Did a catcher use a potato to pick a runner off third base?
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A catcher once picked off a runner at third with the use of a potato!
One of the most legendary plays in the annals of baseball history is the so-called “Hidden Ball Trick.” It is when an infielder pretends to hand the baseball back to the pitcher but instead secretly holds on to the ball. Once the pitcher steps on to the rubber, the play is not allowed, so the pitcher has to really sell that he is getting ready to step on to the rubber without actually doing so. When the runner is convinced that the pitcher has the ball, he will typically take a small lead off of the base. Then the fielder (who secretly still has the ball) will tag the runner out. It used to happen a lot more frequently in the past, but you’ll still occasionally see it pop up. Mike Lowell, for instance, pulled it off on more than one occasion. However cool the hidden ball trick is, though, it does not compare to the variation on the play that Dave Bresnahan pulled off in 1987, where he used a potato to help pick off a runner at third base.
In August of 1987, Dave Bresnahan was a catcher for the Williamsport Bills (the Double-A minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians). Bresnahan was 25 years old and hitting just .143, so he was fairly firmly entrenched as the back-up catcher for the club. So he would spend a lot of time in the bullpen for the Bills, warming up the relief pitchers and basically just killing time. Bresnahan began talking to the pitchers about an idea he had to bring back a trick that he had heard about from the early days of professional baseball, the “tater trick.” Bresnahan set out to skin and sculpt a potato so that it would look just like a baseball (complete with painted on stitching). The Bills were far out of contention that year and the season was drawing to a close, so soon the whole club was in on Bresnahan’s wild idea. His plan was to wait for an instance where there was a runner on third with two outs. He would throw the fake baseball into the outfield on what would appear to be an errant attempt at a pick-off throw. When the runner at third came home, he would then tag him out with the real baseball and he and all of his teammates would just walk off the field together.
After the “baseball” was finished, he picked a date, August 31, 1987, that he knew he would be playing, since it was a doubleheader. In addition, the game was against the Reading Phillies, a minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies so the famed Phillie Phanatic mascot was going to be at the game, meaning attendance would be high. Bresnahan was deliberate in his preparation for the prank. In fact, he caught a game against the Phillies a few days before the prank and he tried to pick a runner off at third, setting up the idea in the minds of the Phillies’ runners that that is something he was liable to do. He even called up Major League umpire Tim Tschida (who was friends with one of Bresnahan’s teammates) and asked him what he would do if this play happened. Tschida said he would just allow the runner to return to third base.
Finally, the day came. In the fifth inning of the game, with two outs, Phillie Rick Lundblade was on third base. Bresnahan told home plate umpire Scott Potter that the webbing in his mitt had broken and that he needed a new one. Potter let him go to the Bills’ bench, where a mitt was waiting with the spud hidden in the mitt. Bresnahan later recalled that his teammates were giggling as he approached and he had to tell them to shut up. He returned to the plate and called the next pitch. After it arrived, he got up and threw the spud towards third. He accidentally threw it too close to the runner, nearly hitting him! It landed in the outfield grass and exploded into three pieces. The runner did not see it, though, as he broke for the plate as soon as he saw the “baseball” get by the third baseman. Bresnahan tagged him out with the real baseball and headed for the dugout. His teammates did not move, though. He started yelling at them to follow him. The confused home plate umpire turned to the third-base umpire, who had run into the outfield to retrieve the “ball.” After learning it was a potato, Potter awarded the runner home plate and charged Bresnahan with an error. They did not eject him from the game, but Bills’ manager Orlando Gomez quickly came out and pulled him from the game. He would later fine him $50.
The next day, the Indians farm director informed Bresnahan that they were releasing him. The following year, though, the team retired his number at a sold-out game where anyone could attend for a $1 and a potato. The great Baseball Reliquary had the largest chunk of the potato preserved in alcohol. You can check it out here.
The legend is...
Thanks to Jeff Passan and Dave Bresnahan for the great info courtesy of when Passan did a piece on the 20th Anniversary of the event a few years back.
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