Bernie Night Resurrected

USA TODAY Sports

In this episode, we relive “Bernie Night,” the goofiest night of a season that redefined “goofy.” And, big tease here, we identify the true originator of the Bernie Lean. Hint: His name is Gussie.

The world of baseball promotions is not all root beer and fireworks. Just ask Troy Smith, Senior Marketing Director, and Heather Rajeski, Senior Manager of Promotions & Events, for the Oakland Athletics. If they were to co-author the definitive work on promotions, Chapter One would probably be: Do NOT Give Away Orange Baseballs.

Based on Charlie Finley’s old, not-so-wacky idea to color baseballs orange, the A’s once engineered Orange Baseball Giveaway Night. "All it took was one bad ump call before the orange baseballs came flying out of the stands," Troy recalls. "At one point, they actually had to pull the teams off the field. We took a lot of heat for that one."

Heather, too, knows the vicissitudes of the business. She tells the story of another team’s bobblehead giveaway that was delayed because poor weather in China prevented the paint on the dolls from drying. Fortunately, the A’s haven’t missed any of their giveaways but it’s hard to relax. "The most random things can happen," she says. "I have become way too familiar with shipping schedules, customs, and weather, anything that can affect a cargo shipment."

Of course, they have never experienced extreme failures like the White Sox’ Disco Demolition Night riot or the Cleveland Indians’ Ten-Cent Beer Night fiasco, but any promotion carries an element of risk. "That’s why we plan these things so far in advance," Troy says, "so we have time to deal with all the things that go wrong."

Troy, Heather, and their colleagues in promotions and events, work all year round on their task. The A’s do 20 to 25 promotional events per season, every one requiring the efforts of an army of staffers and subcontractors. Even successful promotions, like Fireworks Nights, can be stressful.

"Fireworks are the most consistently successful promotion we do, by far," Troy says. "This year we’re doing six shows, the most ever. Doing that many shows puts pressure on you to top yourself."

As Troy speaks, I can almost see beads of flop-sweat on his brow. A life in promotional events means a life of schedules and crises, a grind of meetings and hassles, deadlines, budgets, and stress. Indeed, it sounds a lot like your job, except for one thing.

Every so often, the Promotion Gods will smile and send you a Bernie Night.

A Brief, Mostly Accurate Retrospective

Jerry Blevins was the first Athletic to succumb to the Bernie epidemic. He played the 2010 ISA rap rendition of "Movin’ Like Berney" in the A’s locker room. ISA had been inspired to create his masterwork by another epic, the 1993 sequel, "Weekend at Bernie’s II." In that movie, the corpse of Bernie Lomax is resurrected by voodoo.

The ISA tune infected Brandon Inge, refugee from the Detroit Tigers, who quickly exhibited the wobbly back-bend contortions associated with the Bernie epidemic. Inge even adopted "Movin’ Like Berney" as his walk-up music. Like flu on a road trip, the wobblies spread to other team members, most notably Coco Crisp. Coco adopted a different Bernified anthem as his walk-up music, however, "Bernie Lean" by the two-man group, ATM & IMB. Mass team back-bending began to appear following any stellar Athletic field accomplishment.

The right field fanatics were enthusiastically infected. At an Athletics Fireworks event, even costumed Star Wars stormtroopers were seen doing the Bernie. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, trapped in the Bernie bleachers during one extra-inning game, called for emergency backup. (No one answered the phone.) Other sections of the Coliseum crowd started wobbling like Saint Vitus’ Dance patients. Dogs and cats started living together. Mass hysteria! The Bernie epidemic reached sell-out proportions on Bernie Night, September 1, 2012, with the appearance of professional movie corpse, Terry "Bernie" Kiser.

A minor footnote to the season of Bernie: The A’s won the American League West Division.

A Night to Remember

"We had already been talking about the Bernie because our players were doing it," Heather says. "Then we started thinking, ‘What could we do with that?’ ‘Weekend at Bernie’s?’" After a quick IMDb search, Heather sent an email to the PR agency representing Terry Kiser, the actor who played Bernie in the movie. Within an hour, she had a response. Bernie was in!

The rest, as Bill Murray said, is hysteria. The Athletics’ infatuation with Bernie the Twitching Cadaver had taken on a goofball life of its own. "That’s what you want," Troy says. "You want this organic, grassroots type of thing. All we were doing is giving it a little more publicity."

Several weeks before the official Bernie Night, ATM & IMB showed up at the Coliseum to film a video of "Bernie Lean."

"Near the end of the shoot, I asked Coco Crisp if we could use his car in the video," Troy says. "Coco drives a Rolls-Royce. He said, ‘Sure,’ and he just tossed me the keys."

Soon, not only was Coco’s car in the video, but Coco himself joined in, tooling his Rolls around the player’s parking lot with ATM & IMB wobbling in the back seat. Josh Reddick couldn’t resist and joined the procession in his car. This was the result:

"The great thing about the Bernie was everybody was doing it–10 and 12-year-old kids to grandpas in their 70’s, a whole spectrum of fans." Heather says.

So, who does the best Bernie? Heather is diplomatic. "Coco, Inge, and Reddick were all pretty good." Troy is definitive, however. "Coco does the best Bernie," he says flatly. "Coco’s Bernie is unparalleled."

Kiser entered the Bernie Night picture the Friday before the official promotional event. He viewed the game from the Diamond seats while just behind him, young fans were Bernie Leaning with Bernie masks. The next day Kiser emerged in his full-on theatrical ham mode. He toured the locker room and was embraced by the players like a long-dead relative returned to life.

The strangest request Heather got that night was from the umpires. They wanted to meet Bernie! Sure enough, minutes after Kiser arrived in the umpire’s room, the entire crew was getting autographs, posing for pictures, and doing the Bernie. Heather says she has photos but she is prevented from releasing them by Major League Baseball’s "No Fun" covenant.

After that, Kiser was unbound. He threw out the first pitch but only after doing a face plant, a hip twitch, and a Bernie wobble. (According to some accounts, Clay Wood, the Head Groundskeeper, witnessed Kiser’s display and cried, "Dear God, not on the infield grass!") After tossing a lifeless first pitch, Kiser was off to the TV booth and the right field bleachers to judge the Bernie contest. There and then, Heather had a vision few promotions managers ever experience. "I was out in the right field bleachers trying to organize the Bernie dance contest," she says. "I looked out across the stadium and there were just thousands of people doing the Bernie. It was crazy!"

A few interesting notes about Terry Kiser: He has a degree in industrial engineering. He studied acting at the legendary Actor’s Studio in New York under Lee Strasberg. He has been nominated for a Tony award (for Neil Simon’s "God’s Favorite.") On September 1, 2012, the date of Bernie Night, the evening Kiser humped the infield grass before a sold-out crowd of Bernie nuts, he was 73 years old.

And Now…The Big Reveal

Many misconceptions exist about the origin of the Bernie. I am here to clear all that up. The Athletics did not originate the Bernie Lean. Urban legend has it that the "Bernie" started with the 1989 movie, "Weekend at Bernie’s." Wrong! If you were to guess the spasmodic dance actually debuted in the cleverly-titled 1993 sequel, "Weekend at Bernie’s II," you would be closer but still wrong. Some of you hipper types might even guess that rapper ISA started the Bernie with his 2010 tune, "Movin’ Like Berney." You, too, would be wrong.

The truth is, the Bernie Lean was originated in the Drones Club, the 1920’s enclave of British upper-class silliness frequented by fictional twit, Bertie Wooster. The progenitor of the Bernie wobble was none other than Wooster pal, Gussie Fink-Nottle, an admirer of newts. Don’t believe me? Here it is, from May 13, 1990, (three years before Weekend at Bernie’s II), episode 4 of the BBC "Jeeves and Wooster" series starring Hugh ("House") Laurie and Stephen Fry. Richard Garnett plays Gussie.

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