Tater toss

Dave Bresnahan throws out the first potato before a game at Class-A Williamsport this season, the scene of his infamous potato prank 20 years earlier.

On Aug. 31, 1987, Dave Bresnahan was the Michelangelo of potato sculpting. He sacrificed five fine tubers to the spud gods – death via peel – before settling on the correct shape. He drew red lines on the winner to simulate seams, only to see them erased by the potato's weeping. He wielded that peeler like a true artiste.

Because in order to pull off the greatest prank in baseball history, Bresnahan needed to shape a potato like a baseball.

"I went to Williamsport (Pa.) this past weekend to celebrate the anniversary," Bresnahan says today from his Arizona home, 20 years after he ended his career as a catcher for the Double-A Williamsport Bills by feigning to pick off an opponent at third base by chucking a potato into left field, then using the real baseball to tag the runner when he scurried home – a hidden-ball trick to end all hidden-ball tricks.

"They gave away bobbleheads. I'm holding a potato. There's one on eBay right now. A couple sold for over a hundred bucks this week. For kicks and giggles, I looked up what Barry Bonds' was selling for, and I'm crushing him.

"I really don't understand."

There really isn't much to understand. Baseball is a stately game, sometimes too serious for its own good. There are no end-zone dances, no tongue-wagging after dunks, no cha-cha lines following goals. Should Tommy Lasorda falling on his ample keister really constitute the apotheosis of baseball humor?

No, sir. To allow an idea so unique, so brilliant and so hilarious to fade into history's annals, then, would be disrespectful not only to the game but to the man who hatched the plan and executed it to perfection.

The tater plot started in the bullpen, sanctuary for baseball's bored. Relief pitchers pass the time by scoping out women or making up silly games involving sunflower seeds. As the .149-hitting backup, Bresnahan spent plenty of time in the 'pen, and he broached the idea that had cooked in his mind for years. John Stuart Mill would have been proud of the marketplace of ideas that commenced. A roll of tape would be too light, a rosin bag too fluffy.

"And then it came to me: a potato," Bresnahan says. "Mainly because it sounds funny."

Word filtered around the Bills' clubhouse about Bresnahan's plan, and with the team more than 20 games out of first place, it gave players something to anticipate. The schedule gave Bresnahan a perfect chance. He knew he would play at least one game against the Reading Phillies in an Aug. 31 doubleheader, and the Phillie Phanatic was showing up that day too, ensuring a big crowd.

A few games before potato day, Bresnahan caught a game against the Phillies. He tried to pick a runner off third base, the first piece of bait in his elaborate hornswoggle.

"There was a lot of premeditation in this," Bresnahan says. "I'm kind of anal that way. When I plan something out, I want to make sure the details are covered. In order for this to really work, I needed a guy on third with two outs. When I did it, all the guys on the field would hustle back into the dugout. That way if the umpire ruled against us, we'd have to run back out on the field. And then it's more dramatic."

Earlier that week, Bresnahan called major-league umpire Tim Tschida, a friend of a teammate, and asked how he would rule the potato play. Tschida said he would return the runner to third base, end of story. If it was good enough for Tschida, Bresnahan figured, it worked for him.

In the fifth inning, the time came. Two outs. Runner Rick Lundblade on third. Bresnahan told home-plate umpire Scott Potter the webbing of his glove had broken. Potter allowed him into the dugout, where a glove with the peeled potato waited. Teammates giggled. Bresnahan told them to shut up.

The potato remained in Bresnahan's glove until he called the pitch, an outside slider that had little chance of being put into play. During the windup, Bresnahan transferred the potato to his bare hand.

"It wasn't that bad a throw," Bresnahan says. "It was supposed to be bad. But it was smaller. It was moist. I was nervous. I came up firing. As I threw it, I said, 'Oh, no.' It was headed right toward his helmet. It just missed."

Third baseman Rob Swain, flummoxed by the good throw, tried to sell it by doing his best olé. The potato hit the ground and exploded into three pieces. Lundblade never saw it. He had started running home.

"I tagged him and showed him the ball, then rolled it to the mound and ran toward the dugout," Bresnahan says. "All my teammates buried their faces in their gloves and were laughing. They couldn't move. I told them to get off the field."

Behind the plate, Potter was confused. The third-base umpire ran into the outfield and retrieved the biggest chunk. "It's a (expletive) potato," he yelled to Potter.

"What are you doing?" Potter asked Bresnahan.

"It's just a joke," he replied.

Potter awarded Lundblade home and the scorekeeper charged Bresnahan with an error. Bresnahan wasn't ejected, but Williamsport manager Orlando Gomez yanked him from the game immediately and fined him $50. That night, celebrating over post-game beers, Bresnahan's teammates started a fund to pay the fine.

When Bresnahan showed up at the stadium the following day, Gomez called him in his office. Jeff Scott, farm director of Williamsport's parent team, the Cleveland Indians, was on the phone. Bresnahan knew Scott from their days in the Seattle organization. Scott laughed, told Bresnahan he was an idiot and said he needed to release him.

And thus ended Dave Bresnahan's baseball career. Though he did make one more trip that season to the ballpark. Later that day, Bresnahan returned from the grocery store with huge sacks of potatoes. He placed 50 of them on Gomez's desk.

"I'm always fearful that people think I'm a goofball," Bresnahan says. "I am a prankster. I've got a good sense of humor. But I love baseball.

"I'm a historian. I'm an old-fashioned guy. I've been a season-ticket holder for the Diamondbacks. I coach my kids. Everything I do counters what I'm known for, which is the damn potato."

Paul Harvey called because of the damn potato. So did Harry Caray and countless other baseball emissaries. Bresnahan remains revered in Japan, where, for the 10-year anniversary of the potato caper, a TV station flew him out. They asked him to wear his Bills uniform – "a 10-pound sausage," he says, "into a five-pound casing" – placed him on a throne and carried him through a smoke machine.

Every day someone reminds Bresnahan of the potato, whether at his job as a project manager for a company refurbishing an old Texas sugar plant or through a letter thanking him for bringing levity to a staid game. The potato itself is the prized possession of the Baseball Reliquary, the museum of oddities that displays it in jar filled with denatured alcohol.

In January, Bresnahan spent a week at the Diamondbacks' fantasy camp. His fellow campers weren't interested in the vagaries of minor-league life or what it was like to play for Mike Hargrove in A ball. They wanted to know about the potato.

And when he told them about it, they laughed like hell.