Monday, June 16, 2008

The Pine Tar Incident

Chipper Jones is threatening the .400 mark. Baseball Prospectus has a good rundown on what his chances are. (No, I don't think he will do it but I hope I'm wrong.)

This chase reminds me of the run at .400 by George Brett in 1980. And whenever I think of Brett, I think of the most notorious incident involving Billy Martin that ever happened: The Pine Tar Incident.

I'm sure Brett doesn't like that people like me associate him most prominently with the Pine Tar Incident, but... facts are facts.

The Pine Tar Incident is probably the weirdest mini-scandal in recent major league history, replete with late-inning heroics, allegations of cheating, a near brawl, and Billy Martin. What would a minor scandal be without Billy Martin?

It was July 24, 1983, New York vs. Kansas City in Yankee Stadium. Relief ace Goose Gossage was on the mound for the Yankees, protecting a 4–3 lead in the top of the ninth. With two outs and a runner on, Brett smashed a fastball over the fence to give the Royals an apparent 5–4 lead.

To everyone’s surprise, Yankee manager Billy Martin ran out his dugout carrying a rule book, trying to contain his glee. He had known for weeks that Brett was putting pine tar—a sticky black substance that helps a batter’s grip—higher on his bat than the 18 inches the rules allowed. He was waiting for the right moment to spring the news on an umpiring crew, and this was it.

After measuring the pine tar on Brett’s bat using the width of home plate, umpire Tim McClelland ruled the home run illegal and called Brett out, the apparent third out of the inning, giving the Yankees an apparent victory.

Now here comes Brett, storming out of the dugout! In a wild rage, restrained by players and coaches, Brett embodied pure, unadulterated anger.

Even though the game was supposedly over, the umpires ejected Brett, manager Dick Howser, coach Rocky Colavito, and pitcher Gaylord Perry, who tried to hide the bat. The umpires were able to confiscate the bat only because, as it was getting passed from Royals player to player, the last man in the line didn’t have anybody to give it to.

The Royals, of course, protested to the league office: “Broadway wouldn’t buy that script . . . it’s so unbelievable,” huffed Howser. Four days later, AL President Lee MacPhail agreed with Howser. He overruled his umpiring crew, a rare occurrence, and allowed the home run. He declared that even though the pine tar was technically illegal, it didn’t violate the “spirit of the rules.”

The Yankees were outraged. “It sure tests our faith in leadership,” moaned Yankee czar George Steinbrenner (of all people). Martin howled that the rule book was “only good for when you go deer hunting and run out of toilet paper.”But MacPhail had the power, and his decision stood.

Now there was the matter of completing the game, which was still in the ninth inning. The completion was scheduled for August 18, and the Yankees decided they would charge regular admission, even for fans who had tickets to the first game! Enraged fans protested, and two lawsuits were filed declaring the team’s policy illegal. In response, the club changed its policy but failed to announce it, so only 1,200 fans showed up to watch nine minutes and 41 seconds of baseball. Hal McRae struck out to end the ninth, and the Yankees went down in order in the bottom of the inning, giving the Royals a hard-fought 5–4 victory.

There is no YouTube video of the Pine Tar Incident (probably because of copyright concerns), but you can listen to the radio broadcast at

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