By Ernie Palladino
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George Brett had been tarring up his bat beyond baseball’s prescribed 18-inch limit well before July 24, 1983. Billy Martin knew it. Most of baseball knew it.
It wasn’t until that day, when Brett hit a go-ahead homer off Goose Gossage, that Martin turned the great hitter’s need for tree sap into a tar-and-feather affair. He came out, umpire Tim McClelland checked the bat, declared Brett out, and what is now known as “The Pine Tar Game” became part of baseball lore.
When asked why Martin had waited until then to check Brett’s bat, knowing full well of his habits, he answered something to the wise effect that you don’t use a piece of knowledge like that until it hurts you. And Brett certainly did hurt them with his two-out, ninth-inning homer.
The point of dredging up that infamous incident is to draw attention to Red Sox manager John Farrell’s strategy in calling out Michael Pineda for his pine-tarred neck in the second inning of his team’s 5-1 win Wednesday. Of course, he had every right to have him checked; certainly as much as he did when they found pine tar on the right-hander’s hand April 10. And it was perfectly correct for Pineda to be ejected and subject to the 10-game suspension Joe Torre handed down from headquarters Thursday afternoon.
He broke a rule. Guilty as charged.
The question here involves Farrell’s timing. Aside from adding yet another layer to the delicious hatred that exists in this most legendary of rivalries, what exactly did Farrell accomplish? Nothing much, except to get a potentially ineffective pitcher thrown out of the game and suspended. But Pineda will be back from his two missed starts well before Boston and New York meet again.
Pineda hadn’t been dominant, having given up four hits and two first-inning runs. There were indications that Pineda, coming off two dead years after shoulder surgery, was not going to have a good evening. And even if he did start mowing down Farrell’s lineup, it would have been more advantageous for the manager to wait for a later inning in those blustery conditions to have the pitcher checked. Pineda undoubtedly would have continued to use the pine tar, as things would not have been any warmer in the fifth than they were with two out in the second.
Or, Farrell could have let the whole thing go until another point in the schedule. Let the division race heat up a bit, and then pull it out as wins take on added importance.
In essence, it was just a dumb move that may ironically benefit the Yanks in the long run. These teams won’t meet again until June 27. By then, those two probably will be going hammer-and-tong with Tampa Bay, each looking for any edge possible. Though the warm weather will probably negate any pitcher’s use of pine tar, there’s nothing that says Joe Girardi can’t send the umpire out every game of that three-game set for a TSA-style pat-down or two, especially if that pitcher is named Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz.
Managers tend not to forgive and forget. They know full well the other guy didn’t have his pitcher ejected on moral grounds. Even if that Boston pitcher turns up clean, Girardi still will have upset his timing and messed with his head. Mission accomplished.
With one rash decision, Farrell might have done the Yanks a huge favor, at least in terms of future matchups with their greatest rival. He misused a valuable piece of information. Instead of keeping it in safely his mental holster until it really would have benefited his team, he fired his bullet prematurely.
Assume that one way or another, Girardi will find a way to make him pay. He might also find a way to make his moves turn out positively for the Yanks, something one of his predecessors couldn’t make happen 30 years ago.
Martin’s Yanks ultimately lost the resumed Pine Tar Game 5-4, 25 days later.
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