Game of Substances: The Pine Tar Incident 30 Years Later

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Following baseball as a kid, I always thought the Pine Tar Incident sounded less like it belonged to the realm of baseball and more like a case Encyclopedia Brown should be investigating. Needless to say, I was thoroughly confused by the whole affair: Why was putting too much pine tar on your bat illegal? What was too much? Was there some change that took place when a bat had too much pine tar on it that made it special and therefore illegal?

Answers to these questions would be revealed over time and are worth revisiting on this the 30th anniversary of the Pine Tar Incident, which began on July 24, 1983 and ended officially on August 18, 1983. The events and details are complex, but here’s a brief account: Kansas City third baseman George Brett hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning to give the Royals a one-run lead over the New York Yankees, 5-4. But after Brett crossed home plate and headed back to the dugout, the Yankees protested on the grounds that Brett used a bat with too much pine tar on it. The umpires conferred and eventually concurred: the home run was taken off the scoreboard and Brett was called out. Game over, Yankees win.

You can watch this all play out above. George Brett’s anger, which boils over into a frightening display at 2:40, remains one of the most intense displays of rage I’ve seen in sports or beyond and still scares me to this day. By comparison, John McEnroe’s anger was infantile, a bunch of temper tantrums; Brett here seems intent on tearing bodies asunder and reportedly told his teammates that if he was called out there would be “four dead umpires,” which there very nearly were. He’s like the Tasmanian Devil coming out of that dugout, so full of bloodlust that he doesn’t even know what to do with his arms except to shake them furiously.

After the game the Royals lodged a protest with league contesting the umpires’ decision. American League President, Lee MacPhail, upheld that protest and overturned the umpires’ decision even though Brett’s bat was technically in violation of Rule 1.10 which forbids the placement of pine tar on a bat more than 18” from the handle. MacPhail ruled that the home run should count because, in spite of everyone’s misunderstanding, the law has nothing to do with preventing a player from gaining an unfair competitive advantage–it played no role in Brett being able to hit the home run–and has everything to do with saving money. The rule was drafted to assuage the owners’ anxieties that pine tar placed too close to the barrel of the bat would result in more pine tar getting on baseballs which would render those baseballs unusable and mean that they (the owners) would need to supply more baseballs.

Anyway, the Royals and Yankees resumed the game almost a month later with Brett’s home run becoming official (even though a lot of shenanigans ensued between the original game and its continuation), and the Royals ended up winning the game, 5-4.

Brett would end up in the Hall of Fame with the Pine Tar Incident (and especially his colossal freak out) serving as the definitive dramatic moment of his career for which he’s always been thankful. Apparently, it’s better to be more famous as the Guy Who Went Berserk about Pine Tar on His Bat than the Guy Who Had to Leave a World Series Game Because of Hemorrhoids (which he did in 1980).

The incident itself has been commemorated and commercialized in various ways: country songs, t-shirts, action figures (bobble arms in this case, not bobble head).

But the legacy of the Pine Tar incident has as much to do with baseball regulating substances in confusing ways as it does with one man’s violent outburst, since no other sport makes use of as many viscous materials as does baseball. Batters apply pine tar to their bats to improve their grip, pitchers shake a rosin bag to keep their pitching hand dry, fielders use petroleum jelly (and a host of other tonics) to break in their gloves, pitchers and hitters alike load their cheeks with tobacco.* This may seem straightforward enough until you dig further and find out that the lawful uses of these substances are all very context-dependent. For instance, pine tar on a bat is okay (although there are restrictions, as seen above), but pitchers cannot put pine tar on the ball, according to Rule 3.02:

No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.

Once you get over the harsh ban on Twizzlers, you might notice that what may be a foreign substance in one context (pitching) is perfectly permissible in another (hitting) leading you to wonder what makes a hitter’s grip on the bat more important than a pitcher’s grip on the ball. Also, while rosin cannot be rubbed directly onto the ball, you can rub it onto your hands and then touch the ball, and in fact a rosin bag is placed directly behind the pitcher’s mound as if to tempt pitchers (go ahead and rub it on the ball, it’s right there!) or to torment them.

And if these intricate scenarios weren’t mystifying enough, there’s also a territorial dimension to the application of certain substances. Obviously spit can’t be applied directly to the ball [Rule 8.02 (a)(6) forbids any “‘shine’ ball, ‘spit’ ball, ‘mud’ ball or ‘emery’ ball”], but the pitcher can lick his fingers under certain circumstances in certain places on the diamond. Rule 8.02 states that

The pitcher shall not—
(a) (1) While in the 18-foot circle surrounding the pitcher’s plate, touch the ball after touching his mouth or lips, or touch his mouth or lips while he is in contact with the pitcher’s plate. The pitcher must clearly wipe the fingers of his pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher’s plate.

The infield grass beyond the pitcher’s mound, then, effectively becomes a liminal space where pitchers can lick their fingers with impunity. But once a pitcher steps within domain of that 18-foot circle, the mouth-to-hand contact needs to cease.

451tSo 30 years after the Pine Tar Incident, the excessive application of tree pitch to a baseball bat reminds us that while baseball may be foremost a competition in which athletes with freakish hand-eye coordination battle athletes who can hurl a small ball at ridiculous velocities, there’s also an important parallel drama that involves legislating, officiating, and litigating the various fluids that get put onto the gloves, balls, and bats, and that get put onto and inside of players’ bodies. And even though rules are often (but not always) made in the interest of fair play, the rules pertaining to regulating substances in baseball can make it difficult to grasp the logic that governs why you can put some stuff on some things but not others and can do some things in some places but not in others.

But to focus on the absurdities of rules and regulations is to miss the point, since suspending logic is part of the fun of organized competition. As a kid I used to look down on the kids who read comic books and who played Dungeons & Dragons. I thought those worlds too ridiculous, too fantastic. But I was narrow-minded. Sports are every bit as ridiculous and fantastic. I wasn’t imaginative enough to see that pine tar and rosin weren’t really that different from pixie dust or magic elixirs. Maybe in baseball they don’t exactly transform people or alter physical properties, but sometimes they do. In the case of George Brett, we saw how too much pine tar temporarily turned a baseball player into a ferocious orangutan.

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* And of course, the 800-pound can of worms deliberately not being opened here is the whole confusing matter of PEDs and the various lawful and unlawful substances that athletes put into their bodies that has dominated baseball news and gossip since the turn of the century. It’s probably worth mentioning, though, that PED-taking, freshly-suspended Brewers outfield Ryan Braun initially ran afoul of MLB’s drug policy in 2012 but had the decision overturned not because he was innocent exactly but because of a urine sample that wasn’t shipped on time that, if you believe Braun’s allegations, may have been tampered with. So add testosterone and urine to the confusing mix.

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