Story of the Week

    Twenty years ago this summer, future Hall-of-Famer, George Brett, was involved in one of the "stickiest" incidents in baseball history. It involved a home run, some pine tar, and the rule book.

    The controversial "Pine Tar Game" became a headache for many involved. George Brett became the object of unwelcome notoriety. The controversy began on July 24, 1983, in Yankee Stadium, when Brett hit a ninth-inning, two-out, two-run home run off Goose Gossage that gave the Kansas City Royals a 5-4 lead. 

    It wasn’t the first time that Brett and Gossage had faced each other. The two had matched up previously in the heated post-season rivalry between Brett’s Royals and Gossage’s Yankees three years before. Brett had blasted a homer in Yankee Stadium’s upper-deck off the star relief pitcher in the third game of the 1980 LCS to seal a three-game sweep of the Bronx Bombers. This time, the stakes weren’t as high, but the drama that unfolded became legend.

    Brett’s blast came with teammate U.L. Washington on first base with two outs, and gave the Royals an apparent 5-4 lead. Moments after crossing home plate and entering the dugout, Brett saw Yankees’ manager, Billy Martin, approach home plate umpire, Tim McClelland. Soon McClelland asked for Brett’s bat from the Royals’ dugout, and conferred with his umpiring crew at home plate. Martin watched from a few feet away, and Brett looked on curiously from the bench. A moment later, McClelland thrust his arm in the air, and signaled that Brett was out; the reason was excessive use of pine tar on his bat, nullifying the home run and ending the game.

    Brett stormed from the Royals’ dugout in a rage, and had to be restrained by teammates, coaches, and umpire crew chief, Joe Brinkman. McClelland had cited rule 1.10(b) which read that "a bat may not be covered by such a substance more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle." The umpire had ruled that Brett’s bat had "heavy pine tar 20 inches from the tip of the handle, and lighter pine tar for another four inches." McClelland had measured the pine tar by placing the bat across home plate, which is 17 inches across with a one-inch border.

    Despite the protests of Brett and Royals’ manager, Dick Howser, the ruling stood. Brett was ejected for his outburst, and the home run was nullified, giving the Yankees a 4-3 win. Martin had realized Brett was in violation of the rule early in the season when Yankee Gregg Nettles pointed it out to him. Martin played his cards beautifully, and raised the bet when it counted, after Brett had done damage.

    Subsequently, the Royals protested the call. The episode gained national notoriety. Eventually, A.L. President, Lee MacPhail, overturned the decision and reinstated Brett’s homer. Acknowledging that Brett had pine tar too high on the bat, MacPhail explained that it was the league’s belief that "games should be won and lost on the playing field, and not through a technicality of the rules."

    MacPhail ordered the game resumed on August 18, a scheduled off-day for both teams, at the point following Brett’s homer, with the Royals leading, 5-4. Relentless Billy Martin argued vociferously that Brett hadn’t touched all bases after he hit the bomb some four weeks earlier, and was ejected from the game. The Royals went out in the ninth, as did the Yankees, without incident, and the Royals had won the game, 5-4. The completion of the game had taken just 12 minutes and a mere 16 pitches.

    My opinion? I’m glad you asked. A rule is a rule, Billy Martin played his hand brilliantly, the umpiring crew was correct in its original ruling, Lee MacPhail was wrong in his ruling, Graig Nettles knew the rule, George Brett and Dick Howser were ignorant of the rule. But it was an incident for the ages. Too bad the brain surgeon, Marty McSorley, wasn’t around to counsel George Brett on June 24, 1983; that’s another story.

Last Week’s Trivia

    Clint Longley was the back-up QB who brought the Cowboys back against the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 when Roger Staubach got knocked out. Longley, who didn’t exactly have a football career-for-the-ages, was used to a more dangerous way to spend a Sunday; he was a rattlesnake hunter. But for one day, and one day only, he basked in the glory of the NFL.

Trivia Question of the Week

    The last two major league teams that failed to record an out in the first inning of their respective games before they brought in their third pitcher were the Florida Marlins in 2003 and the Kansas City Royals in 1973. What was the incredible irony of these two horrific efforts? See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.