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Crown Him the Prince of Prank : Is Everybody Having Fun Yet? Padre Pitcher Larry Andersen Is

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nolan Ryan may have pitched seven no-hitters in his career, but his fondest moment in baseball was listening to Larry Andersen belch the entire tune of the national anthem.

Dennis Eckersley may be the finest reliever in baseball, but there was no better time in life than when he and Andersen were roommates--in the back of an El Camino.

Rene Lachemann has been to four World Series in the past six years as third base coach of the Oakland Athletics, but he claims his most vivid memory in baseball is Andersen’s prank of stuffing jello in his toilets.

Tommy Sandt has been part of back-to-back National League East division titles with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the most enjoyment he had was wearing rubber gloves during Thanksgiving dinner at Andersen’s house.

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Larry Andersen has spent 21 years in professional baseball, and why is he legendary? Is it that he was a member of the 1983 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies? Or his contributions to the ’86 Houston Astros? Or even his no-hitter against Victoria back in 1974?

No, Andersen is known for his demeanor.

“There are so many things in my career I’m proud of,” Andersen said, “it’s really hard to keep track of them. But if you’re talking just with the Padres, it’s easy. Everyone knows my greatest moment. That (April 14) afternoon in Los Angeles. Come on, who can forget?”

Andersen did not play that day, the occasion on which actor John Goodman--who plays the slovenly husband in “Roseanne"--came into the Padre clubhouse to see how a major league baseball team conducts itself after a game. Everything seemed normal. Until Goodman met Andersen.

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“I just did what I thought was appropriate in a situation like that,” Andersen said. “I challenged him to a belching contest.”

Goodman swigged some beer in his mouth and cut loose. Andersen smiled, almost embarrassed for him. Andersen took a gulp and unloaded a sound that had people ducking for cover, reverberating through the clubhouse.

Goodman cowered, dropped to his knees, bowed in tribute and walked out the clubhouse door.

“You know, (Andersen) was my first roommate in baseball, and we spent so many times together,” Eckersley said, “but the thing I remember most about him is that he could burp for 15 minutes. I mean it.

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“I guess it’s not so nice to be remembered that way, but really, that’s the way I remember him.”

For Larry Eugene Andersen, the clown prince of baseball, that is enough.

He has made 21 stops in his 21-year professional career. He was told more than 10 years ago it was time to get out of the game and earn a living.

Yet, two months shy of his 39th birthday, Andersen is not a hardened, surly veteran. He behaves as if he’s a nonroster teen-ager spending his last day in baseball.

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Andersen once pleaded insanity in court when fighting a parking ticket. His argument: “Your honor, no one in their right mind would have parked there.”

Andersen signed a three-year, $4.35-million free-agent contract with the Padres, and then said: “What were the Padres thinking about? I would have signed for less than that.”

Andersen also posed these deep clubhouse questions: “If we throw rice at weddings, do the Chinese throw hot dogs?” And, “Why did Columbus make his voyage on a holiday, to avoid traffic?” And, “Why is there an expiration date on sour cream?”

He’s the master of the prank, his mind constantly active to find ways to sabotage the unsuspecting.

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“Every team should have someone like him,” Padre pitcher Ed Whitson said. “But if you have two, you’re asking for a whole heap of trouble.”

Andersen is one of the few remaining artifacts of the game. If he hasn’t seen it all, he has heard about it. Nothing escapes him.

“The game has changed so much,” Andersen said. “It’s all about money now. Guys don’t have fun like they used to because the attention is on money. The owners complain the most, but, of course, they’re so stupid. They fight with each other to see how much they can pay us. If they want to know why payrolls are so high, they should look in the mirror.

“The only thing that hasn’t changed is everyone’s feelings toward the Dodgers. It must be in everyone’s contract. If you don’t get signed by the Dodgers, you have to go your whole career hating them.

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“That’s why I believe that if you can’t enjoy what you’re doing and be happy in this game, it’s time to get out.”

More than ever, Andersen wants to have fun this season. He doesn’t know how much longer he can pitch. He’s pitching with a ruptured and herniated disc in his neck--diagnosed last season--and simply hoping his career can survive.

The doctors have recommended surgery, but they also told him that surgery will terminate his baseball career. Maybe the pain will prevent him from pitching, anyway, but at least he wants to give it one final shot.

“I know this could be my last year,” said Andersen, who will earn $1.5 million this season. “I also know there’s no way in the world the Padres will pick up my ($2-million) option next year. But I don’t want to give it up.

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“Believe me, it’s not the money.

“I’m just having too much fun.”

Perhaps the epitome of Andersen’s frustrating minor league career, which spanned 11 seasons, is that he endured three separate stints in Portland with three different organizations.

“Actually, my dream was to play for the Portland Beavers,” said Andersen, who was born in the city, and raised in Seattle. “If Bob Uecker, my idol, played for the Portland Beavers, then I wanted to play for the Portland Beavers.

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“My only problem was that my dream came true three different times.”

Andersen, who never made more than $80,000 until his 16th year in baseball, didn’t make the big leagues for good until 1983, when he was sold by the Seattle Mariners.

“That kind of woke me up,” he said, “because the Mariners were the worst team on the planet. I mean, if I couldn’t make their team, whose team could I make? They weren’t even a good triple-A team.”

Andersen’s talent started to emerge with the Phillies, and after he and Dave Stewart were released in 1986, he hooked up with the Houston Astros. He became one of the top setup men in baseball, with no one nastier against right-handed hitters. He would have stayed forever in Houston, but management began unloading salaries and potential free agents. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox for Jeff Bagwell, and four months later signed as a free agent with the Padres.

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“The guy’s like Felix the Cat,” Lachemann said. “He’s got nine lives. Never in my wildest imagination did I think he’d still be pitching.

“I thought he was finished in the late ‘70s.”

Accordingly, there have been suspicions that Andersen might have something up his sleeve other than tricks and gadgets. A little Vaseline, perhaps? Pine tar? Sandpaper?

“I know people think I cheat,” Andersen said. “I was with the Houston Astros all those years, so it’s only natural. I think it’s guilt by association.”

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Didn’t he learn any tricks from his short time in Cleveland with Gaylord Perry?

“Gaylord used to have two inches of that stuff (Vaseline) on his neck when he pitched,” Andersen said. “I’ve already got enough problems with my neck without using that.”

How about Mike Scott? Was he really clean, or did he have a trick or two?

“Well, he didn’t use any Vaseline,” Andersen said. “He used the harder variety.”

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(The next time you watch videotapes of Scott, check his left hand. That patch between his left thumb and forefinger was sandpaper.)

How about Nolan Ryan? Veteran scouts insist something funny is going on.

“Let’s leave that one alone, because Nolan’s still pitching,” Andersen said. “I’ll just say somewhere along the line, he must have picked up some new breaking balls. Some strange breaking balls.”

Andersen grinned. At least one-fourth of all pitchers cheat in one way or another, he said.

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“But the umpires aren’t going to do anything about it,” Andersen said. “When they caught Don Sutton and suspended him from baseball, he sued the umpires and won. Once the umpires realized they had no power, what were they going to do?”

Such nuances have made baseball enjoyable to Andersen. The best times of his life have come in baseball. Why can’t everything be such fun?

Take the Thanksgiving dinner he and his wife, Trish, hosted for a party of 27.

They cooked mounds of spaghetti, piled it on china plates, sat down at fancy tables, said their blessings and began to eat. There was only one problem. No silverware.

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Instead, there was a brown paper sack at each place setting.

“You’d never guess what was inside,” Tommy Sandt said. “A bib, chocolate mint, napkin and plastic gloves.

“We had to eat spaghetti with plastic gloves.”

It’s a wonder Andersen ever could be serious. He was only in his second professional season in Reno, Nev., when he volunteered for the part-time job as the team’s clubhouse attendant. He’s believed to be the first player/clubbie in baseball history.

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“The only trouble was that it affected my concentration,” he said. “I’d be standing on the mound with two outs and the bases loaded, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Did I get the jocks out of the dryer?’ ”

It also was in Reno that he met Eckersley. They shared an apartment for the season, but their lease expired in August--although a few games remained in September. They didn’t have any money for a hotel room, so they ended up sleeping in the back of the El Camino for a week.

It took 10 years before Andersen stayed in the big leagues for an entire season. He made it with the Seattle Mariners. The Larry Andersen Show made it to the big time.

“I was still doing the same stuff,” Andersen said, “only when you’re in the big leagues, people tend to notice more.”

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He introduced the conehead to major league baseball, walking in airports with a cylinder-shaped head and shaking hands with astonished bystanders.

“New York was the one place where I didn’t even get a second look,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s like there’s so many weird people there, they thought I was just another foreigner.”

He pulled the fake dollar bill stunts in airplane aisles. Called in fake names over the intercom system. Came tumbling down luggage carousels.

“You couldn’t do that stuff in the minors,” he said. “It’s just doesn’t have the same effect on Greyhounds.”

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It was Andersen’s zany humor, in fact, that might have prevented Mike Schmidt from being run out of Philadelphia.

Schmidt had made the biggest public relations blunder of his career by ripping the Phillie fans while on a trip in Montreal. He thought it would never get back to Philadelphia. Instead, it resulted in blaring headlines in the papers, and by the time the team arrived back in town, lynch mobs were forming.

“I brought a wig and sunglasses into the clubhouse our first day back in town,” Andersen said. “I said, ‘Schmidty, there are going to be snipers in the stands. They’re going to execute you. Schmidty, it’s your only chance.’

“Well, Schmidty comes onto the field for infield (in the wig and sunglasses), and they gave him a standing ovation. It was the first time in 15 years that he let his guard down, the first time he showed the fans he was a real person.

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“I know it sounds weird, since he had such a great career and everything, but I feel sorry for him. He’s a perfect example of a guy who never had fun. He couldn’t do it. He felt so much pressure of living up to fans’ expectations of hitting a homer every at-bat.

“He’s a Hall of Famer, and he never looked like he enjoyed the game.”

They met a few years ago in Sam’s Place, baseball’s version of Cheers in Houston. Trish Wilson was an airline stewardess. Andersen was a famous baseball player. They both loved to have a good time.

They have been inseparable ever since.

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“I was the only one who would ever laugh at his jokes,” Trish said.

They were scheduled to be married Feb. 8 in Houston. They put down a deposit for the wedding reception in Houston. They lined up a church and minister.

But a few weeks after the season, a devil-may-care attitude took over. They instead got married on the beaches of Hawaii. And since their down payment on the reception room was non-refundable, they decided to party, anyway.

The Andersens had an intimate formal dinner for about 160 and wound up partying until the wee hours of the morning. They invited everyone from Roger Clemens to the clubhouse attendants in Philadelphia, from the equipment man in Houston to a boy from the Make A Wish Foundation. The social event of the season cost more than $20,000.

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“It was like a two-day affair,” said Sam’s bartender Greg Tyner. “The next night, everybody continued the party at Sam’s. We’ve already got most of our walls covered with crazy pictures of Larry, and now we got even more.

“The guy’s unbelievable. He’s the most down-to-earth person I’ve met in my entire life.”

Andersen indeed is renowned for his generosity. Ask the clubhouse attendants in baseball, and they’ll tell you few tip better than Andersen. Bob Doty, the Padres’ visiting clubhouse attendant, says he was near tears when the Padres signed Andersen simply because of the lost revenue.

“I’ve played with a lot of people in this game,” Nolan Ryan said, “but he’s one of the biggest characters I’ve ever been around. What I enjoyed about him is that he’d fool around all the time in the clubhouse, but when it comes time to play, he’s a hard-nosed professional. They don’t make them like him anymore.”

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Certainly, as Lachemann can attest, no one comes close to pulling pranks like Andersen. Lachemann should know. He was victimized by “Mr. Jell-O,” considered by Lachemann as the greatest prank in baseball history.

“To this day, I refuse to take my eye off him,” Lachemann said.

It happened in 1982 when Lachemann was managing the Seattle Mariners, and the team was in Chicago. Lachemann went to Rush Street after the game, leaving Andersen, Richie Zisk and Joe Simpson all the time they needed for their devious plot.

They procured a room key to his suite and began stashing every item they could find into the bathroom. Furniture. The bed. Light bulbs. Paintings. Even the digital alarm clock.

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When Lachemann came into his room, a bit inebriated as he recalls, he flicked on the light switch. No light. He tried to feel for his bed. It was gone, too.

He finally found everything in the bathroom, including a toilet full of green Jell-O and went absolutely berserk. He called Zisk. He called Tom Paciorek. They couldn’t hear a word, because the mouthpiece from his phone also was missing. Lachemann finally slept on the floor.

He spent his entire season trying to find the culprit. In every city he went, Jell-O boxes were left in his suite. Once, the coaching staff went to his room only to open a couple of cans of beer and to find more Jell-O.

“I mean I’m doing everything I can to find out who’s behind this,” Lachemann said. “Everything leaks out in baseball. You think I’d find out from somebody. It was absolutely amazing.

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“If these guys were in the White House, Nixon would still be President because there were no leaks.”

A few months later, Mariners’ broadcaster Dave Niehaus proudly told Lachemann that he had Paciorek on tape admitting to the escapade. Lachemann immediately encountered Andersen and bet him $100 that he finally could solve the mystery. Andersen shrugged his shoulders and took him up on the bet.

Lachemann called Niehaus over, told him to turn on the tape, and nothing. The tape was blank.

“I screamed at him,” Lachemann said. “You SOB, you let those guys get to you.”

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When Lachemann awoke the next morning, a phony newspaper had been delivered to his room, with a front-page headline:

Jell-O-Gate Tapes Lost;

Lachemann Baffled

Not until a team party in the final week of the season did the trio confess.

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Andersen contends there’ll never be another prank to top “Mr. Jell-O.”

Maybe.

“You know, I met the cousin of the Kissing Bandit last year,” said Andersen, “and she told me I could set someone up. Well, who better to set up than Bruce (Hurst, a devout Mormon)? So I’m going to have the Kissing Bandit come to one of our games this year, and go get Bruce. It’ll be something, won’t it?

“The only trouble is that, with my luck, Bruce would be throwing a no-hitter. And when she came out to kiss him, he’d be all flustered and ruin his concentration.”

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Andersen paused momentarily, took a few gulps of his beer, smiled and said:

“Ah, what the hell. It’s only a game.”


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