Baseball's tar wars came to an end yesterday with a rousing victory for old-fashioned fair play and high-mindedness in high places.
Mark July 28 on the baseball calendar as a distinguished date in history. Somebody finally did something right. And he did it just because it was right.
American League President Lee MacPhail took the hard way out, simply for the sake of being fair. Then, he went out of his way to share some of the blame himself.
This was the heralded day when major league baseball chose to cause itself inconvenience, expense, embarrassment and, perhaps, more controversy, just to follow "the spirit of the rules." If MacPhail can put common sense and simple justice ahead of convenience and nit-picking, then maybe the world--at least the baseball world--isn't such a bad place.
To the shock of many, and the delight of more, MacPhail ruled yesterday that George Brett's now-famed pine tar home run Sunday in Yankee Stadium will be allowed to count. Instead of a New York victory, Kansas City now leads, 5-4, with two out in the top of the ninth inning of what is a suspended game.
Anybody who has ever pleaded with a policeman about an unfair parking ticket and heard the cop say, "Yeah, buddy, tell it to the judge;" anyone who has held his breath through an IRS audit only to hear the tax man say, "Too bad, but you didn't read the fine print," must be tempted to cheer.
MacPhail had much to lose and little to gain--except the ends of athletic justice--with his decision to overrule his umpires and uphold a Royals' protest. His umpires are mad at him. "I don't like the ruling," said ump Joe Brinkman.
If the Royals have to visit Yankee Stadium for what amounts to a four-out game Oct. 3 with a division race hanging in the balance, MacPhail may wish he'd taken the easy way out and said, "I stand by the decision of my umpires. However, let's review this complex pine tar rule after the season."
All of baseball would have nodded like dumb beasts at such modern-times double talk. Even Brett didn't think the protest had much chance.
Naturally, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner is in high dudgeon, trying to see what new outer limits of buffoondom he can explore. "Ridiculous," said Steinbrenner of the decision. "If the Yankees should lose the Eastern Division race on the ruling of MacPhail, I would not want to be Lee living in New York City. Perhaps he should start house-hunting in Missouri."
MacPhail concluded his statement with the clean logic and unconscious poetry that often accompanies a clear conscience. "Although Manager (Billy) Martin and his staff should be commended for their alertness, it is the strong conviction of the league that games should be won and lost on the playing field--not through technicalities of the rules . . . "
Let the rest of the world cultivate its ulcers worrying about a verifiable SALT agreement. At least when George Brett turns around a 96-mile-an-hour Goose Gossage fast ball and sends it into the bleachers with two out in the ninth, it doesn't get nullifed by pine tar.
MacPhail, who has never before upheld a protest in his decade as AL president, then exonerated the umpires, saying that they had been misled by "unclear and unprecise" rules. And whose fault are those murky rules? "The responsibility for this . . . must rest with those of us in administrative positions in baseball, including myself."
Although it's true that, over the years, at least two players--Thurman Munson and Steve Stone (as a Cub)--have had base hits nullifed by an umpire's pine-tar call, there is only one case in which a formal protest forced a baseball official to set a precedent.
That came in '75 when MacPhail disallowed a California protest in which the Angels claimed that John Mayberry had beaten them with two home runs while using a bat with pine tar more than 18 inches above the knob. The case was identical to Brett's.
MacPhail, with Mayberry's palpably guilty bat in hand, ruled against the Angels and invoked common sense and "the spirit of the rule." Perhaps his ruling then was just a matter of expediency. Perhaps he just didn't want the aggravation of annoying his umps and replaying a game. Whatever his motive, McPhail had set a precedent that he could hardly ignore.
MacPhail is a kindly, gentle, soft-spoken, almost invisible little senior citizen who wears his authority so lightly, and stands on ceremony so seldom, that some forget he has any power to wield.
During baseball's strike in 1981, the man who found a way out of the impasse was MacPhail. He was the only person on either side of the bargaining table who was universally perceived to be so decent, guileless and devoted to baseball that he could be trusted.
In fact, MacPhail could be baseball's commissioner next week. All he has to do is say that he'll take the job, either on a permanent or an interim basis. But MacPhail won't touch the job, won't stab his friend Bowie Kuhn in the back, won't side with the half-dozen plotters in ownership who want Kuhn canned.
Often, we want our leaders, or decision makers, our "presidents," even if they are just American League presidents, to be impressive and charismatic men. Then, in a pinch, it's a Lee MacPhail--never infatuated by his power, and, so, never corrupted by it--who does what's right because he can still feel what's right. We are left to draw our own morals.