A similar kerfuffle involving pine tar arose during Washington's win over the Marlins on Sunday. Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen believed that Harper's bat had pine tar that extended more than the legal 18 inches from the knob and pointed it out to home-plate umpire Marty Foster. The next time Harper came up, he pointed his bat at Guillen, igniting a volley of verbal exchanges.
All of which makes for great theater. But here's the dirty little secret. A quick, informal poll by MLB.com didn't turn up anyone who believes that having "too much" pine tar extending up the barrel of the bat gives the hitter any sort of advantage.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly played for the Yankees in the infamous Pine Tar Game. He said that having pine tar on the barrel of the bat doesn't help a hitter at all and couldn't understand what the beef was all about.
"Is it even a rule anymore?" he said. "Oh, it is. You still can't have pine tar above the label. No, there's no advantage. It just looks kind of cool. You've got the George Brett look up there."
Mattingly went on to say that the only reason to have it up on the bat is to have the pine tar readily available if the batter needs more to get a better grip.
Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, Brett's teammate in later years, agreed. "It doesn't help the hitters at all," he said. "The only thing is if a hitter gets jammed, it puts pine tar on the ball, where it could help the pitcher, not the hitter. And I've never understood that rule, to be honest. You saw [Brett's] bats and he was the best at going up the bat with it. But he was always touching the barrel and put the pine tar on there, it wasn't like he was rubbing the rag on it. And he didn't wear batting gloves."
"I don't know how that would help you," said Rockies veteran Jason Giambi. "There's always wives' tales that the ball sticks to the bat and it goes far. Where I've seen pine tar on a bat, I don't want to hit the ball anyway. It's a jam shot. I haven't seen pine tar on the sweet spot of a bat.
Those opinions were widely seconded.
Phillies second baseman Chase Utley: "I can't imagine how it helps. The only thing I can think of is maybe it's superstition? I don't know. I don't see any benefit in doing it."
Mariners catcher John Jaso: "I don't know the science behind it, but I don't think it matters. It's just for looks. Bryce looks like he's a dirt-and-grit kind of player, so I'm guessing he's going for that old-school look. It's just aesthetics, I think."
Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak: "Usually if you hit a ball on the pine tar, your bat is breaking or something. It's not usually a good thing."
Royals manager Ned Yost: "I don't know how that helps a hitter, gives a hitter an advantage or what it really has to do with anything. I think that the reason that they had rule [originally], because this rule goes back a long, long time, in those days the balls would last like 11, 12, 13 pitches in a game and if you put your pine tar up real high and fouled a ball off or hit a ball to one of the infielders, it would put pine tar on the ball and they'd have to throw it out. Now a ball lasts about 1.2 pitches per game. These pitchers nowadays, if they get a ball with pine tar on it, they'll throw it out. Pitchers nowadays get a ball with a scuff on it and they'll throw it out. It's not like the old days."
Phillies hitting coach Greg Gross: "I can't think of any advantage at all."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle: "I don't think it does any good. Part of it may be some guys look at the bat as a sword of honor, and the more pine tar on it, the longer it's been around."
The only possible help, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas said, might occur after a ball is already in play. "The only way I can think is if you get jammed, you get so much pine tar on the ball and it makes somebody make a bad throw. That's as far as I can see it," he said. And Smoak said that occasionally balls thrown to him at first base have some sticky stuff on them. "Sometimes when you go to throw the ball around after an out, there's pine tar all over it," he said. "But normally, they just throw balls out of play right away anyway."
And Brett's home run? It counted. The Royals' appeal was upheld by American League president Lee MacPhail. The final four outs of the game were played weeks later and the Royals won again.
Then, as now, the whole pine-tar issue turned out to be much ado about nothing.