser’s ability to block out the noise — the rollicking crowd, the magnitude of the moment, the struggles of Schmidt — that allowed him to find success at the challenging art of pinch-hitting. He swung at the first pitch, turned on an inside fastball, and dropped an RBI single into right-center field. The game was tied.
“It went over second base and I just said ‘Thank you,’ ” Unser said.
Manny Trillo followed with a two-run triple to cap the five-run rally that gave the Phillies a 7-5 lead, but the Astros clawed back to tie the game in the bottom of the inning. Schmidt struck out to start the 10th, but Unser was waiting again. He doubled to right field and scored the eventual winning run on a double by Maddox. Finally, there was no heartbreak.
The Phillies left Houston as National League champions and returned to the World Series for the first time in 30 years. Unser came through against Kansas City, too, when he stroked a pinch-hit, ninth-inning RBI double to tie Game 5 and went on to score the eventual winning run on a Trillo single. Two nights later, the Phillies were world champions and Unser was drenched again in champagne.
That championship team was built around baseball icons like Schmidt, Steve Carlton, and Pete Rose. They had stars like Maddox, Bowa, and Boone. But they also had players like Unser, Greg Gross, Marty Bystrom, and Dickie Noles who helped them pop the corks.
“Nobody can be hot all the time. And when you’re not, another guy gets hot,” Schmidt said. “That’s the kind of team we were. The team that wouldn’t die. The team that refused to lose.”
Unser had just nine more hits after that championship season before retiring in 1982. He spent a year-and-a-half selling sporting goods before Bill Giles offered him a coaching job in the Phillies farm system.
The utility player for the world champions became a utility player for the organization, serving an assortment of roles before retiring in 2017 after 34 years as a minor-league instructor, big-league hitting coach, farm director, and pro scout.
While overseeing the minor leagues, Unser had a role in the early development of players like Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Madson, Pat Burrell, and Brett Myers, who would play key parts in bringing the Phillies their first World Series ring since the one Unser earned in 1980. The pinch-hitter came through again.
But Unser also helped a cast of late-round picks reach the big leagues, bucking the odds the same way he did when he returned to Clearwater in 1979. The Phillies had invited him that spring to stay in shape and maybe catch the eye of another team. By the end of camp, Unser had earned a contract with the Phillies.
Unser’s career was burning again. He would soon have two of the biggest hits in franchise history, a microphone in his face, and a future Hall of Famer asking him to explain it all. It’s easy to understand why he struggled that night to find the words.