On This Day: Lee MacPhail sides with KC Royals

KC Royals third baseman George Brett's iconic reaction is nor the end of the Pine Tar Incident.
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Imagine the Pine Tar Game or Pine Tar Incident taking place in today's sports world. Umpires still hold the power every day in MLB games, but that power stays behind the plate nowadays. Bad calls can be challenged and overturned, but balls and strikes are still left up to human error. Human error played an even bigger part in overturning a George Brett home run and KC Royals win over the New York Yankees back on July 24, 1983. The saga continued on July 28 though, thanks to American League president Lee MacPhail.

The Royals quickly protested umpire Tim McClelland's ruling Brett's game-winning home run an illegally batted ball. That decision gave the Yankees a 4-3 victory and led to an iconic snapshot of Brett's rightful temper at the moment. The decision centered around the amount of pine tar on Brett's bat. The umpire crew used the imprecise measuring stick of the home plate width to enforce the rule, plus there was a dispute behind the rule's intent. Yankees manager Billy Martin and the New York dugout thought the pine tar was a performance-enhancing substance, giving Brett an unfair advantage. Yet, the rule referenced does not prevent unfair advantages, rather tries to extend the life of a baseball.

At the time, Rule 1.10 (b) read: 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. MLB wanted to prevent excess pine tar from sticking and discoloring baseballs put into play. After all, baseballs aren't cheap and pine tar could ruin a good number of balls across a season. So, why would the league be concerned about a ball put into the stands? That was MacPahil's way of thinking.

"That was a very, very tough decision. I think it showed a lot of courage. He's a native New Yorker and he lives there. I would not have wanted to make that decision."

George Brett

The decision came with enormous headaches for both ball clubs, scheduling a time to play 1 1/3 innings of a ball game. All that matters is the Royals eventually won 5-4.

While MacPhail upheld the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it, it was a big win for the Royals. Brett even joked that the Royals or Yankees "might even have a Pine Tar Night at the ballpark". A promotion like that would be welcome in Kauffman Stadium when the Yankees visit, to distract modern fans from the woeful Royals product in 2023. But back in 1983, the league leadership went to bat for the little ol' Royals.

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