(CAPTION: RADIO VETERAN BERNIE FRATTO HAS BEEN A JOHNNY ON THE SPOT.) PHOTO: NORM CLARKE
In my upcoming book, which covers my career and the most inspirational people and events in that journey, I tweeted one of my top sports memories: The jaw-dropping finish of the 1980 Holiday Bowl in San Diego, where I was the main sports guy for The Associated Press.
BYU quarterback Jim McMahon’s grit was on full display in a 46-45 miracle comeback against SMU, which led 45-25 with just four minutes left. McMahon engineered three TD drives in the last 2:33, including a “Hail Mary” to tight end Clay Brown.
Las Vegas radio veteran and supreme storyteller Bernie Fratto saw the tweet and called me to chat about his memory of that barnburner and an amazing list of major sports happenings he’s witnessed.
Fratto had a personal connection to the “Miracle Bowl.” He was at the game. “I knew Clay personally as I had been recruited by BYU in 1978 to play baseball and took a visit there. He was a class act and treated me well. His catch will go down as one of the great in the annals of college football.
In July 1974 as a teenager, Fratto was at Dodger Stadium for a group event as part of a baseball camp. “Tommy John walked off the mound holding his left arm and the crowd was perplexed.” It was the injury that led to what led to the revolutionary surgery known as Tommy John surgery, which saved many a career.
He was at The Forum in Los Angeles 40 years ago on Dec. 9, 1977 for one of the scariest NBA brawls. The Lakers’ 6-foot-8 Kermit Washington nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets during the wild scene. Washington threw a roundhouse punch as Tomjanovich was arriving to play peacemaker. Fratto said Tomjanovich’s head “hit the floor with an unforgettable sickening sound. It was like a bowling ball being dropped from 10 feet.” Tomjanovich, an All-Star forward, suffered a shattered jaw, broken facial bones and serious head injuries. He made a remarkable comeback and regained All-Star status. But his career was shortened.
Fratto said he was at Caesars Palace’s outdoor arena on November 13, 1982 for the ill-fated world championship fight between Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and South Korea’s Kim Duk-Koo.
The slugfest was stopped in the 14th after Kim was knocked into the ropes and fell head-first onto the canvas. He died four days later. “His mother flies in from Korea to ID the body; she doesn’t do it. Distraught, she later commits suicide. Eerily, on a hotel lamp shade, Kim had scratch the saying in Korean, “Live or Die” – an unbelievable fight, an unthinkable tragedy.
“October 1986, American League Championship Series, Boston at Anaheim. Boston’s Dave Henderson hits an improbable home run off of Donnie Moore.” The Angels were one strike from going to the World Series. Henderson had replaced Tony Armas in centerfield after the latter was injured in the second inning when he slammed into the wall. “Moore, distraught, later commits suicide” (three years later).”
Fratto hasn’t lived down Game One of the 1988 World Series. “Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley. Full disclosure, I was leaving the game as it happened. Yes, I have to admit it.” Gibson limped to the plate with injured legs and hit a two-out, two-run walk-off home run to spur the underdog Dodgers to a 5-4 win. Los Angeles won the World Series in five games. The American League champions had won 104 regular season games.
A radio move to Detroit in 1993 added two more to his list – one an epic college football finish and the other a fight that rocked the sports world. This time Fratto was in the house – “The Big House “ — when No. 7 Colorado stunned fourth-ranked Michigan on a Hail Mary pass in front of 106,000 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan led by 12 with 2 ½ minutes left. The game winner came when Kordell Stewart threw the “Hail Mary” 73 yards to the goal line where CU wide receiver Blake Anderson leaped and tipped the ball away from a Michigan defender and back into the end zone where Michael Westbrook caught it before it hit the ground. Fratto remembers the crowd falling silent. “Interestingly Westbrook hailed from Detroit.”
On November 19, 2004, Fratto was on hand for what the AP described as “the most infamous brawl in NBA history” — “The Malice at the Palace.” He was covering the game for CBS radio WKRK 97.1 “and we were doing a remote roadcast from the lobby at the Palace of Auburn Hills.” The ugliness erupted with 45.9 seconds in the game between the Pistons and Indianapolis Pacers. The Pacers’ Ron Artest was at the epicenter of the blowup. After he and Detroit’s Ben Wallace got in a confrontation, Artest laid down on the scoring bench to relax. A fan threw a plastic cup at Artest and chaos ensued between players and fans. Artest lost almost $5 million in salary and missed the Pacers final 86 games. “By the way,” added Fratto, “one of the referees that night? Disgraced referee Tim Donaghy!”
I covered three of ‘em: the “Miracle Bowl” and the legendary home runs by Gibson and Henderson. Watch for more information on the release of my book next summer.
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