Interview: Filip Bondy, Author Of 'The Pine Tar Game' In the 1983 game, the Yankees were holding a trump card: an obscure rule that turned the Royals' game-winning home run into a game-loser, inspiring one of the most epic tantrums in baseball history.
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A Rage For The Ages: The Unforgettable 'Pine Tar Game'

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A Rage For The Ages: The Unforgettable 'Pine Tar Game'

A Rage For The Ages: The Unforgettable 'Pine Tar Game'

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

A game winning home run becomes a game loser - twenty-five days later, a game winner again. I’m talking about an unforgettable baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals played 32 years ago. It’s memorialized in a book called “The Pine Tar Game.” The author is Filip Bondy, who watched the game from the press box at Yankee Stadium. NPR's Becky Sullivan talked with him last week to get the full story.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In the late '70s and early '80s, the Royals and the Yankees were rivals. The two teams faced off for a berth in the World Series in '76, '77, '78 and 1980. The Yankees won three of those, but the Royals were good - really good, Filip Bondy say - and their star was a third baseman named George Brett.

FILIP BONDY: Every traditional statistical measure, George Brett was, I think, the greatest hitter of his generation.

SULLIVAN: George Brett had a favorite bat - a particularly well-made Louisville Slugger. And because he liked to bat without wearing gloves, he put pine tar on the handle of his bat.

BONDY: It's sticky, ugly, messy stuff, but it does help the grip.

SULLIVAN: But there was a catch; an old rule banned pine tar from going out more than 18 inches along the bat, because pine tar kept ruining the baseballs and the owners didn't like having to pay to keep replacing them. But Bondy told me that pine tar that high on the bat has no effect on a hit.

BONDY: Absolutely not. The only reason it was high up on George Brett's bat is that Brett had a habit of massaging his bat with his hands. And the pine tar just kept getting higher and higher on his bat. But it was not affecting the flight or the distance of the batted ball.

SULLIVAN: Even though that pine tar had crept up past the 18 inch mark, no one seemed to notice until July 24, 1983, a Sunday afternoon in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY MURCER: This is a final meet in the season between the Yankees and Kansas City.

SULLIVAN: We're listening to the Yankee call by Bobby Murcer and Frank Messer. The Yankees are up one at the top of the ninth. The Royals have two outs, but they've got a man on first, and up comes George Brett, facing off with Yankees reliever Goose Gossage. The Yankee stadium crowd holds their breath. Brett fouls off the first pitch deep to left field. And the second pitch - Brett just nails it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: Uh-oh. Uh-oh. It's gone.

(APPLAUSE)

BONDY: Brett hammered it. He just hammered it over the fence in right field.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: And now the Royals have the one-run lead.

BONDY: So he rounds all the bases, he comes back home. The Royals are celebrating in the dugout. Brett takes his seat in the dugout. But then, stuff happened

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: George Brett has just homered and Billy Martin and the Yankees want the bat.

SULLIVAN: The Yankees manager, Billy Martin, had been tipped off about the bat and that pine tar stretching all the way up to the Louisville Slugger logo. And he'd been waiting for a moment just like this to use that information. So he's out there talking with the umpires, and soon they take the bat and lay it next to home plate.

BONDY: They don't have a measuring stick, but they know that home plate is 17 inches wide and that this bat sure looks like it's been pine tarred a lot more than that.

SULLIVAN: In this clip, you can hear exactly when the umpire signals that Brett is out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK MESSER: They might be going to call George Brett out. They do. He's out. (Unintelligible) look at this.

SULLIVAN: And George Brett storms out of the dugout, arms flailing, his face getting redder and redder with each step as he sprints toward home plate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: He's steaming mad.

MESSER: He is out and having to be forcibly restrained from hitting plate umpire Tim McLelland.

SULLIVAN: I re-watched it this week and it is still just a spectacle. A group of four Royals and an umpire have to pull Brett backward as he yells and yells, brows furrowed, breathing hard. Meanwhile, another one of the Royals absconds with the bat, and a Yankee security guy chases him into the locker room. And the crowd is just going nuts, because the Yankees have won. That was out number three.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: And the Yankees have won the ballgame 4 to 3.

SULLIVAN: But it wasn't over just yet. The Royals protested the game to the American League president at the time.

BONDY: He decided that it was a ridiculous rule. If the pine tar did not really affect the flight or distance of a baseball, then it shouldn't be considered an out. It was only fair that that home run be a home run.

SULLIVAN: So 25 days later, the Yankees and the Royals met up to play the rest of the game - just four more outs. It was over in eight minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: The final score - the Kansas City Royals five and the New York Yankees four, I think.

SULLIVAN: Today, cheating in baseball has a different meaning, Bondy says. It means steroids, performance-enhancing drugs. It means the Cardinals hacking into the Astros' internal database. All that makes Bondy want to turn his TV off.

BONDY: This was an era when the worst thing that you could do was have pine tar above the 18-inch mark. So we tend to smile at it and to think of it as this wacky, funny episode in baseball history.

SULLIVAN: That's sportswriter Filip Bondy. His new book is called "The Pine Tar Game." Becky Sullivan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KANSAS CITY")

FATS DOMINO: (Singing) I'm going to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come.

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