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SCOTT OSTLER

In the Year of Scam and Sleight of Hand, Give It to Bresnahan

December 14, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

I have changed my mind. So sue me.

Last week I named Bo Jackson and Al Campanis co-winners of my first annual Sportsperson of the Year Award, in honor of their tremendous impact.

My admiration remains great for their respective ground-breaking achievements. The problem is, they did nothing wrong. Campanis' sin was honesty, and as I'm about to show, this is no year to be honoring an honest man.

Sorry, Al and Bo. The coveted award goes to Dave Bresnahan.

Dave is the minor league catcher who pulled a peeled potato out of his glove, fired it over his third baseman's head in an phony pickoff attempt, then, producing the real baseball from his pocket, tagged out the runner jogging home from third.

How can a silly little prank earn a man such a lofty honor as the one being presented here? Glad you asked.

In studying and reviewing the events of the year 1987, one theme jumps out with startling clarity: This is the Year of the Scam.

In religion, famous TV preachers were fooling around and getting rich. In government, candidates cheated and lied. High-level officials were skimming profits for illegal purposes.

Godgate, the Hart-Biden Ticket, and Skim-scam.

As usual, it was a case of life imitating sport. Sport enjoyed its most devious, sneaky, scammy year ever. A world record.

Here is a partial listing of sporting events in this, the Year of the Scam:

--SMU rose to the top, like pond scum. The football scandal reached all the way to the governor of the state, proving that sports and politics can effectively mix, for the greater degradation of the human race.

--Irwindale rocketed to national fame by signing the Raiders and putting $10 million on the line. But the gritty, little-bitty city's glory was clouded by allegations of conflict of interest among Irwindale officials, and by underhanded scheming by outside politicians. The stew is still boiling, or whatever that cliche is.

--Who knows what illegal and unethical dealings went down on both sides during the NFL players strike?

--Several Phoenix Suns were involved in a big drug roundup. The case had some elements of a political witch hunt, and nothing came of most of it, except reputations were tarnished and one ex-player was killed in a mysterious car crash.

--Tickets? Dominic Frontiere did time in a federal slammer for improperly conducting a little Super Bowl ticket sale. The ticket supervisor of the '88 Winter Olympics was fired.

--Contracts? Hockey coach Pat Quinn was on the payroll of two teams at once. For a while, he was the only guy in the NHL who, if he wanted to talk trade, could pick up the phone and call himself.

--Steroids? A major importing and distribution ring was busted. Several athletes were de-medaled or otherwise sidelined for testing positive. Brian Bosworth flunked his steroid test and was banned from the Orange Bowl.

Good stuff. A banner year. But baseball outscammed the world.

Joe (the Manicure) Niekro and Kevin (True Grit) Gross were suspended for forgetting to leave their woodworking tools at home. Billy Hatcher was suspended when his bat split open and cork flew out, to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel."

If you think those three were the only baseball players making illegal equipment adjustments, I would like to sell you an '86 Toyota formerly owned by Elvis.

Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, a potential President of our Country, was accused by some of secretly juicing up the baseballs to increase home-run output.

An arbitrator found baseball's owners guilty of collusion. With more to come.

The Minnesota Twins were accused of hiding a spy in the center-field bleachers in the Humpdome to steal signs from opposing catchers. That was an absurd accusation. Were it true, the Twins would have won a whole lot more games at home than they did on the road.

So, real and imagined, credit baseball with the year's Grand Slam of Scam. And the Sultan of Scam was Dave Bresnahan.

The dictionary defines scam as "a fraudulent scheme," and Bresnahan's was the year's best. He was fined $50 and thrown off the team and out of baseball.

"It was an unthinkable act for a professional," said Orlando Gomez, Bresnahan's manager.

There was no trial, no investigation. Was there a cover-up? The potato had been peeled, but no smoking peeler was ever found. And Exhibit A, the spheroid spud, disappeared. One rumor is that Fawn Hall shredded it and served it au gratin .

Time Magazine ran a Spud-scam cover story, headlined, "Can Baseball Survive This Attack on its Integrity?" Or, if Time didn't, it should have.

Of all the scammers of 1987, Bresnahan was the most original, the only one who immediately admitted his crime, and the only one who didn't wind up with a slap on the wrist, a book deal and a modeling contract.

Standing above the rest is Dave Bresnahan, supreme symbol of the absurdity of it all.

Take a look: Ollie is a hero, Hart is a martyr, Fawn is a star, Walter Davis is free, Governor Clement of Texas is still in office, Boz is rich, the Twins are champs. Get the picture?

The year's lesson is obvious. You can eat all the steroids you want, snort coke, stuff bats, gouge balls, rob God's children, disregard the NCAA rule book, disregard the Constitution.

But throw one lousy potato . . .

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