Finally. Billy Martin, the mischievous manager of the New York Yankees, had waited for this moment for more than a year. He knew that George Brett, the Kansas City Royals' All-Star third baseman, was breaking an obscure rule. But Martin wasn't going to reveal his secret until it mattered, until it had an effect on a Yankees-Royals game.
That time finally came on July 23, 1983. The Yankees led, 4-3, in the 9th inning. Goose Gossage, the Yankees' dominant closer, was called in to protect the lead. The Yankees, locked in a first-place tie with Baltimore, needed this victory.
Two out and one on. Brett steps in against Gossage, a hard-throwing righty with a menacing persona and delivery. He unleashes one of his signature fastballs, and Brett connects, hammering a bomb over the right field wall. The dramatic two-run homer gives the Royals a 5-4 lead.
As the ball descends into the stands, Martin turns to Sammy Ellis, one of his coaches, and winks. As Brett happily rounds the bases, Martin pops out of dugout to protest the fact that Brett's bat is covered by more than 18 inches of pine tar, the most allowed by major league rules.
His hands in his back pockets, Martin walks slowly toward home plate ump Tim McClelland. "That bat is illegal," Martin says, pointing to the bat lying a few feet from the on-deck circle. "There's too much pine tar. Measure it."
McClelland is speechless. The Royals have no idea what's happening. Brett is sitting in the dugout, relaxed and confident, his arms stretched out along the top of the dugout seats, confident that whatever Martin is saying will be overruled by the umps.
McClelland retrieves the bat, walks to the plate, places it along the side of the plate, which is 17 inches wide. He sees that the pine tar on the bat is more than 18 inches. McClelland confers with a rulebook and his fellow umpires, then slowly walks toward the Royals' dugout, the bat dangling from his right hand. He stares inside the Royals' dugout, slowly brings his arm up and signals out. Martin is correct -- the bat is illegal, the home run is nullified, Brett is out, and the Yankees win, 4-3.
Brett bursts out of the dugout, sprinting to the umpires, insanely, hysterically, out of control, screaming, eyes bulging, arms waving. He nearly runs over McClelland and has to be restrained by several umpires.
"The sight of George coming out of the dugout is etched in my mind forever," Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly would say on the 10th anniversary of the game. "That roar symbolizes the way he plays the game, the kind of fire he has."
Later, Brett is seething in the clubhouse. Meanwhile, Martin walks around the Yankees' clubhouse gloating, realizing he had just pulled off a doozy, a first in baseball history.
The Royals file a protest with the league office, and the events of the next few days and weeks are both comical and tense. Questions arise as to whether the umpire's ruling will be upheld. Rumor and speculation run rampant.
On July 28, four days after the game, with the baseball world waiting breathlessly, American League president Lee McPhail announces that even though Brett's bat had too much pine tar, only the bat should have been removed from the game, not the batter. He upholds the Royals' protest and says the two teams must resume the game in Yankee Stadium in 21 days, on August 18, with the Royals leading, 5-4, and two out in the ninth. While the Royals rejoice, the Yankees -- especially Martin and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner -- seethe.
McClelland is displeased too, saying, "We can't arbitrarily rule on which rules we're going to enforce."
Naturally, Steinbrenner will not let it go quietly. The blustery owner goes all out to try to prevent the game from being resumed. First he claims he cannot provide adequate security for the game. Then he disputes the league's raincheck policy. Anything to prevent the game from going on.
Several hours before the scheduled resumption of the game, the State Supreme Court in the Bronx issues a preliminary injunction barring the completion of the game. But the American League, which had ordered the game to be played over the objection of Steinbrenner, appeals. Just 2½ hours before game time, Justice Joseph P. Sullivan of the Supreme Court's Appellate Division overrules Justice Maresca's decision, proclaiming, "Play ball."
Anticipating the game, the Royals have been forced to fly to New York on their way to Baltimore for a series with the Orioles. When they arrive, they still are not sure they are going to play because of the court hearings. Finally, word arrives: head over to Yankee Stadium. The game is on.
Brett, however, is not required to go to the stadium because he had been ejected from the game, so he watches on TV with his manager Dick Howser, also ejected. What they -- and everyone -- see is astonishing: first, Martin tries to make a joke out of the game by putting lefthanded first baseman Mattingly at second base and pitcher Ron Guidry in center field. Then, before a pitch is even thrown before the crowd of 1,245, Martin protests that Brett didn't touch first base on his homer. He orders his pitcher, George Frazier, to step off the rubber and toss the ball to Ken Griffey at first. Tim Welke, the first-base umpire, signals safe. Then Martin protests that Brett didn't touch second. So Frazier throws to second base, and Dave Phillips, the umpire there, also signals safe.
Martin then emerges from the dugout to protest the calls. But the league office has anticipated Martin's move, and one-ups the Yankees skipper when Phillips, the crew chief, pulls a letter from his pocket -- a notarized statement from the umpires at the July 24 game confirming that both Brett and U. L. Washington, who had singled ahead of Brett's home run, had touched all of the bases.
Finally, the game restarts. Frazier gets McRae to end the top of the 9th. Royals closer Dan Quisenberry comes on to face the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th. Martin stacks his lineup with lefthanders; Yankee lefthanders are hitting .451 against Quisenberry in his five last outings against New York, while righties are hitless in 13 at bats.
But Quisenberry needs only 10 pitches to retire Mattingly on a fly to center field, Roy Smalley on a fly to left field and Oscar Gamble on a grounder to second base.
The final out of the top of the ninth and the three outs in the bottom of the inning takes all of nine minutes and 41 seconds, ending a 25-day, 4-hour and 14-minute episode that will live forever.