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Pine Tar Game remains firmly in Yankees lore

NEW YORK -- No history of the Yankees is complete without mention of the Pine Tar Game, a bizarre engagement between the Yankees and Royals 30 summers ago that gained so high a profile that it came to warrant upper-case treatment before it was completed. And no history of the Steinbrenner years in the Bronx is complete without quoting an exchange between rookie Don Mattingly and Rich Gossage, the reliever intricately involved in the game's long-awaited outcome.

Gossage's response to Mattingly's benign comment was wonderfully descriptive of life as a Yankee in 1983. In the aftermath of the four-batter completion of the game on Aug. 18, Mattingly innocently said, "Good, now we can get back to normal."

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Gossage overheard him and reacted by saying, "No, no, not normal!"

"Normal" for those Yankees was the absurd, the incongruous, the silly and the outrageous. Reggie was gone, but Billy Martin had a seat in the dugout again in '83, and George Steinbrenner -- Reggie had labeled the owner "the big guy with the boats" long before Steinbrenner became the "The Boss" -- was in between suspensions and behaving in ways most of his baseball contemporaries thought were ... well, absurd, incongruous, silly and outrageous.

Steinbrenner came to embrace Gossage's "No, no!" decades later, but at the time, he considered it blasphemy. Gossage always reveled in his recall of the comment. "Out of the mouths of ... " he said years later.

The exchange was one of many wonderful anecdotes prompted by the July 24 game and its completion 25 days later. Anyone within a whiff of pine tar had lots of laughs about the sticky stuff on the bat George Brett used to beat Gossage with a two-out, two-run home run in the ninth inning in July. Brett's bat was found to have tar too far up from the bat's handle. The home run was disallowed, Brett was ruled out after lengthy discussion at the plate involving the umpires and Martin. And the game was ruled to be over -- Yankees 4, Royals 3.

The ruling by plate umpire Tim McClelland, who is still active, prompted a famously mad rush from the dugout by Brett and moments of rage that Martin, Lou Piniella and Earl Weaver at full boil couldn't match.

"He came out of the dugout like an angry lion that hadn't eaten in a week," Joe Torre said Tuesday afternoon.

McClelland's decision also prompted a protest from the Royals that was upheld four days later by then-American League president Lee MacPhail.

Had the leagues not had presidents at the time and had Torre's current position -- executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball -- existed, the decision on the Royals' protest would have come to the former Yankees manager.

"Yes, it would have been in my jurisdiction," Torre said Tuesday. "I'm not sure ... No, I think the common sense thing was done. 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."

Graig Nettles, who had alerted Martin about Brett's bat earlier in the game, called the rule "stupid" Tuesday, hours before he visited the Yankee Stadium he never knew as a player. He had recalled a game in Minneapolis years earlier in which Thurman Munson had been denied a two-run single because of too much pine tar. The Yankees hadn't protested that one. But Nettles learned the rule. "I never would have known the rule if it hadn't happened to Thurman," he said.

Nettles also agreed with MacPhail's decision. Gossage, on a fishing trip Tuesday, has said repeatedly the decision was the proper one. "But couldn't they have waited one more year before getting rid of the rule?" he said.

Don Zimmer, a Yankees third-base coach that year, had alerted Martin as well and urged him to bring up the too-tarred bat, but only if Brett produced a damaging hit. Martin played it wisely.

That the Yankees didn't protest Munson's outlawed hit is surprising in retrospect given the lengths to which Steinbrenner went in challenging MacPhail's "spirit of the law" decision to uphold the Royals' protest. The Big Guy with the Boats must have been on vacation that month.

That he sought relief in the courts to have MacPhail's decision overturned demonstrates the lengths to which the owner would go and also why Gossage was unsettled by the prospect of a return to normalcy.

Now it's all fun for those involved and those touched by it. Brett, now the Royals' interim hitting coach, was at a Yankee Stadium he never conquered Tuesday, sharing his memories and laughing about most of them. He was reminded that the pine-tar rule was most likely a result of the ultra-frugal nature of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith, who years before Brett's swing against Goose had complained about the cost of umpires replacing baseballs stained by contact with sticky bats.

And Brett recalled teammate Frank White cautioning him before McClelland's decision that the home run might be waved off. "He told me just before McClelland ruled, and I said, 'If they do, I'm going to run out there and kill one of those SOBs.'"

He also remembered crew chief Joe Brinkman forcefully restraining him from behind. "l still have a sore neck," Brett said.

Of course, he is remembered as much for the rush to the plate -- his children used to ask to watch the VHS of "you going crazy" -- as for his MVP season, his 3,000 hits, his other big home run against Gossage (in the 1980 American League Championship Series), his Hall of Fame status and his hemorrhoids.

As much as he tires of the too-frequent mentions of the Pine Tar Game, he sees it as something of a blessing. It gives the public a second point of reference to him. "I'm not just the guy who couldn't sit down in 1980," he says.

He also finds a positive aspect to the hemorrhoids episode. "Pine tar goes on and on," he says. "But with the hemorrhoids, all my problems are behind me."

And now, 30 years later, another positive. Brett and Gossage are best of Hall of Fame buddies. Each used to hate the other. Then Gossage requested a pine-tarred, Brett model bat to hang in his restaurant in Colorado. Brett accommodated with a bat he had loaded with the sticky goo. They became friends. And a few years ago on Hall of Fame weekend, Gossage entered a bar in the hotel headquarters in Cooperstown, wearing a Royals cap. Brett's cap was a salute to Gossage by name.

Marty Noble is a reporter for

New York Yankees, Kansas City Royals