As Major League Baseball finds itself grabbing headlines for off-field news, today happens to be the anniversary of one of the most infamous on-field incidents, involving the Kansas City Royals' George Brett and pine tar in Yankee Stadium.
On July 24, 1983, in a game between the Royals and New York Yankees, Brett came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning with the Royals trailing 4-3. U.L. Washington was on first base and Goose Gossage was on the mound.
Gossage threw Brett a high fastball that stayed out over the plate. Brett put a great swing on the ball and blasted it deep into the right field seats to give the Royals a 5-4 lead.
What was supposed to be just another day of heroics for Brett and a likely win for the Royals would quickly turn into a moment that sports fans wouldn't soon forget.
Yankees manager Billy Martin went to talk to umpire Tim McClelland about the amount of pine tar that was on Brett's bat. The umpires all got together, measured Brett's bat against home plate and agreed the tar was covering too much of the bat and called Brett out.
Brett went completely nuts, exploding out of the dugout like he was going to spear McClelland right out of his shoes. That moment has been replayed countless times on highlights, commercials and in games.
So today, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the (in)famous incident, here is a look back at what led to the incident, what happened as the incident played out and the aftermath of it.
Why There Was a Problem
The MLB rule book is a funny little thing. It gets talked about rarely, especially in contrast to the unwritten rules of the sport that get talked about all the time.
On this particular day 30 years ago, everyone around the world would learn about a rule they had no idea existed. Rule 1.10 (c) clearly states:
(c) The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18 inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.
Before the Pine-Tar Incident
Neither the Royals nor Yankees were having great seasons coming into the game. The Royals were hovering around .500 at 44-45 en route to a 79-83 finish, good enough for second place in the American League West.
The Yankees were faring better with a 52-40 record, but they trailed both Baltimore and Detroit in the American League East. They would eventually post a 91-71 mark—very respectable, but not good enough to make the playoffs in this pre-Wild Card era.
Instead of having significant ramifications, July 24, 1983, was just another day at the park. At least, until it wasn't.
Before we got to the ninth inning, the game was fairly entertaining. The Royals took a 3-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth inning before Don Baylor tied the game with a two-run triple, and Dave Winfield knocked Baylor in with an RBI single to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead.
The score would stay that way until the ninth inning.
Recalling the Pine-Tar Incident
The man at the center of the incident, Brett, has talked about this probably more than anything else in his pre- and post-baseball career.
Speaking to reporters on July 10, 2013, when the Royals were in New York for a series against the Yankees, Brett, serving as Kansas City's interim hitting coach, talked about what his thoughts were when he stormed out of the dugout (h/t New York Daily News):
I said, "I’ll kill one of those SOBs." I looked like my dad charging through the house when I brought back my report card. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Joe Brinkman hadn’t grabbed me from behind and pulled me back.
Brett also said that while he had heard about the pine-tar rule in the past and had seen someone get thrown out of a game, there was no way he thought anything was wrong (h/t Sports Illustrated):
And then Frank White who’s sitting pretty close to me says, “You know, when they measured your bat, when they dropped the bat on home plate to measure it, they might call you out for using too much pine tar on your bat.” I go, “What do you mean?” And Frank might have said something about — I think it happened to John Mayberry — and I go, “Well, if they call me out for using too much pine tar, I’ll go out there and I’ll kill one of those SOBs.”
One of the least talked about aspects of the incident came courtesy of the bat boy from that day, Merritt Riley.
Riley did an interview with Daniel Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal and mentioned he may have played a crucial role in Martin being able to call the amount of pine tar into question:
I really believe the pine-tar game would never have happened if I hadn't done what I did.
The Yankees had a rule—you had to go to home plate, get the bat, and run back to the dugout. You couldn't stand there and wait for the player to round the bases, to high-five him.
Riley is a Yankees fan, but he states in the article that he always liked and was fascinated by Brett, which is why he didn't immediately take the bat back to the dugout:
I was a die-hard Yankee fan, but something kept me there, with the bat in my hand. And I waited there for him as he rounded the bases, sure enough, I gave him a high-five, and then started to go back to the dugout. And that is when Billy Martin started yelling from the Yankee dugout to [Yankee catcher] Rick Cerone, telling him to "check the bat, check the bat."
The next time you wonder what the importance of a bat boy at baseball games really is, just know that one of them probably played a critical part in one of the most famous ejections in Major League Baseball history.
After the game was over on July 24, with the Yankees winning 4-3, the Royals filed a protest with the league. According to the Baseball Reference recap of the game, American League president Lee MacPhail declared Brett was indeed in violation but felt the home run should have counted anyway. The game was restarted in the top of the ninth with two outs on August 18.
Ted Berg of USA Today posted "Five Things You Never Knew About the Pine Tar Game" and noted that Billy Martin actually "waged a silent protest" to end the game. He had first baseman Don Mattingly playing at second and pitcher Ron Guidry in center field (their regular second baseman was injured and the starting center fielder had been traded to the Astros).
According to Berg, "Neither Guidry nor Mattingly was a factor defensively in the one-third inning they played out of position, but Mattingly’s short stint at the keystone marks the last time a left-handed-throwing player has played the middle infield."
According to Miscellaneous Baseball, the mind games didn't stop there for the Yankees. The umpiring crew for the resumed game was different than the original group, which forced umpire Dave Phillips to carry around a piece of paper signed and notarized by the old crew stating that everything that happened prior to the pine-tar ejection was proper as called.
But the Yankees and Martin apparently wanted more clarification. Once the game resumed, pitcher George Frazier was directed to throw the ball to first base and then second base to appeal. The thinking on their part was that Brett didn't touch all the bags rounding the bases on the home run.
The appeal failed, the game was finally restarted, and 25 days after the game was supposed to be over and done with, the Royals wound up winning 5-4.
Bring It Forward to Today
In a lot of ways, the idea behind instant replay was forged on that day. Remove the part about there being too much pine tar on Brett's bat, and focus on the fact that an entire umpiring crew put their heads together to make sure they made the right call.
In today's game, umpires are so afraid of being shown up that if anyone bothers to question their authority, they get ejected.
Brett has since gone on to bigger and better things, something rarely seen after an infamous incident like this. The good news for him is that he was so good on the field that you couldn't dwell on this too long. It is still one of the signature moments in his career, but it is not the only one that defines him.
Like so many days in baseball, July 24, 1983, started out like any other. It was just another day for Kansas City and New York to play a game. Things were chugging along nicely right up until Brett hit that ninth-inning home run.
It brought about a moment and visual image every baseball fan has seen countless times over the years, reminding us that on any given day you can see something in a baseball game that you won't see anywhere else.
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