"This business of Brett's bat sure as hell won't be an easy one. Nothing's been routine about it so far. Lee MacPhail and I will sit down on Tuesday and he'll put it all in one pot and weigh it. Then, he'll make a decision. All the circumstances of this one just make it more difficult, that's for sure." --Dick Butler, supervisor of umpires
Baseball may never have had a rules argument as dramatic, as controversial, as tangled and of as much crucial interest to two pennant races (and nine teams) as The Battle of Brett's Bat that erupted Sunday in Yankee Stadium.
And it's getting more complicated, and fascinating, all the time. The plot thickened yesterday.
Before leaping into the maze, let's have the barest recap. In an incident that may be debated for years, umpires nullified a two-run, two-out, ninth-inning homer by Kansas City's George Brett, claiming that his bat violated an obscure rule--1.10 (b)--that says a player can't have pine tar more than 18 inches up from the knob of his bat.
Brett's apparent homer off Goose Gossage gave the Royals a 5-4 lead over New York.
Then, after a protest by Yankees Manager Billy Martin and a subsequent umpire's conference, Brett was called out. In the blink of an eye, the game was over and New York had won, 4-3. Brett raged so violently that he may yet be suspended, though that appears doubtful.
Martin basked; even the governor of New York offered the manager congratulations.
Such a story, however, could not have such a simple ending.
When AL President Lee MacPhail reaches his office today, he'll find on his desk a protest from the Royals, a full report from umpire Joe Brinkman's crew and one very sticky baseball bat, Brett's pine-tar special.
Also on MacPhail's desk will be his own words. MacPhail denied a protest in 1975 by the California Angels after they'd lost because of two homers by John Mayberry, who had pine tar too close to the barrel of his bat.
With Mayberry's illegal bat in hand, MacPhail decided that "the spirit of the rule" did not intend to punish a player for accidentally smearing a little sticky stuff too far up his bat handle. MacPhail invoked common sense. He'll have a tough time explaining how he can let Brett's homer be eradicated when he let Mayberry's count.
In other soap opera developments yesterday:
* The rules originally cited by the umpires probably won't hold water. Their official report will have to appeal to rules 6.06 (a), 2.00 and 1.10, rather than, as first thought, rule 6.06 (d) and 1.10.
* Though the umpires have now discovered a more reasonable rationale for their actions, their decision is no longer grounded in "umpire's judgment," but is a matter of rules interpretation. Therefore, as the rhubarb now stands, the Kansas City protest has a better chance for success than the Royals at first believed. No one overrules an umpire's judgment--it's sacred. But questions of rules interpretation are open to reversal.
Rule 1.10 (b) says that if you get pine tar too far up the bat, then the ump throws the bat out of the game. Rule 6.06 (d) says that the batter is out if he uses a bat that, in the umpire's judgment, has been altered to improve distance or to make the ball do funny things when it leaves the bat. "This includes bats that are filled, flat-surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as paraffin, wax, etc."
To invoke these rules, as the Brinkman crew indicated they had, would put the umps in the uncomfortable box of claiming that they'd called Brett out because it was their judgment he'd put pine tar on his bat to help him hit the ball farther. Nobody in baseball thinks pine tar serves any such purpose. The "etc" in rule 6.06 (d) wasn't meant for pine tar, thought that's the thin thread the Brinkman crew was left hanging by.
"The umpires report will probably appeal to 6.06 (a), 2.00 and 1.10 (b)," said Butler yesterday, after admitting that the 1.10 (b) to 6.06 (d) line of argument "had plenty of holes."
All 6.06 (a) says is that a batter is out if he hits an illegally batted ball. The definition of an illegally batted ball (rule 2.00) is, among other things, "one hit with a bat which does not conform to Rule 1.10." And 1.10 covers, among many things, pine tar.
The umps now have a suitable legalistic case. But not a common sense case.
MacPhail is on record as to his views on "the spirit of the rule." It's the opposite to the Brinkman crew's decision.
We're not out of the woods yet.
Just two months before the Mayberry protest, Thurman Munson of the Yankees was called out and a run-scoring hit nullified (by umpire Art France) for a pine-tar violation exactly like Brett's; the decision stood--in part, perhaps, because the Yankees won the game in 16 innings and, so, never protested.
That Munson out never came under MacPhail's review. But it proves that the Brinkman crew isn't the first ever to think that too much pine tar can get you called out.
Baseball hates to uphold protests, replay games or show up its umpires.
But in this case, it should. One mistake in judgment doesn't justify another.
Common sense says that George Brett a home run. And, no matter how much pine tar he had on his bat, the murky rules don't say otherwise.