Pine tar specifically the stuff slathered on George Brett's bat 25 years ago remains a sticky subject for Joe Brinkman, the umpiring crew chief who was part of one of baseball's all-time wackiest games.
"I would say in 35 years as a major-league umpire it probably was my most noteworthy game and, hey, I was there for Nickel Beer Night in Cleveland in '74, when it got so wild we had to call a forfeit," Brinkman said. "But the 'Pine Tar Game' still ranks as one of the most memorable games at Yankee Stadium."
Brinkman, now 64, has been out of baseball for two seasons after suffering heart palpitations likely caused by the stressfulness of the game.
Last Thursday, on the Silver Anniversary of the "Pine Tar Game," Brinkman could likely be found on his farm, feeding cows, training horses and cutting grass. He doesn't watch much baseball anymore. But after umpiring 4,505 major-league games (fifth on the all-time list), spending years in winter ball and union meetings, and operating his Joe Brinkman Umpire School at Cocoa Stadium for 14 years, he's seen more than enough.
"It was kind of nice," Brinkman says. "It was a great run. But I kind of like the work I'm doing now."
On July 24, 1983, in front of 33,944 fans at Yankee Stadium, Kansas City's George Brett slammed a two-out, two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning off Yankees' ace relief pitcher Goose Gossage, scoring U.L. Washington ahead of him, to give the Royals a 5-4 lead.
Or, so everyone thought.
After Brett had circled the bases and took his seat on the bench, Yankees manager Billy Martin approached home plate umpire Tim McClelland to point out Brett's bat had a little too much pine tar, a legal substance used by hitters to improve their grip. The umpires, including Brinkman who was at second base that day huddled for an impromptu conference.
"We didn't know what to do at first," Brinkman said. "The rules stated if the pine tar exceeded 18 inches up the bat, it was illegal. Nick Bremigan was my rules man, and he realized that home plate is 17 inches across. So, McClelland laid the bat across the plate. It was like 26 inches of pine tar."
McClelland ruled Brett was out, and the game was over. But the fireworks weren't.
In one of the sport's wildest tirades, Brett came storming out of the dugout, tobacco squirting from his cheeks, with his eyes glazed and his face red, his arms swinging wildly in the direction of McClelland.
Brinkman jumped in the middle of the fracas, keeping Brett separated from his home-plate umpire.
"It was just a reaction thing," Brinkman recalled. "George came out whipping his arms, screaming. I just stepped in front of him."
Replays show Brinkman actually applying a "choke-hold" from behind on Brett to keep him from doing any harm as Royals pitcher Gaylord Perry grabbed the bat and tried to hide it.
Years later, Brett explained his outburst by saying, "It was just such an extraordinary thing to hit a homer off (Gossage), the thought of losing it was too much."
"George is a good guy, as good a person as there was in the game," Brinkman said. "I think anyone in that situation probably would have reacted much the same way."
But the Yankees' 4-3 victory was short-lived.
Royals manager Dick Howser protested the game, and four days later, American League president Lee MacPhail who had served as the Yankees' general manager from 1967-74 overruled the umpires' decision. Brett's home run stood, and the game was to be resumed.
Five years ago, MacPhail told reporters he believed the pine tar rule was created only because too many baseballs were being ruined after being struck by tar on a bat.
"The pine tar in Brett's case had no effect on the distance that the ball could travel," he said. "The pine tar had nothing to do with the ball going out of the ballpark. I don't even think that the ball touched the pine tar part. I hated to overrule the umpires."
"If anything, 25 years later, the truth should come out," Brinkman said. "It was not an illegal bat. It got in the papers that it was an illegal bat. But, actually, it should have gone down as an illegally batted ball. That's the rule any substance, including pine tar, more than 18 inches down the barrel of the bat that would cause the ball to be hit illegally ... it never got righted, ever."
The call was unusual, but not rare. During the uproar, Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto pointed out the Minnesota Twins had the same argument with Thurman Munson's bat years earlier.
"The whole thing is, vigilance by the opposing team," Brinkman said. "You (we) don't go looking for anything like that, just like a team batting out of order. But Billy brought it up. I'm sure he'd seen George's bat beforehand, but he was just waiting for Brett to do something. This was a unique situation, because it was the end of the game. Normally, there would be a protest before the next pitch."
On Aug. 18, more than three weeks later, in front of just 1,200 fans, the "Pine Tar Game" resumed after Brett's home run with Dave Phillips' umpiring crew filling in for Brinkman's crew. It took 12 minutes to complete, with Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry getting the final three outs in Kansas City's win.
Brett still has a little fun with the pine tar drama.
At last week's All-Star Celebrity Softball Game, he was handed a bat full of tar.
Brett once said: "Prior to 1983, I was always ridiculed at ballparks about an ailment (hemorrhoids) I had during the 1980 World Series. Now, since 1983, I'm always known as the Pine Tar Guy. Now what would you rather be known as?"
His famous bat is now on display in the Baseball Hall of Fame.