Commentary

A win for common sense

Would MLB overturn umpires' decision if Pine Tar Game happened today?

Originally Published: July 24, 2013
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

As the 30th anniversary of the Pine Tar Game approaches (July 24), we will no doubt see replays of a furious George Brett charging from the visiting dugout at Yankee Stadium after rookie umpire Tim McClelland ruled that his two-out, two-run homer off Rich Gossage in the ninth was nullified because the pine tar on his bat was more than 18 inches above the handle. That call changed the Royals' 5-4 lead into a 4-3 Yankees victory and ignited not only Brett's fury but also a nationwide debate.

But it's the sage, and not the rage, that we should remember. This is as good a time as any to celebrate the wisdom of Lee MacPhail, the American League president who looked beyond the letter of the law to uphold the protest of the Royals and order a resumption of the game on Aug. 18. "We thought we had a good case," says John Schuerholz, the president of the Atlanta Braves who was then the general manager of the Royals. "My assistant Dean Taylor and I drew up the protest on the grounds that the intent of the rule was not about competitive advantage but about keeping balls cleaner. While we had a strong case, overturning an umpire's decision was unprecedented. So when Lee made his decision, we were both not surprised and surprised."

MacPhail had been in Miami when the incident happened, and heard about it from his son Allen. As he later wrote in his book, "My 9 Innings," "I knew right then we had a hot potato on our hands." Indeed, Schuerholz recalls appearing on "The Today Show" and "Good Morning America" to discuss the Pine Tar Game.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Brett
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesAfter George Brett's home run was disallowed, he charged back toward home plate and had to be restrained.

When MacPhail returned to New York on July 26, he found the protest waiting on his desk, talked to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner by phone and met with his umpire supervisors. That night he stayed up until 3 a.m. writing his decision.

In an article in the 1984 Fordham Law Review ("In re Brett: The Sticky Problem of Statutory Construction"), Jared Tobin Finkelstein agreed with MacPhail's decision, pointing out that MacPhail had rendered what Aristotle called epieikeia -- favoring natural justice over strict interpretation.

MacPhail agreed with the Royals that the intent of Rule 1.10 (c) was simply to save money on balls by curtailing excessive use of pine tar and not to deny the batter a competitive edge. He said the rule needed to be clarified and took the umpiring crew off the hook: "Although the umpires are being overruled, it is not the fault of the umpires involved." And he did have precedent on his side: When the California Angels tried to protest two home runs by John Mayberry of the Royals (!) because of too much pine tar in 1975, their protest was denied.

MacPhail, who died in 2012 at age 95, was a considerate, erudite man who graduated from Swarthmore and briefly taught history at the Deerfield (Mass.) Academy before taking up the family business of baseball -- father Larry MacPhail, a larger-than-life executive who championed night baseball, is also in the Hall of Fame. As an assistant general manager for the Yankees in the 1940s and '50s, Lee oversaw the development of Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Bobby Richardson, and as the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, he signed teenager Jim Palmer and traded for Frank Robinson. He returned to the Yankees as their general manager in 1966 but left in 1974 after his one season with George Steinbrenner. That same year, he became the AL president.

Steinbrenner did everything he could to undermine MacPhail's decision nine years later, fighting the rescheduling of the game, encouraging a suit by two Yankees ticket holders to halt the game two days before the resumption, publicly predicting a riot by 55,000 angry fans.

MacPhail stayed one step ahead of Steinbrenner, though. When a Yankees official called to ask whether the same umpiring crew would work the remaining four outs, MacPhail and his assistant, the equally equable Bob Fishel, got to thinking, Why do they want to know that? As MacPhail wrote in his autobiography, "We drew up a statement confirming that all the bases had been touched; had all the original umpires sign it; had it notarized; and gave it to Dave Phillips, the Aug. 18 crew chief."

Only a few thousand people showed up for the resumption. (Brett wasn't one of them; he was ejected from the suspended game for his reaction.) To make the point that the game was a mockery, Yankee manager Billy Martin put pitcher Ron Guidry in center and left-handed rookie first baseman Don Mattingly at second for the last out of the ninth. After pitcher George Frazier threw to first base for an appeal, and then to second, Martin came running out of the dugout toward Phillips. The crew chief simply showed him the affidavit from the original umpires.

There are no more league presidents, and too few men like Lee MacPhail. It's interesting to muse about what would happen today if such a situation arose. The decision would probably fall to Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, so Marty Noble of MLB.com recently asked him what he would do.

"I think the commonsense thing was done," Torre said. "Lee MacPhail got it right. [Enforcement of] the rule was too literal. It was a silly rule. It's not like having extra pine tar was going to make a difference in where the ball landed."

Epieikeia lives. And so should the memory of a man who turned a moment that went wrong into a decision that was right.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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