By Andy Strasberg
Kurt Bevacqua was the most fearless, free-spirited player that I ever met. Nothing – zero, zip, nada, zilch – ever bothered him, on or off the baseball field.
Known as “Dirty Kurt” by his teammates for having the dirtiest uniform on the team, Bevacqua played 970 major-league games for six teams. His resume also includes winning a nationally televised bubble-blowing contest, disguising himself as Padres manager Dick Williams (in full makeup), and doing a pirouette on his way to first base after hitting a three-run blast in the 1984 World Series.
Clearly, Kurt never experienced a moment in a ballgame that elevated his heart rate. He’s always been unfazed and rock-steady.
During his 15-year baseball career, he was twice traded to the Padres. The first time was in 1979 by the Texas Rangers and then again in 1982 by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Point is, whenever I came up with an unusual promotional idea, Kurt was my go-to guy.
In the first week of August 1982 the Padres were in third place in the National League West when I re-read one of the most unique baseball stunts ever staged outside of a ballpark. The stunt took place in Washington DC in 1908 when catcher Gabby Street caught a ball tossed from the Washington Monument.
For me, the ball-drop exhibition was nothing if not inspirational. I desperately wanted to replicate it in San Diego. Of course, Kurt was my first choice. He agreed before I finished asking him.
Once he was on board, I needed to get permission from Padres general manager Jack McKeon. “Trader Jack” loved stunts like that. He said it was OK with him if Padres manager Dick Williams gave his approval.
So I approached the intimidating and often serious-minded Williams, explaining in detail what I was trying to stage. To my surprise, he said yes. As a caution, I shared with Williams the possibility that Kurt could hurt himself. Williams’ reply: “Yeah, I know. My answer is still yes.”
When I told Kurt about the green light from Padres brass, he told me he wanted to try it first -- without the public knowing -- before he would do it for real.
I agreed to provide him with the opportunity before anything was announced.
The next step was to secure a downtown skyscraper to cooperate and allow a test run on a conditional basis. The tallest San Diego downtown building management was quick and decisive with their response: “No.”
The next tallest building management also gave me the thumbs down. On the third try, the good folks at Trammel Crow, who operated the Imperial Bank building, said sure, realizing that the event would get their building some heightened community exposure.
They readily agreed to allow Kurt to conduct a secret, covert trial run. We decided it would be on a Sunday morning at 7 am. To pull this off, we opted not to notify the police. If caught, we simply would ask for forgiveness.
With the help of several building management employees, we stopped traffic in both directions as Kurt walked to the middle of 7th Avenue and B Street early on that Sunday morning. When the first ball came down, Kurt caught it easily -- as if he had done it every day of his major-league career that began with the Cleveland Indians in 1971.
After his successful grab, Kurt said to me “OK Meat, it’s a go. Let’s do it.”
The premise would be a $1,000 bet between Kurt and teammate Terry Kennedy, who agreed to be the thrower from the top of the building. If Kurt was successful, the money would be donated to a local charity, the San Diego Alcoholics Olympics, that Kurt had designated. If he missed, the $1,000 would go the charity of Kennedy’s choice.
Trammel Crow generously provided the $1,000.
Promotion-minded radio station KFMB readily agreed to carry live, on-air play-by-play of the event. On the day of the event, they would bring a large tarp placed in the middle of the downtown intersection, replete with a red bullseye and KFMB’s call letters.
To add a touch of class, we hired a limousine to transport Kurt and Terry from the ballpark to the site. We set the date for Tuesday, August 31, the day after the team returned from a long, 10-day road trip.
To enhance the chances of a crowd gathering, we scheduled the event during the noon lunch hour. The police were now fully involved in event arrangements, diverting traffic away from the ball-drop zone.
When the limo arrived shortly before noon at the Imperial Bank building, I was overwhelmed with how many people had gathered to watch the Ball Drop. Numerous media outlets -- local and national -- turned out in force to cover the silliness.
As with any event, I knew there had to be added theatrics, so I enlisted three people to play snare drums at the appropriate time for a drum roll. KFMB set up loudspeakers so everyone on-site could hear the play-by-play.
Kennedy and Bevacqua each had walkie-talkies in hand. After they took their places, they began talking about the sun, the westerly wind and how Kennedy would throw the ball with backspin. Thus, a dropped baseball traveling at 125 miles per hour -- according to a mathematician I hired for added authenticity -- would fall away from the roof of the 24-story building that was 325 feet to the sidewalk.
To get things started, Kennedy tossed a test throw. As the ball came hurtling down, it hit the pavement and bounced 20 to 30 feet into the air, eventually landing on the second bounce amongst the thousand or so onlookers who scrambled for the ball as if it were a game-winning Padres homer.
More walkie-talkie chatter between Kennedy and Bevacqua. Like a prize fighter moments before he enters the ring, Kurt did a quick interview for KFMB and ended by saying he was ready.
Don't cha just love the build-up?
Once I heard that everything and everyone was ready, it was showtime. Drum roll, please. Collectively, everyone held their breath, especially me.
Kurt -- wearing sun glasses, his Padres jersey, warmup pants and his first baseman’s glove -- quickly followed the flight of the baseball. He followed the curvature of its path as it came hurtling toward him.
“THWOK!” was the sound as the baseball met Bevacqua’s glove.
And the crowd went wild -- screaming, cheering, applauding, ohh-ing and ahh-ing.
If you are scoring at home, that would be a fly ball caught by Bevacqua between 7th Avenue and “B” Street in San Diego.
Kurt then proceeded to run all over the street to catch the next four baseballs thrown by Kennedy. Thwok. Thwok. Thwok. Thwok.
The assembled crowd cheered and applauded with each catch. Kurt tossed each caught baseball as a prized souvenir into the frenzied crowd.
After the fifth catch someone in the crowd yelled out a challenge: Hey Kurt, catch the next ball behind your back! The fan said that he would add a hundred bucks to the pot.
Kurt asked the crowd, “Do you want me to try that?”
A roar of “no” was the response from the crowd. But Kurt said, “Let’s try it.”
Uh, oh. That was so Bevacqua. Perhaps I should have had an ambulance on stand-by. Too late now.
Kennedy throws. Here it comes. Kurt moves over towards the ball. He places his first baseman’s glove behind his back at waist level and leans over forward trying to catch the baseball. He misses it and the baseball clears his body and my heart starts beating again.
My thanks to everyone who helped make the idea became a reality -- especially Dirty Kurt and TK.
For heaven’s sake, we had a ball that August afternoon in 1982.