Saturday, July 24, 2010

July 24, 1983: The Pine Tar Game

BRONX, N.Y. – George Brett hit a home run against the Yankees on July 24, 1983. It was a pretty big home run, coming with two outs in the ninth and giving the Royals a 5-4 lead. As he touched home plate, he saw Yankees manager Billy Martin walking towards home plate. Perhaps a pitching change was in order?

Martin and the umpire, Tim McClelland, soon were looking at Brett’s bat. While Brett was being congratulated on his home run, the umpires huddled. They were looking closely at the bat handle. Then, McClelland placed the bat on the ground next to home plate. That seemed odd. Then McClelland looked toward the Kansas City dugout, spotted Brett, and calmly called him out.

Nothing was calm about what happened next.

Brett’s reaction is legendary. He sprinted out of the dugout, hands flailing, screaming at the umpires. If one of his coaches hadn’t gotten in the way, he might have punched McClellan. It took two umpires and two teammates to restrain him completely. And for good reason: since the home run came with two outs in the ninth, the out call meant that the game was over.

Turns out, though, that Brett was right. Major League Rule 1.10(b) states that "The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the 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." See that last part of the rule? It says the bat shall be removed from the game. It doesn’t say anything about calling the player out or nullifying any hit achieved with the bat. McClelland actually called Brett out by invoking the “Umpire’s Prerogative” rule, not the rule involving pine tar.

It was on this basis that the Royals lodged an official protest. League president Lee MacPhail overturned the out call, saying that the spirit of the pine tar rule was to prevent foreign substances from getting on the ball, and that Brett wasn’t intending to gain an unfair advantage with how much he had on the bat. He ordered the home run restored and the game to be continued from that spot. MacPhail did, however, order Brett and Kansas City manager Dick Howser ejected from the suspended game for their argument.

The game was continued on August 18, on what was a scheduled day off for both teams, with only about 1,200 fans in attendance. Martin symbolically protested the continuation by putting pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and left-handed first baseman Don Mattingly at second base. Then, before the first pitch, he again challenged Brett’s home run, saying that Brett hadn’t touched all the bases, and that the umpires, now a different crew than had done the game the first time, couldn’t prove otherwise. New home plate umpire Davey Phillips produced an affidavit signed by all four original umpires stating that Brett had touched all the bases.

Four outs later, 25 days after the game began, the Royals finished off their 5-4 victory.

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