Baseball has fascinated me for as far back as I can remember, and even though I don’t recall it well, I still love the fact the first game I ever attended was the infamous Pine Tar incident. My father tells the story wonderfully – about being right behind the dugout with his two young sons, of the home run that larger than life Dave Winfield hit that seemingly never rose more than 6 feet off the ground, and most incredibly, having the infamous Yankee manager Billy Martin, stroll out of the dugout, turn to look at the crowd, directly at us, and smile an all-knowing smile before inciting one of the strangest endings to a game in any sport, at any time.
Let’s look back on the situation in order to get into the mind of Martin at the time:
- The Yankees and Kansas City Royals were two of the biggest rivals in sports in the early 1980’s, and each had been at or near the top of their divisions for the previous few years.
- The Yanks knocked the Royals out of the playoffs in 1976, 1977, and 1978.
- The Royals returned the favor in 1980.
- These teams hated each other, and the fans of each felt exactly the same way.
Now fast forward to the summer 1983 with both squads fighting for a playoff spot, each just 2 games behind the division leaders. The Royals have lost the first two games of a three game set and are down by a run heading into the last inning. Journeyman Dale Murray is cruising along in relief, holding the Royal bats at bay for 3-plus innings. Of course, every last person in the park knows that the most feared reliever in the history of the sport is waiting to get into the game at a moments notice, ready to quash any life left in the visiting Royals.
It takes just two pitches for Murray to retire the first two batters of the inning, removing virtually all hope of a Royals victory. Funny thing about baseball though. There is no clock; the only way to end the game is to get beat, on the field, after a thrown pitch. Sure enough, UL Washington, he of the .233 batting average, finds a way to get on base with a well placed single to center field.
This stroke of luck allows one of the most famous batter-pitcher match-ups of all time to take place. The 2-out base hit brought George Brett to the plate – a first ballot Hall of Famer for his on the field skills, and no doubt a would be first ballot inductee to the hall of wearing your heart on your sleeve. This was the epitome of a ‘classic confrontation’ taking place in front of 35,000 fans on what was a perfect Sunday afternoon for baseball. (Trying to calculate the odds of it being 71 degrees, in the Bronx, during the heart of the dog-days of summer, makes one believe that a higher power exists).
Sure enough Brett drilled the first pitch, a 98 mile per hour fastball, deep towards the left field stands for what would give the Royals a 5-4 lead. But it’s foul. All of Yankeeland breathes a huge sigh of relief. The next pitch was identical, but Brett was ready for it and pulled the bullet high and far well beyond the right field fence for what could be the game winning home run. Before Brett could even make it around to home plate, out of the dugout strode Billy Martin. Martin of course, was probably a lunatic, but that didn’t prevent him from triumphing this day, if only temporarily. As I mentioned, before reaching the top step, Martin turned toward the crowd behind the 1st base dugout and smiled, a grin that eliminates all doubt, and then proceeds to saunter out to the Home Plate umpire.
Nobody in attendance had a clue what Martin was doing – it was a completely clean play with no apparent breaking of the rules in question. Brett stood in the dugout watching and wondering what home plate umpire Tim McLelland and Martin could be discussing. Martin then requested that Brett’s bat be examined, and, after laying the bat across home plate, McLelland took a few steps towards the Royal dugout and signaled that Brett was now out.
If you are not familiar with the rule: 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. Of course, this had no bearing on Brett’s home run as pine tar19 inches up the bat handle has absolutely no effect at free swinging batter, it was originally in the rules for bunting purposes.
Now, ask yourself the following question – could this scenario have played out in any other sport?
- No other sport could ever see a manager, who had just lost the game for all intents and purposes, slowly and confidently walk to the umpiring crew and turn the game upside down.
- No other sport has its fans so close to the action, so much so that they could feel like the coach looked directly at their own eyes and smiled.
- No other sport allows the game to be suspended in time, like the few minutes Martin and McClelland conversed, with everyone present watching, just those two, waiting for the outcome to mystery.
- Martin had known of the pine tar problem with Brett’s bat for at least several weeks, but was saving that information for a ‘special occasion’. This is just not plausible for the likes of the NFL, NBA, or NHL.
- Finally, no other sport allows a conversation between his father and sons to take place so often, but never grow stale or tiresome.
Baseball bridges the gap between generations. It has existed in basically the form we see today since the late 1800s. Forget sports, what other aspect of American life can this be said to be true? A great quote from Ken Burns “Baseball” says all you need to know:
It is played everywhere. In parks and playgrounds and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers’ fields. By small children and old men. Raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game in which the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime, and ending with the hard facts of autumn. It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness. Speed and grace. Failure and loss. Imperishable hope. And coming home.
Here’s the audio for the fantastic call of the Brett at bat made by the late, great, Phil Rizzuto. Part 1 and Part 2. (Complete with the word huckleberry, a 10ft leap by Don Mattingly, and more than one Holy Cow.)