One of the many enduringly fun things about being a sports fan, is getting older so you can tell the generations behind you: “Oh yeah. That was real. That ACTUALLY HAPPENED!” There are incidents and moments, wrinkles and rulings, bad guys and bad calls, and all kinds of weird shit sprinkled throughout sports history.
The 35th Anniversary of one of the all-time greats just happened. Royals slugger George Brett was called out on a back-of-the-back-of-the-rulebook technicality regarding pine tar usage exceeding an arbitrary 18 inches.
Called out, mind you, AFTER he had just hit a go-ahead 2 run homer against the Yankees.
In New York. Right. Uh… huh.
Now you know why he so famously went bezerk running out of the dugout that day to confront home plate umpire Tim McClelland. It was the exact kind of bullshit move, that you usually only see in backyard games where the older kids make up some crap when they are losing to the younger kids, and then threaten to take the ball and go home.
The essential unfairness of the call was reinforced when AL president Lee McPhail upheld the Royals protest of the game, and forced the two teams to finish up a month later at the point of the Royals 5-4 9th inning lead (they would hold on to win).
The rule was intended to be organizational in nature, and not something to prevent hitters from getting an advantage. Pine tar was used (and still is) to give bats an impossibly sticky feel, that is impervious to sweat or rain. Combined with modern batting gloves (or even without) that bat is NOT gonna slip in your hands.
It’s also an absolute mess. A bat with pine tar smeared beyond the roughly 18 inch handle area up to the barrel, would not be any benefit to the hitter, but it would put splurges of the stuff on the baseball. And those balls would need to be taken out of play, because a pine tar laced ball WOULD be an advantage to a pitcher who knew how to use the foreign substance for additional grip, spin or movement.
What is still mesmerizing to this day for me, is the sheer velocity Brett showed in blasting out of the dugout. Arms flailing like a crazed chimp, a huge plug of tobacco, sputtering from his mouth. All the while, McClelland just stands there, like a boss! If it weren’t for another umpire gently re-directing Brett just moments before impact, what would have happened?
Would George Brett have bowled him over, like a linebacker? Taken a swing? Could a Hall of Fame icon have been just one split second from authoring his own “Woody Hayes moment” only 10 times worse?
Once Brett had been re-directed, was his rage to get at McClelland genuine, or was it just an elaborate “hold-me-back!” routine?
If this kind of thing had happened in today’s media hot take environment, would George Brett be viewed in a sympathetic manner? Or would he be the devil?
Luckily, for all involved, it ended up being just great theater, nothing more. It didn’t detract from his insanely good Hall of Fame career. Sure, George Brett is known for this moment. He’s also known for introducing the world to what “double-taper” means.
But he’s also the last major leaguer to take a serious run at hitting .400 for a season. And he’s the absolutely pure embodiment of “ballplayer” in the 1980’s.
Happy Birthday, Pine Tar Incident! We’ll bring the cake, coated in (what else!) pine tar!