- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

“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.”

— Rule 1.10

Twenty-three years ago yesterday, George Brett of the Kansas Royals apparently hit the first game-losing home run in baseball history.

Brett’s two-out, two-run blast off New York Yankees closer Goose Gossage in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium seemingly gave the Royals a 5-4 lead. But wait a minute — or, to be more exact, wait three weeks, four days, four hours and 14 minutes. What followed qualified as one of the wackiest horsehide happenings ever, the Pine Tar Game.

As Brett accepted high fives from teammates in the Royals’ dugout, Yankees manager of the moment Billy Martin strolled up to home plate umpire Tim McClelland.

“You know, that bat is illegal,” Martin said, pointing to the club that lay on the ground near the on-deck circle. “Measure it — there’s too much pine tar on it.”

With a ruler unavailable in the middle of a game, McClelland placed Brett’s bat across the plate, which is 17 inches wide, and saw that the pine tar exceeded the legal limit. After conferring with the other umpires, he thrust his right fist in the air in baseball’s classic “out” signal. The game seemed to be over, with the Yankees 4-3 winners.

Now there ensued a memorably ugly scene, one replayed hundreds of times on TV over the years. Brett charged out of the dugout toward the plate, eyes bulging, lips snarling and apparently bent on attacking Martin, McClelland or both before he was restrained by teammates and umpire crew chief Joe Brinkman. Of course, the Royals’ fuming third baseman was ejected.

“The sight of George coming out of the dugout is etched in my mind forever,” Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly would say 10 years later.

Teammate Gossage recalled the scene this way: “I felt a little sorry for George but not much.”

The Yankees’ protest was no spur-of-the-moment thing. Earlier that season, during a game in Kansas City, New York third baseman Graig Nettles had noticed an overabundance of pine tar on Brett’s bat.

“But you don’t call him on it if he makes an out,” Martin noted after the Yankee Stadium game. “It’s a terrible rule, but if it had happened to me, I would have accepted it.”

As it turned out, the brouhaha was just starting. The Royals filed a protest with the American League office, and speculation ran rampant over whether it would be allowed.

Four days later, AL president Lee MacPhail announced that even though Brett’s bat clearly had too much pine tar, only it and not the player should have been ejected because a game “should be decided on the field and not by a technicality of the rules.” He upheld the Royals’ protest and ordered that the game be resumed Aug. 18 in the top of the ninth inning with Kansas City leading 5-4.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, no respecter of any authority but his own, did everything he could to prevent it from continuing. First he said he could not, for some reason, provide adequate security. Then he disputed the league’s raincheck policy. As the date approached, everybody waited and wondered.

Several hours before the scheduled resumption, the New York State Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction barring it. The American League appealed. Two and a half hours before game time, Justice Joseph Sullivan of the court’s appellate division overruled the decision — saying, in effect, “play ball!”

Ironically, Brett was not able to play, having been ejected from the game along with Royals manager Dick Howser. Watching on TV, they saw the Yankees try to make a mockery of the proceedings. Martin installed the left-handed Mattingly at second base and pitcher Ron Guidry in center field. Then, as an intimate gathering of 1,245 snickered, Martin claimed Brett hadn’t touched first base on his homer.

Yankees pitcher George Frazier stepped off the rubber and threw to first base, where umpire Tim Welke signaled safe. (Probably for their own protection, the four umpires in the original game were not assigned to work the continuation.)

Martin then said Brett had failed to touch second, and Frazier threw to that base. Again the umpire, George Phillips, ruled safe. Martin emerged from the dugout to protest the calls. But the league office, anticipating this ploy, produced an affidavit signed by the four original umpires that Brett and runner U.L. Washington had touched all the bases.

Now the Yankees had no recourse but to play. Frazier got the final out in the top of the ninth, and Royals closer Dan Quisenberry needed only 10 pitches to dispose of the Yankees in the bottom half. The game’s completion required just nine minutes and 41 seconds. Finally, the farce was over.

Brett, now in the Hall of Fame after batting .305 with 317 home runs over 21 seasons, recalled a smidgen of humor in the whole batty business.

“Prior to 1983, I was always ridiculed at ballparks about [having hemorrhoids] during the 1980 World Series,” he said three years ago. “Now I’m always known as the ‘Pine Tar Guy.’ What would you rather be known as? So in all honesty, it was the greatest thing that ever happened in my career.”

Nonetheless, the pine tar business was a real mess — literally, as our British cousins might say, a sticky wicket.

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