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Our Hero: Mr. Potato has the right stuff

By Jayson Stark
October 10, 1987

This scuffing, corking, sneaking, conniving, cheating madness continues to stalk this great game in this great land of ours.

We search for heroes for our children to look up to. And their children. And their children's dogs. And their children's dogs' children. And . . .

Ah, but we digress.

Anyway, we think our search is over. We think we have found our hero.

We found a man who has reminded us that baseball is a game. And a man who has reminded us that you are supposed to have fun playing baseball. And a man who has reminded us that you are supposed to have fun watching baseball.

We have found our hero.

Our hero is Mr. Potato Head.

Our hero is Dave Bresnahan. He has everything you need to be an official American folk hero. He has a great uncle who was a Hall of Famer--Roger Bresnahan, the first catcher ever inducted.

He has appeared with Marv Albert on the Game of the Week.

He has a deep and abiding appreciation for one of those essential American-type foods our children need to grow big and strong so they can plop down on the couch with a beer and watch the World Series.

He also has a .149 batting average and his release papers from the Cleveland Indians. But sometimes that's the price you have to pay for heroism.

And it's all because of The Potato.

A monumental decision

Now the biggest decision most of us will ever have to make involving a potato is whether we want the steak fries with that prime rib or the baked with sour cream.

When Dave Bresnahan wandered into a Weiss Market in Williamsport, Pa., last month, he was facing a decision vastly more monumental than that.

He was there to decide exactly which potato in the Weiss potato bin he would use to change his life.

A month ago, not too many people outside of Williamsport ever had heard of Dave Bresnahan. And even in Williamsport, the guy definitely wasn't even as big as your average Pang Yu-Long.

But that was before Williamsport's game with the Reading Phillies on Aug. 28. That was before Bresnahan had this overpowering brainstorm that he would throw a potato into left field.

That was before he got released by his bosses, the Indians, for tarnishing the sacred image of baseball by throwing that potato. And that was also before he got himself interviewed by everyone from the New York Times to David Letterman's producers just for being his fun-loving, inspirational Mr. Potato Head self.

But when Dave Bresnahan entered the supermarket last month, he had no idea it was about to bring him impending worldwide fame, not to mention unemployment. He just knew he needed to find one great potato.

"It was tough," Bresnahan said of his harrowing adventures in the Weiss Market. "I had to empty the whole bag of potatoes.

"The produce guy got kind of upset. He said, 'Hey, what are you looking for?' I didn't want to tell him what I was doing. So I said, 'I'm just looking for the right potato here.' "

When he found Mr. Right Potato, the 25-year-old catcher took it to the ballpark and shaved off the skin. Then he waited for precisely the right moment. It came later that night, with Reading's Rick Lundblade perched atop third base, about to help Dave Bresnahan make potato history.

Bresnahan called time. He told the umpire his glove had broken and that he needed to go to the dugout. He trotted over and came back with the potato.

'A great throw'

The next pitch, by prior arrangement, was low and outside. Bresnahan gloved it, then fired toward third, apparently trying to pick Lundblade off.

But third baseman, Rob Swain, who was Bresnahan's roommate, knew he was supposed to let the throw sail by into left. He followed orders.

"I made a great throw, too," Bresnahan said. "He did a hell of a job missing it."

Lundblade was fooled enough to race home. It's safe to say he was totally mystified when he got there and found the catcher waiting with the baseball.

Pandemonium broke lose after that, of course. But eventually, Lundblade was called safe. And Bresnahan was yanked from the game by his irate manager, Orlando Gomez, for committing "an unthinkable act for a professional." And the next day, he was released by the Indians for "jeopardizing the integrity of the game" (although it's possible that that .149 batting average may have had something to do with it).

Which leads us to inject one small question here:

How the heck can you jeopardize the integrity of the game with a potato?

We have had two pitchers caught this year carrying scuffing materials out to the mound with them. They both got suspended for 10 days.

We have seen cork jutting out of the barrel of Billy Hatcher's broken bat. He only got 10 days, too.

And that sounds about right to us. We don't think those guys were jeopardizing the integrity of baseball a whole lot, either. They just got caught doing what all kinds of people in this game have been doing for a century without getting caught.

But Dave Bresnahan is out of a job now. And all he did was throw a potato into left field. He doesn't understand that real well himself.

"Geez," said Bresnahan, "Steve Howe got five chances to play this game after using drugs. I was just trying to have some fun playing minor league baseball. We were 27 games out. Reading was already in the playoffs. I just figured, 'What the hell.' "

When he got released, Bresnahan couldn't figure out why the whole world was taking this the wrong way. But soon it became clear that the only folks who were taking it the wrong way were Orlando Gomez and the Indians. The whole world besides them thought it was a riot.

Even Reading laughed

That even included his noble opponents from Reading, who were busy telling Lundblade that he had just been traded for a potato to be named later.

"Their manager came over and apologized to us," said Reading manager George Culver. "But we weren't that upset, really. We thought it was kind of funny."

Culver's only quarrel with the handling of the whole affair, in fact, was that he thought Bresnahan "should have been thrown out of the game for throwing a scuffed potato."

"That was not a smooth potato," Culver deadpanned. "He definitely used a knife on it."

Meanwhile, Bresnahan's old team, those Williamsport Bills, started to get in the spirit of the thing, too. Just because Bresnahan had gotten released didn't mean he couldn't continue to sell a few tickets, right?

So the Bills designated the following night's game Potato Night (bring a potato and get in for a dollar). And guess who was there signing autographs? Yep. Spuds Bresnahan himself.

When half the newspapers in America started calling and Potato Night became a big sensation, Dave Bresnahan regained his bearings in a hurry. He even paid the $50 fine Gomez had levied on him by dumping 50 potatoes on the manager's desk.

"I hear he didn't think that was too funny, either," Bresnahan said. "He's not having any fun at all with this. I'm having a barrel of laughs."

He is also laughing all the way to the unemployment line. But somehow, we have a feeling that Dave Bresnahan is going to make out all right.

He would make a fine national spokesman for the potato industry, we think. ("You people out there probably think that all you can do with a potato is mash it," he could say.)

Or he could lead one of those Rich Hall-type crusades across America, looking for the perfect potato.

Or he could, as he has threatened, run for governor of the great state of Idaho.

Or he could get another shot at playing baseball. We think he deserves one. Baseball needs Dave Bresnahan. America's baseball fans need Dave Bresnahan.

But Dave, just for your own future job security, we think there is one thing you ought to be sure you never do again. We think you know what it is.

Dave, old pal, don't ever hit .149 again, whatever you do.

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