The on-field prank that got a catcher released

'My heart's beating. I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm committed.'

April 8th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget

Former Minor League catcher Dave Bresnahan didn't talk much about it on the phone, but the man known as the "Potato Caper" comes from baseball royalty.

His great uncle, Roger, was the first MLB catcher to wear shin guards. He also developed the first batting helmet after getting hit in the head by a pitch. He'd later win a 1905 World Series with the Giants and be elected to the Hall of Fame following a long playing and managerial career.

Roger Bresnahan with the New York Giants.(AP)

So, back in 1987, when Dave had to call his dad, nephew of Roger, and tell him he'd been kicked off Cleveland's Double-A team for trying to use a potato to pick off a baserunner, he was terrified.

"Great, awesome dad and very dialed in to my baseball career," Bresnahan told me. "And I was thinking, 'Goddammit, now I don't want him to hear that his son got released for throwing a potato.' I had this fear and concern, and I always wanted to make him proud. I had to make the phone call, and that was a nerve-wracking call."

Here's the story he told.

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It was late August of a long, miserable Minor League season for the 1987 Williamsport Bills, and everyone, including Bresnahan -- a 25-year-old backup catcher -- was just trying to push through the team's last few games. They were 28 games out of first place. There were long bus rides after late-night losses and, especially for Bresnahan, lots of hours spent sitting in the bullpen joking around with teammates. And one day, before heading into a series against the Reading Phillies, the self-described "different, out-of-the-box" guy had a very different, out-of-the-box idea.

"I thought, 'What if we snuck maybe a rosin bag (or for some reason, maybe because I'm Irish) a potato into the game?'" Bresnahan recalled. “It was just talk, but then it got picked up the next day and my teammates thought it was funny. They said, 'Well, why don't you do it?' I go, 'What are you talking about?'"

Bresnahan barely even played, so for him to finally get some action and then start throwing a potato around the field seemed like a risky move. One of his teammates reminded him there was a doubleheader the next week against the Phillies and he'd definitely be behind the plate for one of the games.

"I said, 'Alright, I'll do it,'" Bresnahan told me, laughing.

So, the plan was set: when a runner reached third base during the game against the Phillies, Bresnahan would grab the potato, throw wildly over the third baseman's head in an attempted pickoff and then tag the runner out with the actual ball as he came strolling into home plate. Most of the team would be in on the play -- the pitching coach (whom he told over a couple of beers a few days before and was ecstatic about it), the pitchers and most of the fielders.

"The day before, people were like, 'Hey, tomorrow's Potato Day,'" Bresnahan said. "It just seemed to give people a little life, you know, something to talk about. That's all it was."

The one person who had no idea about Potato Day? Bresnahan's manager, Orlando Gomez, who had been demoted from the Triple-A team to the Bills midseason. He was already unhappy about his relegation and would likely not take too kindly to the move.

"No, of course I couldn't ask him for permission," Bresnahan said.

Bresnahan also checked with a friend, Tim Tschida, who was a Major League umpire at the time (you may remember him as the crew chief for this ejection), to see what kind of blowback there might be from introducing a potato into the game. Tschida said if he were the crew chief, he would likely just send the runner back and have a do-over. He'd also possibly kick Bresnahan out of the game. The catcher could live with that. He just didn't want the runner to be allowed home because of his prank.

"Not that I'm some crazy purist," Bresnahan reminded me. "But I did respect the game."

Bresnahan grinning with a potato in his mitt

Potato Day arrived on Aug. 31. Bresnahan was, to his surprise, put in to catch the first game, rather than the second. The Game 1 starter, Mike Poehl, was a much more serious pitcher, but said he'd still go along with Bresnahan's plan. It'd gotten too far, how could he back out now?

Bresnahan wanted to put the potato play into motion when there was a runner on third and two outs, so that when it happened, his team could run off the field before the umpires could reverse their decision. The fifth inning proved to be that moment. With one out, a runner on second and a lefty at the plate, Bresnahan began calling for inside, offspeed pitches in the hopes that the batter would roll a grounder over to the right side and advance the runner to third.

"And that's exactly what happened: He hit a ground ball to second," Bresnahan said.

So far, so good. And now, even though he was somewhat regretting he had ever thought of this insane idea, Bresnahan knew this was the point of no return. He had to do it.

"There was this larger catcher's glove that I kept in my bag in the dugout," Bresnahan said. "I told [the umpire] that my glove broke and I needed to get another glove. He said, 'Oh yeah, sure.' ... I go to the dugout and, of course, all my teammates know what's going on and they've got me almost bursting out laughing."

Bresnahan had prepped the potatoes as much as possible. He peeled and carved them to look more like baseballs, he brought extras in case one of his teammates tampered with them and he and his roommates actually practiced throwing them around in the front yard of their house before the game. After throwing the spud back and forth a few times, they knew it would work.

Bresnahan swapped mitts and headed back out to his spot behind home plate. All systems go.

"Now, I've got to give the signal to the pitcher," Bresnahan told me. "Of course, he knows that the play's on. He's got to make sure the hitter doesn't hit it. I call for a pitch away. I had to give the signal with my bare hand, because I've got my glove hand with the potato in it, and then I have to transfer the potato to my bare hand. I had to do that so nobody could really see, and then I had it kind of hanging by my right ankle as he was throwing it."

The pitcher threw it in the dirt, something Bresnahan wasn't expecting. He was able to pick it, but always wondered what would've happened if it went to the backstop and a potato flew out of his glove as he was rushing back to get the ball. Fortunately, that's not how things went down.

"So, my heart's beating. I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm committed," Bresnahan said. "I pick it and I'm supposed to make a bad throw to third, Rob [Swain's] playing third, he knows what to do -- but I make a good throw."

The guy who was running was about 6-foot-5, Bresnahan told me, so if he hadn't dove back the potato would've exploded on his helmet or back. He did, though, and Swain made an alligator-arm attempt at catching the potato. It sailed into the outfield, splitting into pieces once it hit the ground. Left fielder Miguel Roman, who wasn't totally in on the gag, looked shocked at what he'd just witnessed.

"The runner got up and the third-base coach was screaming, 'Score!'" Bresnahan said. "He was running home at about three-quarters effort because it was an easy home-plate run. Right before he touched home, the ball was in my glove and I tagged him out, showed it to the ump and rolled it to the mound."

That's, of course, when all the confusion happened.

"The third-base umpire was from New York and he had gone out to retrieve the biggest piece. He came back and he said, 'It's a ... potato!'" Bresnahan laughed.

The home-plate umpire was not happy because, on that day, there happened to be an umpire supervisor in attendance. He had no idea what call to make. Bresnahan's teammates stood there with their faces buried in their gloves laughing. In contrast to what Bresnahan's umpire friend said, the umpires got together and ruled that the run would count and the inning would continue. Bresnahan felt bad that his practical joke allowed a run to score during Poehl's outing. Gomez, the manager, came out to argue the run scoring, but really was just baffled by what had occurred. He eventually went back to the dugout shaking his head.

The Bills got the next batter out, Gomez pulled Bresnahan from the game and, despite being down, 2-0, thanks, in part, to the potato incident, the Bills went on to win the game.

After the doubleheader, and with the end of the season nearing, Bresnahan thought everything would just blow over until the offseason. But Gomez was still steaming mad about the potato. He told his catcher as much and fined him $50, thinking Bresnahan was trying to show him up for some reason. And then Jeff Scott, Cleveland's director of player development, decided to make an example of Bresnahan and released him. With just two games left in the season.

"I took the phone call from Scotty, and he was cool, I knew him from when I was with the Mariners," Bresnahan said. "He was going, 'Orlando's pissed, he thinks you did this to make him look bad. ... Bres, I can't have my players throwing potatoes.'"

Bresnahan understood, but he still had one final joke to make. Instead of paying $50, he brought two sacks of potatoes to the clubhouse and dumped them on his manager's desk, with a note reading, "Of course you don't expect me to pay the $50 fine, but here's at least 50 potatoes. This spud's for you."

So, yes, that's the ridiculous, unbelievable, probably disappointing tale that Dave Bresnahan had to relay to his father -- the nephew of a trailblazing, early-20th century catcher nicknamed "The Duke of Tralee." A baseball lifer who was inducted into the sport's most holy shrine.

How would someone like that react?

"He gave out the biggest burst of laughter," Bresnahan said. "He thought it was funny as hell. And I thought, 'Thank God.'"

Bresnahan did a bunch of TV and radio interviews after that -- nearly making it on David Letterman -- and then went into the real estate business that next year. He got offers to play pro baseball after '87, but never took teams up on it -- believing they were mostly gimmicks because of what happened.

The potato play would be Bresnahan's final contribution to the game of baseball. What a way to go out.