1983. What a year. I finally graduated from college. Took that first post-college job. Moved to Texas, which ended up being the coldest winter I’ve ever spent. For Texans, Hurricane Alicia hit the Galveston coast, causing billions of dollars of damage and killing 21 people. The Space shuttle Challenger lifted off on its maiden voyage. Nintendo released its first version of Mario Brothers. A brand-new Dodge Ram pickup would only set you back $5,700.
Even though the Police had the #1 hit with “Every Breath You Take”, 1983 was the year of Michael Jackson and his hit album, Thriller, which was the top selling album for 22 weeks. 1983 was also a good year at the theater, with hits like Return of the Jedi, Trading Places, Risky Business, Vacation, Scarface and the underrated The Right Stuff.
In the world of baseball, Dave Righetti, Bob Forsch and Mike Warren all threw no-hitters. Brooks Robinson, Walter Alston, George Kell and Juan Marichal were inducted into the Hall of Fame. In the National League East, the Philadelphia Phillies took the division with a 90-72 mark. The Dodgers won the West with a 91-71 record, while in the American League East, the Orioles needed 98 wins to capture the flag. The East was tough, with the Tigers scoring 92 wins, the Yankees had 91, the Blue Jays came home with 89 and the Brewers, the American League’s World Series representative in 1982, finished in fifth place with a record of 87-75.
The American League West was grim by comparison, with the White Sox having the only winning record at a major league best 99-63. The remaining six teams all finished with losing records. No matter, Baltimore dispatched the Pale hose in four games to move onto the World Series to face the “Wheeze Kids” from Philadelphia, who easily brushed aside Los Angeles. In the Series, the Orioles pitchers put together their best work of the season, besting the Phillies in five games.
The Royals were at a crossroads in 1983. The team was no longer dominating the West as they had between 1976 and 1980. The average age of the team was north of 30, a number that was slightly inflated by the signing of 44-year-old spitball legend Gaylord Perry, who pitched in 14 games in what was the last year of a fabulous 22-year career.
The Royals broke in a few new players. Among the rookies and second year players were names like Daryl Motley, Buddy Biancalana, Danny Jackson, Pat Sheridan and Don Slaught. John Schuerholz had taken over from Joe Burke in the 1982 campaign and had a decent winter by resigning hometown free agents Hal McRae and Paul Splittorff and making a couple of nifty trades, getting Charlie Leibrandt from the Reds on June 7th for Bob Tufts, and in December picking up Steve Balboni from the Yankees for Mike Armstrong. He also unloaded Willie Aikens to the Blue Jays for Jorge Orta. More on Aikens later.
The year wasn’t perfect for Schuerholz. In February of 1983, he traded a young Cecil Fielder to the Blue Jays for an aging outfielder named Leon Roberts. In the June amateur draft, the Royals selected Gary Thurman in the first round and Kevin Seitzer in the 11th. They also selected Todd Zeile in the 30th round but were unable or unwilling to sign him, with Zeile opting to attend UCLA instead. The other Missouri team drafted Zeile in the 2nd round of the 1986 draft and he had an injury-prone, yet productive 16-year career, which saw him collect over 2,000 hits, slam 253 home runs and put up 19 WAR. The big question going into the season was, are the Royals in a rebuild or will they try to squeeze another A.L. West crown out of their aging core?
The season started under a cloud. In August of 1982, coach Rocky Colavito was leaving the stadium after a game when his car was struck by a drunk driver. Manager Dick Howser witnessed the collision and soon Colavito, Howser and the other driver were in the midst of a heated argument. Howser and Colavito were ticketed for interfering with a police officer and were fined and put on probation. The drunk driver had his charge dropped when he agreed to attend an alcohol counseling program. So, the 1983 season kicked off with the Royals manager and one of their coaches on probation.
The Royals only spent four days in first place and by early May, settled into second and never got their head above water again. They played decent at home, 45-36, but were putrid on the road, 34-47. April was the only month they had a winning record, closing at 10-7. They went a combined 8-17 against the two pennant winners. Their longest winning streak was only five games, and that came in mid-September, when the issue was already decided. Their longest losing streak was only six games. Bottom line? They were remarkably average. They finished the year at 79-83, 20 games back of the White Sox. That mark was the worst won-loss record for the Royals since 1974. Today’s fans should take note of that – eight seasons in a row of either a winning record or a playoff berth. They did that through three different General Managers. It can be done in Kansas City.
George Brett continued to excel with the bat, slashing .310/.385/.563 with 25 home runs and 93 RBI in only 123 games. Brett fractured a toe on June 7 and spent three weeks on the disabled list, during which the Royals stumbled to a 10-16 mark. Hal McRae put together another strong season at the age of 37, with a .311/.372/.462 effort which included 183 hits and 82 RBI. Willie Aikens had his best season as a Royal, hitting .302/.373/.539 with 23 home runs and 72 RBI in 125 games.
The pitching staff was a mess. Dennis Leonard was limited to 10 early season games, in which he went 6-3 before a knee injury on May 28 sidelined him for the season. Larry Gura had an off-year, ending with a 11-18 mark. Paul Splittorff led the staff with a record of 13-8, while Bud Black and Mike Armstrong both chipped in with 10-7 marks. Dan Quisenberry appeared in 69 games and somehow managed to save a major league record 45 games. 21-year-old Danny Jackson made his Royals debut, pitching 19 innings over four games.
Most seasons have several notable games. In 1983, they were few and far between. Due to inclement early season weather, which forced several postponements, the Royals played 12 doubleheaders in 1983. George Brett had a three-home run game on April 20, against Detroit. It was also a banner year for inside the park home runs. The Royals hit five in 1983: Jerry Martin hit one on April 9. U.L. Washington followed with another on April 11. Willie Wilson, who was arguably the fastest man in the majors, hit two. The first came on May 14 and the second on August 9. John Wathan legged his out on September 23. In another strange twist, all five were hit at Royals Stadium.
The game that every Royal fan remembers about 1983 came on July 24. The Royals were in New York to face the Yankees. They came into this game with a 44-45 mark. The Yanks came in sporting a mark of 52-40 and had a typical eclectic Yankee lineup: 41-year-old former Kansas City Athletic Bert Campaneris was playing second base. Ken Griffey Senior got some time at first. Former Royal Lou Piniella was in right and future Royal Steve Balboni got two at bats and some reps at first as well. If you are an older Royal fan, you’ve seen the highlights a million times, and they never get old. If you are a younger fan, your father probably showed them to you. If you really want an in-depth read of the game, I suggest picking up a copy of Filip Bondy’s excellent book, “The Pine Tar Game.”
Most of the game was pretty ho hum. My father and I were watching it in the living room of my parents’ home in Abilene, Kansas. It was about 125 degrees outside, so we spent the afternoon lounging in the TV room, waiting for something to happen. The Royals held an early 3 to 1 lead with the Yankees only run coming on a massive 470-foot home run by Dave Winfield. Kansas City lost the lead in the bottom of the sixth as hits by Campaneris, Piniella, Don Baylor and Winfield pushed the Yanks to a 4 to 3 lead. It stayed that way until the top of the ninth, when with two outs, U.L. Washington willed a grounder up the middle for a single.
Billy Martin then called on his star closer, Rich “Goose” Gossage to get the next batter, George Brett. Gossage could have elected to walk Brett and face Hal McRae, but that was not the Goose’s style. Brett vs. Gossage had become baseball’s marquee match up over the years. No other hitter of that era, with the possible exception of Reggie Jackson, captivated baseball fans like Brett. Gossage’s first pitch was a fastball, high and outside. Brett ripped it down the left field line, where it hooked foul. Gossage ignored that warning sign and went into his windup, kicked his left leg high and delivered a letter high fastball, this one at 98 mph. The ball caught too much of the plate and Brett hit it with the meat of the bat. My father, always calmer and more circumspect than I, said “he got all of that one.” I jumped off the couch and screamed, “stick it in your ass Gossage!!” Yankee right fielder Steve Kemp went to the wall, but the ball landed about ten rows back of the 353-foot mark. Brett went into his usual leisurely, I’m the Yankees daddy home run trot while Yankee catcher Rick Cerone tossed Brett’s bat to the ball boy.
I met Cerone a few years ago and asked him about the sequence. He said at first, he just tossed the bat out of the way, not thinking anything of it. Then he heard Martin screaming “grab the bat. Grab the bat.” Cerone said he wasn’t sure what was going on at first, then as the discussion progressed with the umpires, “I realized Brett was going to be called out. Then I just stood to the side and watched the fireworks. Brett was as angry as I’ve ever seen a player get.”
Then it got weird. The whole thing only lasted about five minutes. By the time Brett touched home plate, Yankee skipper Billy Martin was out of the dugout asking home plate umpire Tim McClelland to look at the bat. In a series against the Royals two weeks earlier, Graig Nettles had noticed that the pine tar on Brett’s bat looked awfully high. He mentioned this to Billy Martin and coach Don Zimmer and they filed it away for future use. The “pine tar rule”, Rule 1.10(c) was put into place to keep baseballs from getting smudged with the dark stuff. When the rule was written, baseballs were not as abundant as they are today, and since games were only played in the daytime, a smudged, dark ball became difficult to see in the late afternoon light. By 1983, baseballs were being replace anytime they got a hint of dirt on them, but the powers to be left the archaic rule on the books.
Brett had always been an old-school player. He refused to wear batting gloves opting instead for the pine tar on his bat to improve his grip. McClelland, then a rookie umpire, wasn’t even a full-timer. He was what was called a vacation ump, filling in for others. The umpire crew consisted of crew chief Joe Brinkman, Drew Coble and Nick Bremigan, who was an expert on the rule book. McClelland pulled all the umpires together while Bremigan explained to them the obscure rule. In the dugout, Brett said to Frank White, “if they call me out for too much pine tar, I’ll go out and kill one of those SOB’s.”
The crew measured the bat against home plate and once they realized the bat was in violation, Brinkman offered to make the call, but McClelland said he’d do the honors. McClelland looked into the Royals dugout, and with the bat in his left hand, signaled Brett out. Brett jumped out of the dugout like someone had dropped a large snake on him. Ladies and gentlemen, George Brett was open for business and Tim McClelland was looking to be his first customer.
My initial reaction was that Brett was going to assault McClelland and, in my mind, I started calculating how many games the suspension would last. To his credit, McClelland stood his ground as the raging bull charged toward him. Granted, McClelland is 6’6 and 250 lbs. wearing protective gear and holding a bat, but still. Brinkman intercepted Brett and put him into a choke hold, until teammates Joe Simpson and Leon Roberts and coach Jose Martinez could pry him away. Brett hurled a stream of invective toward McClelland, who was now dealing with an irate Dick Howser.
While the umpires were occupied with Brett and Howser, Gaylord Perry, always up for shenanigans, set off an equally bizarre Benny Hill type chase by grabbing the bat and baton passing it to teammates who sprinted the lumber into the Royals dugout. Two of the umpires and several security guards gave chase and finally retrieved the prized lumber in the tunnel. The stadium soundboard operator started playing Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York as Brett walked to the dugout, still cursing, while Yankee fans began jeering the Royals. After the game, Brett was asked what he would do if the American League suspended him and he replied, “if they suspend me, I’ll quit.” And you know what? I believed him.
Dean Taylor, a longtime Royals executive, researched and drafted an appeal of the ruling. A letter was drafted and sent to American League President Lee MacPhail and on July 28, MacPhail delivered his decision, saying that in essence, “the ruling on the field was technically defensible, but it is not in accord with the intent or spirit of the rules and the rules to not provide that a hitter be called out for excessive use of pine tar.” MacPhail decreed that the game would be completed on August 19, with the Royals at bat with two outs in the ninth inning, leading 5-4.
Just 1,245 hardcore Yankee fans attended the suspended game. Martin, furious with MacPhail’s decision, replaced Gossage with George Frazier and put pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and left-handed Don Mattingly at second. Hal McRae struck out to end the Royals half of the ninth. Dan Quisenberry came on to try to secure the save. He induced Mattingly to fly to center, got Roy Smalley on a fly ball to left and retired pinch hitter Oscar Gamble on a ground ball to second. And that was that. The Royals got out of town with a 5-4 victory.
In the immediate aftermath of what was called the Pine Tar game, Brett signed a six-figure endorsement deal with Emory Air Freight and made a television commercial poking fun at the bat’s shipping process. The American League returned the bat to Brett in time for a July 28h series with Detroit and he used it for a few games until Gaylord Perry wisely convinced Brett to retire the bat, telling George “it’s not worth much broke in two.” Brett then sold the bat to memorabilia collector Barry Halper for $25,000 and immediately regretted it. Halper was a mensch and sold the bat back to Brett for the 25 large and the bat that Brett had used to club three home runs in game three of the 1978 American League Championship Series. “The Pine Tar bat”, a seven grain Louisville Slugger, now rests in Cooperstown.
There’s something special about a good bat. Understand, I’m talking about wooden bats. A wooden bat used to be alive and a good one has a special feel in your hands. In my favorite TV series, Ray Donovan, the series protagonist, Ray, uses a wooden bat for his enforcement obligations. Why doesn’t Ray use an aluminum bat? Because aluminum bats are soulless pieces of metal. For most of my teenage baseball playing years, I used a Roberto Clemente Louisville Slugger. I guarded that bat with my life and after one game when it disappeared, I was crestfallen. We didn’t have a lot of money at the time so buying a new bat was out of the question. Besides, my hometown didn’t even have a sporting goods store. The Clemente fit my hands perfectly and its weight was just right. Without it, I lost some psychological edge. It wasn’t like I was a terror at the plate to begin with, but at 15 you take every edge you can find and to me that bat was an edge.
Brett, who had always enjoyed a good relationship with the umpires of the game, worried that he may have burned some bridges with his outburst. His fears were allayed when he received a telegram (yes, there were no cell phones or email in 1983) from Joe Brinkman, the very ump who held George in a choke hold. The telegram read, “Congratulations. A big day for you. Looking forward to seeing you again.” Brett considered that telegram one of the classiest moves he’d ever seen in the majors. In a further twist, in the first game with Detroit and the reunited bat, the home plate umpire happened to be none other than Tim McClelland, who was a friend of Brett’s. When Brett strode to the plate for the first time, McClelland winked at him and said, “You want to have some fun?” with the idea that McClelland would take the bat and measure the pine tar, a move that certainly would have produced gales of laughter from the crowd. Brett already had his game face on and replied, “Timmy, let’s just let this thing ride.” And so ended the saga of one of the most famous games in baseball history.
Less than two weeks after the close to the disappointing season, the hammer dropped. Vida Blue, who had been released on August 1 after posting a 0-5 record with a 6.01 ERA in 19 games, was arrested for cocaine possession. As part of the deal, Blue gave up the names of teammates who had been using the drug. Blue later plead guilty to a Federal charge of possessing three grams of cocaine. Blue served three months in a Fort Worth correction facility.
Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens and Jerry Martin all plead guilty to federal misdemeanor charges of attempting to possess cocaine. Blue eventually apologized to Wilson for ratting him out and Wilson forgave him. Aikens entered a treatment program and in December was traded to Toronto. Martin, a free agent, was not resigned. Wilson was suspended by major league baseball and spent 81 days in jail. Wilson returned to the Royals in May of 1984.
Dan Quisenberry, as he so often did, had the last word on 1983, “I’m surprised we didn’t make more trades with the Yankees. Half our players are already in stripes.”