The Yankees and Royals will square off in the Bronx on Saturday, the 27th anniversary of the infamous Pine Tar Game. That 1983 Sunday afternoon not only made George Brett a fixture in madcap blooper reels, but it is also one of the few major-league games in which a protest was upheld.

The 2010 season already has seen two protested games—one denied, one dropped—and Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game that sparked calls for the commissioner’s office to reverse Jim Joyce’s blown ninth-inning call. So when, exactly, is a protest appropriate?

The protest mechanism is spelled out in baseball’s official rules, specifically Rule 4.19, which reads:

Each league shall adopt rules governing procedure for protesting a game, when a manager claims that an umpire’s decision is in violation of these rules. No protest shall ever be permitted on judgment decisions by the umpire. In all protested games, the decision of the League President shall be final. Even if it is held that the protested decision violated the rules, no replay of the game will be ordered unless in the opinion of the League President the violation adversely affected the protesting team’s chances of winning the game.

In a comment expanding on the rule, a manager is required to notify the umpires of the protest “at the time the play under protest occurs and before the next pitch, play or attempted play. A protest arising on a game-ending play may be filed until 12 noon the following day with the league office.” A team has 24 hours after the end of a game to file its official protest with the commissioner’s office.

Major League Baseball did away with the league president positions after the 1999 season, so MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy now handles protests. The last time a protest was upheld was 1986, when the Pirates disputed umpire John Kibler’s decision to call a game because of rain in the sixth inning with St. Louis leading Pittsburgh 4-1. The game had been delayed by rain once for 17 minutes then Kibler decided to call the game 22 minutes into a second delay. But the rules required that umpires wait at least 75 minutes for an initial delay and 45 minutes for a second delay. National League president Chub Feeney upheld Pittsburgh’s protest and ordered the game resumed two days later, from the point it was stopped. The Pirates added a run in the eighth but lost, 4-2.

Pittsburgh had the required ingredients for a successful protest: a misapplication of the rules (and not a dispute over an umpire’s judgment) and an apparent loss because of it. But that’s a rare winning hand, as protests go. The Galarraga game, for example, hinged on Joyce’s judgment of facts on the ground—whether Cleveland’s Jason Donald beat a throw to first base. And, in the end, the Tigers had won, anyway. Only a handful of games—14, according to Retrosheet—have been resumed after an upheld protest. As two other games this season illustrate, it’s much more common for a protest to be denied or dropped altogether.

On May 28, the Padres submitted an official lineup card listing Adam Russell as the starting pitcher for their game with Washington. One problem: Russell, a reliever, had been sent to the minor leagues earlier in the day. The pitcher taking the ball that night for San Diego was actually Clayton Richard. Though Rule 4.01 points out that a team should not be “trapped” by an obvious lineup-card mistake, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman protested the game, citing Rule 3.05, which requires the pitcher named in the batting order to pitch to the first batter unless he has become injured or ill. The protest was dropped, however, when the Nationals defeated the Padres 5-3, eliminating the possibility that the mixup had an adverse effect on Washington’s chances to win the game.

Just 10 days before, Yankees manager Joe Girardi disputed the decision of home plate umpire Angel Campos to allow Boston reliever Manny Delcarmen more than the standard eight warm-up pitches when he replaced starter Josh Beckett in the fifth inning. As many fans know, the rules allow a reliever to take as much time as he needs to get loose when replacing a pitcher who leaves a game with an injury. But Girardi argued that Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell had gestured to the bullpen before notifying the umpires Beckett was injured. Therefore, according to the Yankees skipper, Delcarmen was entitled to only the usual eight warm-up pitches under Rule 8.03. The Yankees, leading 5-0 at the time, lost the game 7-6. Two days later, in a one-sentence press release, MLB announced DuPuy had denied New York’s protest.

If only it had been so simple 27 years ago, when home plate umpire Tim McClelland called Brett out and all hell broke loose. To reset the situation, for the benefit of those who only remember Brett’s wild, arm-waving charge from the dugout and ejection: Brett’s two-out, two-run homer with two outs in the top of the ninth inning appeared to have given the Royals a 5-4 lead. That’s when Yankees manager Billy Martin appeared and pointed out that the handle of Brett’s bat had pine tar beyond the 18 inches allowed under Rule 1.10(b). As a result, Martin argued, the home run was an illegally batted ball as defined by Rule 2 and, therefore, Brett should be out under Rule 6.06(a) for hitting an illegally batted ball. The rules also call for a player who uses a “doctored” bat to be called out, Martin added.

At the time, the rules at issue read as follows:

  • Rule 1.10(b): "The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game." However, the rule did not indicate any possible penalty for the batter, or even if one was permitted.
  • Rule 2. An illegally batted ball is, “one hit with a bat that does not conform to Rule 1.10”.
  • Rule 6.06(a). A player is out when he, “hits an illegally batted ball.”
  • Rule 6.06(d). “Doctored” bats. A player’s use of a doctored bat results in the batter being called out, ejected from the game, and the imposition of “additional penalties as determined by the League President”.

After huddling with the rest of the umpiring crew, McClelland bought Martin’s argument and called Brett out, giving the Yankees a 4-3 victory.

The Royals’ protest focused on the penalty for a violation of Rule 1.10(b), which, under the language of the rule itself, is simply removal of the bat from the game once the violation is discovered. In addition, Kansas City argued, Brett should not be called out under Rule 6.06(d) because the pine tar did not “doctor” the bat in that it did not give Brett an unfair advantage. This argument squared with the denial of a September 1975 protest by the Angels, who had disputed an 8-7 loss by arguing that Kansas City’s John Mayberry had pine tar on his bat beyond the 18-inch limit when he hit two home runs. American League President Lee MacPhail had denied that protest, ruling that “pine tar is not to be considered in the same vein as a ‘doctored’ or ‘filled’ bat under rule 6.06(d). … We are not talking about a material that improves the reaction or distance factor of the bat.”

Citing the 1975 decision as precedent, MacPhail—a former Yankees general manager—upheld the Royals’ protest in the 1983 game. Though the umpires’ judgment in calling Brett out had been “technically defensible,” he said, it was “not in accord with the intent or spirit of the rules.” If the proper rule had been applied, MacPhail noted, Brett’s bat merely would have been removed from the game. The game was resumed in August with Kansas City leading 5-4 in the ninth, and the Royals held on for the victory.

Two interesting postscripts to MacPhail’s decision remain.

Surprisingly, the Yankees had missed the chance to protest a decision from an earlier pine-tar controversy. In a 1975 game, the Twins complained that Yankees catcher Thurman Munson had excessive pine tar on his bat when he drove in a first-inning run. The umpires called Munson out and nullified the run, but the Yankees did not protest. In making the Brett decision eight years later, MacPhail said he believed the Yankees “would have won the protest based on this decision.”

Not surprisingly, the language of the official rules has been clarified.

Rule 1.10(c) now reads:

The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18 inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game. … NOTE: If the umpire discovers that the bat does not conform to (c) above until a time during or after which the bat has been used in play, it shall not be grounds for declaring the batter out, or ejected from the game.

Rule 6.06 now reads:

A batter is out for illegal action when—… (d) He uses or attempts to use a bat that, in the umpire’s judgment, has been altered or tampered with in such a way to improve the distance factor or cause an unusual reaction on the baseball. This includes, bats that are filled, flat-surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as paraffin, wax, etc. No advancement on the bases will be allowed and any out or outs made during a play shall stand. In addition to being called out, the player shall be ejected from the game and may be subject to additional penalties as determined by his League President. Rule 6.06(d) Comment: A batter shall be deemed to have used or attempted to use an illegal bat if he brings such a bat into the batter’s box.

Thank you for reading

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Nice article -- very helpful
Good stuff, Jeff.