Backup catcher's career mashed in 'Potato Caper'

Bresnahan released after tricking runner by throwing spud into outfield

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By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | December 27, 2006 5:09 AM ET

Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our feature, "Cracked Bats." Know of any stories to be considered for this feature in the future? Send an email and let us know.

It's been nearly two decades since Dave Bresnahan pulled The Great Potato Caper. And while the stunt may have contributed to the premature end of his baseball career, his spud-throwing session remains as one of the most talked-about events in Minor League history.

Bresnahan was a light-hitting backup catcher in 1987, playing out the year for a mediocre Williamsport team in the Double-A Eastern League. And when he and his teammates decided to have some fun at the expense of the Reading Phillies during the final weekend of the season, one of the most imaginative pranks in baseball history drew the expected guffaws.

The last laugh, however, was on Bresnahan, who, despite cementing his place in Minor League lore, lost his job and never played baseball again. Now a real estate mogul in Arizona, Bresnahan still laughs when discussing that fateful night nearly 20 years ago. But he has no regrets and certainly wouldn't alter the turns his life has taken since finding a most unlikely use for the starchy vegetable.

"I don't ever really think about it," Bresnahan said. "It just kind of makes me chuckle because people still call me on it. People Google my name and they call me on it and want a response. I don't put a thought to it, though, unless someone puts it to me."

It's understandable that people have had a hard time forgetting what Bresnahan did on a late August night in 1987. His actions at Bowman Field seemed to come straight from the pages of comedy script and to this day, talk of what he did still draws laughter. But there was nothing funny about the fallout after Bresnahan smuggled a potato onto the field and hurled it into left field in an attempt to fool the umpires, the fans and the Reading Phillies.

"I was the backup catcher and when you're sitting in the bullpen, you have to do something to break the boredom," he said. "So we had a lot of discussions from baseball to politics. We talked about all kinds of tricks people had done, whether they were in college or high school. We talked about bringing a potato or a roll of tape onto the field.

"And my teammates challenged me. They said why don't you do it. It took me about two weeks to get the nerve, but I finally decided to do it. I'm not really a class clown type but I have a great sense of humor, and I was just trying to break the monotony of a poor season for me and the team."

Bresnahan decided to put his plan into action but the circumstances had to be right. He decided on the last weekend of the season because Williamsport was scheduled to play a doubleheader, and he was assured of catching at least one of the games. And there had to be a runner on third base for the gag to be set in motion.

So, after spending some time at the local grocery store, Bresnahan decided to see if the plan would work. And when he showed up at the ballpark that fateful morning with a handful of potatoes, his teammates were thrilled and more than willing to take part in the prank.

"Everyone was excited and looking forward to it," Bresnahan said. "It was more of a team effort because they were all involved. The third baseman [Rob Swain] was my roommate. And I wanted to make sure the team was OK with it. Not only were they OK with it, they were saying how hilarious it would be and that we had to do it.

"I was very nervous because I didn't think it would work. But it was twilight so that helped. There was no mad science involved. I just peeled the potatoes the night before and prayed it would work."

When Reading's Rick Lundblade reached third base with two outs in the fifth inning of the opener, Bresnahan put his plan into action. He informed home plate umpire Scott Potter that something was wrong with his glove and that he would need to get a new one from the dugout. The move would serve as the signal to his teammates that the plan was about to be enacted.

Stashed in his spare glove was the potato that would change his life. When Bresnahan trotted back onto the field, spud in tow, he called for the requisite low, outside pitch, one which the batter would take. During the pitch, he moved the potato from his glove hand to his throwing hand and upon catching the ball, sprang up and hurled the potato over the Swain's head and into left field.

Lundblade broke for the plate but upon reaching home, Bresnahan smiled, produced the ball and tagged him for the third out of the inning. He quickly rolled the ball back to the mound and headed for the dugout as he and his teammates enjoyed a good laugh.

"I started to run to the dugout and I hear the third-base umpire yelling that it's a 'bleeping' potato," Bresnahan said. "My roommate had a close friend who had an umpire for a close friend and we had called him about a week before to see how he would rule. He said he felt they'd just send the runner back to third and kick me out of the game.

"I was fine with that. But unbeknownst to me, the home plate umpire had his supervisor in the stands, and I guess he was already anguished about getting graded. He was pretty upset that he had to make a decision that wasn't in the rule book."

Lundblade was also a catcher and, being such, knew all the umpires in the league very well. He figured Potter was in on the joke until he got a good look at his expression.

"In that park, the dugout was a long way from home and as I was walking back slowly trying to figure out what was going on, Todd Frohwirth, one of our relief pitchers, comes up to me," Lundblade said. " I remember verbatim what he said -- 'It was a bleeping potato!' I said, 'no way,' and chuckled about it. It was shocking and funny at the same time."

Williamsport manager Orlando Gomez yanked Bresnahan immediately and eventually fined him $50. Potter called the runner safe and the inning continued. The Bills went on to win the game, but that wasn't the end of the story. Gomez was so incensed at what had taken place he helped orchestrate Bresnahan's release from Cleveland the following day.

"[Gomez] thought I did it to make him look bad," Bresnahan said. "But that was not the case. I still don't think he looks upon me positively, but he doesn't get it. He wanted to fight me. Jeff Scott, Cleveland's Minor League director at the time, saw great humor in it but they had to make an example that they couldn't have players pulling stunts. And I was just the backup catcher.

"I think the overreaction they had to it is what got all the attention. They got rid of me when other guys get second and third and fourth chances. I think it was unfair to get released. I guess if I was hitting .340 instead of .140 it would have been different."

The wire services picked up the story the following day and within a few weeks Bresnahan was enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. He went to Yankee Stadium as part of NBC's Game of the Week broadcast. He was featured in several national publications despite the fact that his four-year career had come to an unceremonious end.

Bresnahan, whose distant uncle is Hall of Fame catcher Rogers Bresnahan (the first backstop to use shin guards), says he did what he did for levity's sake. He meant no disrespect to his teammates, the opposition, his manager or the game.

"It was one of those out-of-body experiences," Bresnahan said. "You know when you're doing it that it's probably not right. When I brought the potatoes to the park and saw the reaction of my teammates when I walked in, they were pumped. If there were teammates who felt strongly about me not doing it, I wouldn't have done it.

"But when I saw their reaction, it gave me the strength to do it. They were all involved. I'm just the guy who came up with the idea and threw it. When I talk to my teammates now, they're proud of the fact they were there."

Bresnahan also remains proud of that night. He admits he never thought that would be his last game, but after the Tribe released him he was done with baseball. Several teams wanted to sign him the following spring, but all had plans to start him in High-A ball. He realized then that much of the interest in signing him was gimmick-oriented so he passed on all the offers.

"I met my wife [Julie] within a year and that's what started me on my new path," Bresnahan said.

Lundblade, meanwhile, enjoys nearly as much notoriety as Bresnahan. Now a lawyer in Oregon, the Stanford graduate says the incident is a hot topic of conversation several times a year after folks come across his name on the Internet.

"It seems like not a year goes by without someone telling me about the potato incident," Lundblade said. "It's a story that has never died, and I suspect it never will. It was a fun moment in retrospect. Richie Ashburn was the color guy for the Phillies and the following day he was talking about it.

"And he says 'The funny thing is, the Lundblade kid actually went to Stanford. The Stanford guy couldn't distinguish between the potato and the baseball.'"

Bresnahan doesn't have any souvenirs from his final game. The potato was recovered that day and now resides at the Baseball Reliquary in Southern California, while his uniform is hanging in a Scottsdale restaurant.

He recently turned 45 and has three children, with whom he plays and also coaches. He's told them about The Great Potato Caper, but stresses that they aren't allowed to pull such stunts.

"I'm trying to teach them life lessons and the potato thing was all in good humor," he said.

And nearly 20 years later, it's still amusing.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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