Monday, July 20, 2015

THE PINE TAR GAME :: Filip Bondy

"The story begins, as all the best ones do, with a bat and a ball."

I'd been dying to get my hands on this book (coming out through Scribner tomorrow) since I first saw this glorious cover in February and just about threw a clot in my excitement. As one of my two most anticipated titles of the year, it was up against it, and boy does it deliver. So settle in, I'm going to go on for a bit.

Everyone thinks their era of baseball is the best. I just happen to be right. The 70s and early 80s were a golden era in the Major Leagues, full of compelling rivalries, comic book-style characters, and, sometimes, utter lunacy. Filip Bondy has taken one legendary, mind-boggling slice of that magical time, made momentous by the history it was mired in, and written one hell of a captivating book about it.

The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy is a pure pleasure; I grinned throughout as I was transported to an incredible time in baseball lore. Writing the non-fiction account of a discrete event is no easy task. Not enough substance, you risk the dreaded filler. Too much, the reader is overwhelmed. Bondy definitely found the sweet spot.

During the late seventies and early eighties, the Yankees and Royals produced one of the three greatest postseason rivalries in the history of the sport..., generating some of the most tortuous plot twists imaginable.

The Pine Tar Game is a gripping account of that rivalry, centered around one swing of a bat. For those of you who don't remember (or, ahem, were not born), the pine tar game took place on July 24, 1983, during the final game of the last regular season series between the Royals and the Yankees.

Losing 5-4 at Yankee Stadium in the top of the ninth, Kansas City third-baseman George Brett came to the plate to face intimidating, Fu Manchu'd Yankee reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage with one on and two out. Last chance.

Brett crushed the first pitch from Gossage, sending it nine rows back in the right field deck. Royals up 5-4. Pretty dramatic, but not so rare in the baseball world, right? Any other game, between any other two teams, it would have been just another potential come-from-behind victory. But this wasn't any game between any two teams. This was a game between two clubs that hated each other, whose organizations, ownership, and management couldn't have been more diametrically opposed, whose multiple, dramatic, rule-book-changing American League Championship Series of seasons past were the stuff of Hollywood movies.

Because of the heated rivalry between these two disparate teams, the Yankees had been lying in wait, biding their time to use Rule 1.10(c) to their advantage. In short, Rule 1.10(c) prohibited any material or substance from extending more than 18 inches from the end of the bat's handle. George Brett had just given the Yankees the opportunity they longed for.

Brett, an admitted "bat slob" and "complete pine tar mess," had pine tar well past the 18 inch mark on his bat, and as soon as he hit that home run the die was cast. Yankee manager Billy Martin protested. The umpires conferred. The Royals started noticing. Some bat shenanigans took place. Brett was called out, the runs negated. Yankees win. Brett went wonderfully and historically apoplectic:

(I just watched that five more times; it never gets old. I encourage you to find some of the longer video cuts if you're a fan, they're available on YouTube.)

The gritty historical undercurrent between the two franchises turned George Brett's swing into a three-ring circus, and the show was just beginning. Bondy takes the reader through the Royals' appeal (including a great section on the "rules nerd" who studied the various applicable rules and formulated the arguments for overturning the on-field decision) and the nutty aftershocks of the final ruling - law suits (brought by management and fans), tee-shirts, mysterious cans of pine tar delivered, songs, and threats, among other craziness.

Bondy truly shines in bringing the reader to the edge of his or her seat by the time we get to Brett's swing. This is no mystery, we know what happened and what came before, but Bondy keeps ratcheting the tension with an engaging, well-written account that brims with his love of the game and its minutiae. I learned so many nifty details I hadn't known or put together previously (the difference between calling something "bullshit" and "horseshit," for example).

The gift of Bondy's writing is a seat in a time machine. I felt like I was in the stands watching these games and series play out like I did as a kid; back before free-agency and endorsements, when grudges were nurtured, the baseball codes ruled the land, and David met Goliath.

Granted he had some colorful material to work with, but Bondy kept me glued to the pages even when providing back story on club history and ownership. He makes a bat boy, a stat nerd, and a League president compelling in a story that includes characters like Billy Martin; renders Royals owner Ewing Kauffman as interesting as "The Boss," George Steinbrenner.

If you feel a sense of the overly sentimental here, that's all me. Bondy is a long-time sportswriter for the New York Daily News who was present at the pine tar game and his professionalism and experience are evident. One of the final chapters of the book briefly discusses baseball today and is imbued with subjects like tax breaks, revenue-sharing, and stadium sponsorships. Cue sad trombone. Call me old school or old-timer, but The Pine Tar Game is as good a book about baseball as I've ever read.

STREET SENSE: If you're a baseball fan, read this book. If you're not a baseball fan, read this book. It just might make you one.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: George Brett, that seething bull in a china shop on July 24, 1983, still comes to [Ewing's daughter] Julia Kauffman's house to this day for tea and conversation on a regular basis. He behaves himself like a true gentleman. "He signs baseballs, I give them away, " Julia Kauffman said. "It's funny to think about, I know, George Brett drinking a pot of tea, with a cozy warming it. But it's a serious cup of tea. He becomes totally different."

I also loved this portion of Bondy's Acknowledgments and considered it worth sharing:

"This project required considerable research, not all of it done on the internet. There is still a place for libraries and librarians, who helped me greatly..."  Indeed.

COVER NERD SAYS: As a lover of baseball, book covers, photography, and fonts, this cover is perfection. I would frame it on my wall. It's in serious contention for my cover of the year.


Emily said...

Ok, I'm super intrigued. I don't often read books about sports, although I usually end up liking the ones I do read. I'm also not the hugest baseball fan, although I enjoy it. But I agree - there is just something about the Golden Age of baseball that's incredible wonderful, and this sounds like a really fun way to experience it vicariously since I was not born or too little to understand through most of it. It still was a huge part of my life though - I went to baseball games at multiple parks before (and after) I was born, the sound of Tigers baseball on the radio is one of the most lovely soundtracks of my youth, and my Dad remembers my birthday because it's the day the Tigers clinched the pennant, and the last year they won the World Series. :D I'll look for this one! I wonder if I'd be good on audio?

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

You have no idea how happy this comment makes me. Those are some fantastic baseball memories, especially the thought of you going to a game before you were born. To hell with playing classical music, the sounds of a baseball should be the soundtrack for the unborn. :) I love your dad linking you with those dates/games, too, very fun.

You had me so excited about the audio idea I went and checked. This would be fantastic on audio and I would like to re-read in that format as well. I don't see an audio edition, will try to find out if there's going to be one.

le0pard13 said...

Oh, I remember that play! Was watching the game on TV when all this unfolded. I'm sold…getting this for my summer reading. Thanks, Lauren! :-)

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

As a baseball fan I think you will really appreciate it. Especially since you saw the game. So much fun!

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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