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Behind the bat controversy; back-country basketball; golf blunder

The dust from the George Brett home run furor is settling slowly. People are still talking about one of the oddest episode's in baseball history. By now, most fans have seen the TV clips of Brett hitting the potential game-winning home run for Kansas City, then going into a rage when called out because pine tar covered too much of his bat. The Yankees actually suspected the bat was illegal for quite some time, but decided to wait until Brett got a key hit before protesting its use.

As it turns out, the tar on George's hitting stick did indeed exceed the allowable 18-inch limit, and as such, the implement deserved to be removed from the game. But where the umpires appear to have erred is in not weighing the intent of the rules governing bats.

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Baseball's prime concern is with altered and tampered bats that may provide greater distance in hitting. Players have found all kinds of hidden ways to doctor bats, but the pine tar on Brett's was neither hidden nor did it stand to increase his hitting distance. If anything, making the bat surface sticky for better gripping might curtail the ball's flight, if only slightly.

So why is there any pine tar ruling on the books at all? Baseball sleuth Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe dug up the answer by talking to Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith, who had a hand in drawing up the original rule in 1955. According to Griffith, the Rules Committee was concerned that the liberal use of pine tar was discoloring too many baseballs. And if tarred balls remained in play, pitchers could throw them and get some of the same unpredictable action on their throws that's associated with spitballs. So if anything, pitchers, not hitters, were the ultimate beneficiaries.

The Royals have protested the nullified two-run homer, which came in the top of the ninth. A ruling by the American League is expected sometime this week. Backroads basketball

Bobby Knight, coach of the US men's Olympic basketball team, has an idea that makes sense. He proposes taking next year's squad on a Charles Kuralt-type swing, scheduling games in small towns rather than in major cities. That way the pre-Olympic contests would be viewed as something very special, and would be supported accordingly. ''In places like Madison Square Garden, history shows that these games don't draw that well, because there's too much else going on in those cities,'' Knight told The New York Times. Rather than jam the games into high school gyms, though, he might want to consider a compromise solution. Take the games to mid-size communities, where there are adequate-sized arenas, few competing attractions, and strong basketball followings. A costly golf blooper

Anyone who's ever carelessly stroked a ''gimme'' putt (and what golfer hasn't?) can sympathize with Hale Irwin. In the recent British Open, which he'd never won, Irwin attempted a too-casual tap-in during the third round. His backhand swipe whiffed, which proved to be a tragic, two-inch mistake. For the next day he finished in a tie for second, only a stroke behind five-time winner Tom Watson.

For someone who has won the US Open twice and been a consistent performer on the pro tour for many years, it was a very uncharacteristic error. But it was not unprecedented as golf blunders go. Roberto de Vicenzo was involved in error of equal magnitude at the 1968 Masters tournament. The gentlemanly Argentine was deprived of a playoff chance when he signed an incorrectly marked scorecard.

Touching other bases

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* The Chicago White Sox should consider themselves fortunate. If switched to the American League East from the AL West, they would be trailing five teams instead of leading their division race.

* Much has been made of Philadelphia's collective batting woes, but the best (or worst) indication of the problem is Joe Morgan's recent slump. The two-time former league MVP was literally 0-for-July entering Tuesday night's game with the Houston Astros. But after going hitless in 35 straight at-bats, Morgan homered off Nolan Ryan to give the Phillies a 1-0 victory. The hit, one of only three for Philadelphia, came after Ryan had pitched nearly four perfect innings. Morgan's clout could serve as a personal and club turning point, but it won't come close to matching Little Joe's last homer of the 1982 season for drama. Playing for San Francisco, he hit a three-run shot on the final day of the season to end the Dodgers' pennant hopes.

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