Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: The Pine Tar Game (2015)

By Filip Bondy

When temper-tantrums from professional sports are discussed, George Brett's explosion on July 24, 1983, may set the standard forever.

Brett had just hit a home run off pitcher Rich Gossage to give his Kansas City Royals the lead over the Yankees in New York. However, Yankees manager Billy Martin argued that Brett had too much pine tar - a sticky substance used by batters for a better grip - on his bat. The umpires determined that the pine tar did indeed go higher than the 18-inch limit, and decided to call Brett out to end the game.

And here came George in an absolute rage, out of the dugout. He had to be restrained by practically everyone on the field who wasn't wearing a Yankee uniform.

That single scene is still remembered, and that's probably why Filip Bondy wrote, "The Pine Tar Game." What exactly did happen in that strange episode in baseball history?

Before Bondy gets to the game, though, he has some background to cover. The book goes through some history of both teams, eventually concentrating on the rivalry between the two teams during the late 1970s. The Yankees and Royals faced each other four times in five years in that era, and some of the finishes were memorable. There are plenty of tangents here, to the point where the book doesn't arrive on game day until after the halfway point of the book. Bondy's writing is knowledgeable and sharp, but there is a certain amount of "let's get to the good parts" feeling by that point.

The story headed into the incident described above, and chaos reigned. The Royals went to work researching the history of calls concerning illegal bats; Supreme Court arguments should receive such care. Kansas City management discovered that there were precedents to rule that the bat should have been removed from the game at some point, rather than affecting the contest's results. Pine tar, it seems, give the batter no advantage in terms of flight. Therefore, penalizing the Royals in that situation was a case of the punishment not fitting the crime. American League President Lee MacPhail agreed with the Royals, and ordered their protest upheld.

Baseball's rules are long and complex, supposedly ready to cover every imaginable situation. But every once in a while, something comes along that's not a neat fit and touches a few different areas of the rulebook in different ways. So the rulemakers go back to the drawing board and try to come up with an improvement ... until the next bizarre incident.

The Royals had to come back to New York a month later to finish the game, and Martin had one last trick up his sleeve. He saw that the game had different umpires than the one in July, so he ordered appeal plays at the bases - asking if Brett had touched the bases. That could have been more chaos, but American League publicity director Bob Fishel had thought of that. The umpires pulled out notarized statements from the original umpires, stating that Brett had indeed touched the bases. The Yankees went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth, and took the loss.

Bondy does a good job of tracking down those involved in the situation. The comments of Brett and Gossage are particularly interesting as they look back. The two men didn't talk to each other much in their playing days, but they've become friendly now. Perhaps their election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown calmed them down. When they can go there, they can visit Brett's bat from the game - behind some glass with other exhibits of baseball history.

A book-length treatment of this subject, may be more than most will want for this episode. The story goes off on a few tangents, such as stories about Rush Limbaugh and Roy Cohn. A long magazine article might have covered the subject well enough for most.

But this is still a good, professional job of storytelling, and moves along quickly. "The Pine Tar Game" should satisfying most people's curiosity about the incident quite nicely.

Three stars

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