Baseball is no stranger to cheating, and if the average fan were asked for the biggest problem in the game over the last 10 to 20 years, he or she would almost assuredly say steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.
Well, there was a time – we’ll call it 32 years ago – when steroids were not the biggest scandal in baseball. In fact, 32 years ago, the biggest scandal in the game was pine tar.
Yes, pine tar.
“We love this stuff,” author Filip Bondy said on CBS Sports Radio’s Ferrall on the Bench. “See, it’s so nostalgic now. There’s a sort of romance to the old-fashioned sort of cheating, isn’t there? Vaseline on baseballs. We don’t want to know abut hacking into the Houston Astros’ email (database). We want to know about corked bats and pine-tarred bats. There’s a romance to that, I think. That’s been lost to some degree. Actually, I think we have a little of that in football right now with the inflated footballs. That’s a relatively innocent scandal that we’re all having a lot of fun with. But with baseball, it has become – with instant replays and this and that – it’s become too complicated, and this was a time when a man got very angry because his home run was stolen.”
Bondy, of course, is referring to a July 1983 Royals/Yankees game in which Kansas City great George Brett had a two-out, ninth-inning, go-ahead home run nullified due to excessive pine tar on his bat. The umpired called Brett out and the game ended.
Bondy, who was covering the game for a newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey, has just written a book on the matter entitled, “The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy.”
“It was fun because it was a big moment in my career too because . . . I got a job with the New York Daily News almost immediately after,” Bondy said, “and then I covered all the court hearings on that game for the New York Daily News. It was a big moment, which is probably one of the reasons it stuck with me so much.”
Brett’s reaction to having his home run wiped off made it pretty memorable, too. He sprinted out of the dug out and angrily yelled in the face of the home-plate umpire.
“I loved the arms flapping,” Bondy said. “That was my favorite part. Yes, he was (insane).”
The incident was also compelling for several other factors.
“You have small market, big market; you have George Steinbrenner versus Ewing Kaufmann – the ultimate contrast in personality,” Bondy said. “You have Billy Martin. It’s such a natural. It just kind of wrote itself.”
The best part, perhaps, is Brett’s intensity and competitiveness hasn’t waned – even at 62. Brett – whom Bondy called “the greatest hitter of his generation” – is now the vice president of baseball operations for the Royals and has a heck of a ball club in Kansas City.
“He does,” Bondy said. “I don’t know how much he has to do with that. He was a batting coach for several months two years ago and he would go to these players and try to tell them, ‘Don’t be Barry Bonds. Don’t be George Brett. Be yourself.’ I think maybe they learned some lessons because he learned under Charlie Law. He learned all his batting under Law and he learned to spray the ball to all fields, he learned when to hit for power and when not to hit for power. I think that right now he’s enjoying this immensely – immensely. Last year that run that the Royals had was just incredible. He loved every second of it.”