Pine tar goes by many names: the sticky stuff, the sticky icky, stick ‘em, the thick and sticky, but what is it and how is it used in baseball? Batters often use it as a batting aid for enhanced grip. Pine tar is just one of many aids that batters can choose from to help improve their control when hitting, along with batting gloves.
How Pine Tar is Made
Pine tar comes from destructive distillation. The wood of a pine tree is placed in an airtight space and subjected to high heat and pressure. The pinewood is carbonized and once it is completely broken down the result is pine tar.
Pine tar has long been used by sailors to seal the wood on their boats and weatherproof the ropes used by the crew. When pine tar is thinned down, it can also be used as a natural wood stain with natural water repellent properties. Pine tar helps to preserve wood but must be continually reapplied.
How Pine Tar is Used in Baseball
Applying pine tar to a baseball bat can help improve grip and handling. Pine tar offers batters a more relaxed grip, resulting in better contact and more pop on contact with the ball.
Some players choose to put pine tar directly onto their helmet rather than on their bat so they can use the pine tar on-demand by simply touching their helmet. Likewise, pine tar can be added higher up on the handle so more can be applied as needed while at-bat.
Legality of Pine Tar in Major League Baseball
Pine tar is both legal and illegal depending on its usage. Batters can use pine tar with some exceptions. Mainly, the pine tar cannot extend past 18-inches from the bottom of the bat.
It could be argued that having pine tar higher up on the bat may result in contact that is an instant longer than normal resulting in extra spin on the ball.
There really is not a competitive advantage to having pine tar any more than 18-inches up on a bat, the rule is in place mostly so that pine tar does not get on the ball.
For pitchers, pine tar is illegal. Pitchers are never allowed to use pine tar or any foreign substance on their hands or fingers. Pitchers are however allowed to use rosin bag, a powder substance that also comes from a pine tree and results in better grip on the ball.
There have been arguments for allowing pitchers to use pine tar for better grip but those have yet to come to fruition. Baseball is a traditional sport that does not often make major changes to the rules. For now, pine tar is completely illegal for use by pitchers.
For more clarification, check out the official MLB rules incorporated below.
Pine Tar Regulations for Batters
Rule 3.02(c): The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance that extends past the 18-inch limitation shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.
NOTE: If the umpire discovers that the bat does not conform to (c) above until a time during or after which the bat has been used in play, it shall not be grounds for declaring the batter out or ejected from the game.
Rule 3.02(c) Comment: If pine tar extends past the 18-inch limitation, then the umpire, on his own initiative or if alerted by the opposing team, shall order the batter to use a different bat. The batter may use the bat later in the game only if the excess substance is removed. If no objections are raised prior to a bat’s use, then a violation of Rule 3.02(c) (Rule 1.10(c)) on that play does not nullify any action or play on the field, and no protests of such play shall be allowed.
Pine Tar Regulations for Pitchers
Rule 3.01: No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.
Rule 6.02(c)(7) Comment: The pitcher may not attach anything to either hand, any finger or either wrist (e.g., Band-Aid, tape, Super Glue, bracelet, etc.). The umpire shall determine if such attachment is indeed a foreign substance for the purpose of Rule 6.02(c)(7), but in no case may the pitcher be allowed to pitch with such attachment to his hand, finger or wrist.
How to Apply Pine Tar to a Baseball Bat
Pine tar comes in several different forms: a jar of thick liquid pine tar, pine tar paste, a gel, a presoaked pine tar rag, or a stick of pine tar.
Jars of liquid pine tar usually result in a very thick and very sticky coating. Gel pine tar comes in a squeezable tube or a metal tin. The gel pine tar usually results in a thinner coating than the liquid stuff. Sticks of pine tar are easier to use, more portable, and less messy than liquid or gel. It is best to experiment and see what works best.
1. Clean the bat
The first step for applying pine tar is to clean the bat. Wiping away debris will make the pine tar application process go much smoother.
2. Tape off the bat
This step is optional, you can tape off the bat to get a clean line. Keep in mind that the pine tar cannot extend more than 18-inches from the bottom of the bat. Some bats have decals that help determine where pine tar can be applied. Additionally, a bat weight or a donut can be used as a guide for the proper height to apply pine tar. For the cleanest look, apply tape to the bat at the desired height
3. Ready the pine tar
If you are using a jar of liquid pine tar, paste, or gel: apply some of the pine tar liberally to a lint-free towel. There are pine tar rags that are made specifically for pine tar application. They often have snaps for easy, mess-free storage.
If you are using a stick of pine tar: uncap the stick and expose an inch or two of the pine tar. Pine tar sticks commonly come wrapped in plastic, peel the plastic down before applying it.
4. Apply the pine tar
Begin applying pine tar to the handle of the bat until you have reached your desired amount. Some batters prefer a light coating where their hands are placed, and they will apply more on the barrel of the bat so they can reach for more as needed while at-bat.
If you are using liquid or gel pine tar and a towel, roll the handle of the bat along the towel until it is covered liberally.
If you are using a stick of pine tar, begin running the stick along the handle, turning the bat as you work for an even coating. Continue applying pine tar until you have applied the desired amount.
5. Apply rosin if desired
Some batters like applying a rosin powder over the pine tar. Take a rosin bag and flip it against the recently applied pine tar. Rosin can add additional stickiness and tack. Some pine tar already has rosin in it so you can skip this step.
6. Re-apply as needed
Wait 24 hours repeat the process if needed. Applying pine tar is a simple process and it can be reapplied using the same steps whenever needed. If you ever need to remove some of the old pine tar, a bat scraper can be used to wipe it off.
The George Brett Pine Tar Baseball Incident
Perhaps one of the most famous MLB moments involving pine tar occurred at a game on July 24, 1983.
It was the ninth inning of a game with the New York Yankees up one run over the Kansas City Royals. Eventual Hall of Famer, George Brett, of the Royals was up to bat when he knocks a two-run, go-ahead home run out of the park.
Yankees manager, Billy Martin, requested that the umpire inspect the bat that Brett used because Brett had been accused of using an extreme amount of pine tar in a previous season.
After some discussion over the rules, the umpire took the bat over to home plate. Home plate measures 17-inches and after laying the bat down for a measurement, the umpire confirmed that the pine tar extended beyond the 18-inch limitation. Brett was ruled out for using an illegal bat. Furious, Brett stormed the field to give the umpire a piece of his mind.
The call led to Brett being the last out of the game because the home run no longer counted. The Royals protested and the ruling was overturned by MLB twenty-five days later.
The game was ordered to be resumed on August 18, starting in the top of the ninth inning with the Royals leading the Yankees 5-4. Brett wasn’t allowed to play because he was ejected for his outburst on July 24. The whole spectacle eventually resulted in MLB amending the rules to state that challenges must be expressed prior to a play occurring.
This incident is so famous it has a country song about it, a Wikipedia page, a book, and many t-shirts. Even non-baseball fans know about “the George Brett pine tar incident.” George Brett still jokes about it to this day.