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Book Review: "The Pine Tar Game" by Filip Bondy

The day George Brett exploded.

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"If they call me out for too much pine tar, I'll go out and I'll kill one of those SOBs."

-George Brett

George Brett is a legendary Hall of Fame player, the face of the Royals franchise. He has won three batting titles, two pennants, and MVP, and a championship. Yet perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when his name is summoned, is the image of him bursting from the dugout like a man with his hair on fire in response to being called out in a game against the Yankees on July 24, 1983 for using too much pine tar. Longtime sports columnist Filip Bondy has a new book out covering that bizarre moment in Royals history titled, "The Pine Tar Game." The book culminates in that iconic moment, but also covers much of that era of Royals baseball when the Royals were among the class of baseball.

Bondy begins with several chapters of rich context on the two franchises leading up to the infamous game. It takes fifteen chapters to even get to the game, but the ride is an enjoyable one. He covers the embarrassing drug scandal the Royals endured later that season, the frosty relationship between Royals slugger George Brett and his father Jack, and of course he richly details the bombastic owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner. Some of it gets a little extraneous, for example there is a chapter on David Cone, who wouldn't pitch for the Royals until a few seasons after the Pine Tar Game, and didn't pitch for the Yankees until late in his career. There is also a chapter devoted to Rush Limbaugh, who once worked in public relations for the Royals. That section doesn't illuminate much about the game, but reveals some entertaining behind-the-scenes anecdotes on how baseball teams are run.

Even as a Royals fan well-versed in franchise history, I learned a lot in the chapters providing background on the team. A few of the more interesting chapters are dedicated to team founder and long-time owner Ewing Kauffman. Bondy writes about his entrepreneurial and innovative nature, such as his foresight to develop the "Royals Academy." Had Bondy decided to sit down with Ewing's daughter Julia Irene Kauffman for a few more lunches and dedicate an entire book covering the man's life, he would have had at least one satisfied customer.

The Royals and Yankees were heated rivals during the 70s and 80s, facing each other four times for the pennant. Bondy plays up the "Cowtown vs. Big Apple" contrast that both teams viewed the rivalry through. He also gets some great accounts of the intensity of the rivalry between the two clubs. The enmity players like Willie Randolph, George Brett, and Rich "Goose" Gossage had for the other side becomes clear through their first-hand accounts.

"Everyone talks about the Red Sox, but those playoffs against the Royals were as nerve-wracking games as we ever had. We had knock-down, drag-outs. We fought all the time. We didn't like each other. Those guys played real well on turf and it was not easy playing there. Everybody forgets now about that rivalry, but if those games had been in the World Series, they'd be some of the most famous games in baseball history."

-Willie Randolph

Yankees Manager Billy Martin was certainly the ringleader of the "Bronx Zoo", and helped stoke the fires of the rivalry, yelling "your brother's a shit" to George Brett each time he hit, referring to Brett's brother Ken, a journeyman pitcher. Martin has long been credited with being the one savvy and pugnacious enough to find the technicality in the pine tar rule to use against the Royals in the right opportunity. But Bondy does a great job peeling back the myth and giving the true account of how the issue was raised, even mentioning that the Yankees themselves had been victim to the exact same rule earlier in the season.

The actual Pine Tar Game itself only covers two chapters, although in fairness, it was just one game, with only one particularly interesting play. Bondy sets up the conflict nicely, especially the history between Yankees closer Goose Gossage and Royals star slugger George Brett, a rivalry that extended well past their playing days. After Brett's ninth inning home run to give the Royals the lead, Bondy writes it was Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer who had to remind Martin to challenge the bat. That's when the fun started.

"McClelland starts looking for me and he points to me and calls me out and I'm heading out there," Brett said. "I blanked out. I still got a sore neck from Brinkman's headlock, though it's getting better. To hit a home run off Goose was a big thrill, and then to have it taken away off a trivial portion of the rule book, I just lot it. I looked like my father chasing me around after I brought home my report card."

The legal mess that followed has been overshadowed by the optics of George Brett exploding out of the dugout in a rage at the "out" ruling by umpire Tim McClelland. But there was much to sort out in the aftermath, including actual lawsuits filed in court. One of the heroes of that tale is a detailed-oriented front office gofer named Dean Taylor, who would later become the Royals Assistant General Manager. The maneuvering over the minituae of rules may not seem like an interesting topic, but even the protest memo sent by the Royals to the league office had a shot at the Yankees.


Bondy's account of the events feels complete, although if it were missing one thing it is the perception of more unbiased observers to the event. What were the hot takes of sports columnists around the country at the time? Did they side with the Yankees in thinking the Royals had broken the letter of the law? Or did they think George Brett had merely violated a technicality?

Bondy was a New York writer and his affiliation shows at times with minor errors about Kansas City such as referring to Interstate 435 as "Route 435" or the city of Ewing Kauffman's home as "Mission Hill" or "Prairie Mission" rather than "Mission Hills." These are minor nitpicks, and the extra padding from stories not quite relevant to the Pine Tar Game itself are enjoyable temporary diversions to the final destination. The book really should be a must-own for any Royals fan curious about the rich history of the franchise and at 225 pages, it makes for a quick and easy read.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book but received no other compensation from the publisher.