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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pine Tar: Of baseball and law

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the "Pine Tar Game." In 1983, the Royals were playing the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on a Sunday afternoon. With two out in the top of ninth and the Yankees up 4-3, George Brett hit a two-run homer. But Yankee manager Billy Martin protested, saying that Brett had used an illegal bat containing pine tar more than 18 inches up the bat handle;R. 1.10(c) prohibited pine tar or any other grip-improving substance on the hitting area of the bat. The umps measured the amount of pine tar, found it higher than 18 inches, and called Brett out, giving the Yankees the win. In one of the iconic video images in baseball history, Brett came charging out of the dugout and tried to attack the umpire and had to be restrained by teammates, coaches, and other umpires. The Royals protested and the protest was upheld by AL President Lee MacPhail, who reinstated the homer and ordered the game resumed from that point.

Long before John Roberts went before the Senate Judiciary Committee, this game had people talking about baseball and the law, even prompting some legal scholarship on the case as demonstrating statutory interpretation, judicial decisionmaking, and legal processes.

R. 1.10(c) called for the removal of the tainted bat from the game, but did not specify what should happen to a player who used such a bat or to a play in which such a bat was used. The home-plate umpire invoked his gap-filling power under R. 9.01(c) to "rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules" and decided that a player should be called out for using an illegal bat on a play.

In reversing that decision, McPhail made an intentionalist "spirit v. letter of the rule" decision. R. 1.10(c) was not about regulating performance, it was about economics. MLB wanted players to keep pine tar off the hitting area of the bat because if pine tar got on the ball, the ball would have to be thrown out, requiring teams to provide more balls each game. But pine tar did not affect the "performance" of the bat, in the sense of how far or hard or well the ball would travel off the bat (compared with, for example, doing something to make the bat lighter). Thus, the only appropriate sanction was removing the bat from the game, as provided in R. 1.10(c). Calling a player out was an unnecssary additional sanction, because Brett's violation of the rule did not give him an unfair competitive advantage. The umps, if you will, abused their discretion in turning to 9.01(c) for that additional sanction.

This also shows that the posture of an issue on appeal and the administrability of any ruling affects its resolution. This was one of the rare cases that a league upheld an appeal of an umpire's ruling--in fact, it was the only time in MacPhail's ten-year term as AL President that he overruled the umpires. He was able to do so, in part, given the timing of the play at issue--it was the final play of the game. This meant there were only two possiblities: game over if MacPahil affirmed or pick the game up from a known point immediately after the challenged play if he reversed. But imagine the administraive difficulties if the challenged play had come in the fifth inning. The game would have been played to a conclusion "under protest," then the challenge would have gone to the league (in essence, a Final Judgment Rule). If MacPhail makes the same ruling, what happens? Does the game resume from after the challenged play and everything that actually happened is erased from the record books? Does it depend on whether those two runs would have made a difference in the game, in essence, a harmless error analysis? Should the game resume only if it would affect the pennant races (both teams were in contention, although neither won its division), in essence a mootness analysis?

MacPhail ordered the game replayed from the point of the call--two outs in the top of ninth, Royals up 5-4. There was more conflict over when the game would be played or if it should be played. The Yankees wanted to wait until the end of the season and resume it only if it affected the penant race. The AL ordered the game to be picked up on Thursday afternoon, August 18.

Then there was some real legal wrangling. The Yankees sued to stop the resumed game, citing security and administrative burdens; a trial court issued a preliminary injunction, which was quickly overturned on appeal. So the game resumed, with about 1200 fans in the stands. The first move by manager Billy Martin was to appeal to every base, arguing that Brett and the runner ahead of him had not touched the bases on the home run. The four umpires working the resumed game were not the same umpires who had worked the original game, but each signalled safe. They then produced an affidavit from the four original umpires swearing that both players had touched all the bases on the home run.

Finally, to see separation of powers at work: MLB amended the rules to handle the situation in the future, adding a Note to R. 1.10(c) stating that the use of a bat with too much pine tar would not be the basis for calling a player out or ejecting him from the game and a Comment that if excessive pine tar is not objected to prior to a play, it cannot be a basis for nullifying a play or protesting the game.

Umpiring--it's a lot more than calling balls and strikes.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 24, 2011 at 10:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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This is an excellent law & baseball post! There were also similar calls to appeal the blown call that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game last season. That play was similar to the Brett at bat. It was the last play of the game. If the call was reversed, and changed to an out, the game was over, and Galarraga had a perfect game. If the call was upheld, the perfect game was gone (I doubt they would have continued to play the final at bat, though they might have). Fortunately (in my opinion), the erroneous call was upheld.

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Jul 24, 2011 11:49:04 AM

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