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Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Updated: December 28, 12:03 PM ET
Bill Robinson, 1943-2007

By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2

When former major league outfielder Bill Robinson was found dead in his Las Vegas hotel room this past July, the ensuing obituaries evoked his 16-year career; his 104 RBIs for the 1977 Pittsburgh Pirates; his work as the Dodgers' minor league hitting coordinator and his early-1990s stint as an ESPN analyst.

Somehow, nobody mentioned the smoking shoe.

Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson hit 24 home runs in helping the Pirates win the World Series in 1979.

Ah -- the shoe. Ask nearly any '86 Met about Robinson and tears of sadness immediately turn to tears of laughter over what may well be the greatest prank in baseball history.

In the bottom of the second inning of a game at Cincinnati that May, Robinson, the Mets' first base coach, was digging through a bag of sunflower seeds in the New York dugout. As "Uncle Bill" (as he was called by the players) munched away, reliever Roger McDowell was lying beneath the bench at Robinson's feet, a Marlboro cigarette and a roll of gaffer's tape in one hand, a fully loaded book of matches in the other. McDowell removed the staple from the matchbook, wrapped the book around the cigarette and taped the two together. Then, gently as a Key Largo breeze, he adhered the contraption to Robinson's left cleat. When the inning ended, McDowell lit the cigarette and wormed his way to the other end of the dugout.

As Robinson rose from the bench, McDowell and his teammates expected the shoe to light up. But it didn't. Robinson strolled out to first base. He watched the pitcher warm up. He yelled encouragement to Darryl Strawberry. He clapped his hands. He adjusted his cap. Finally, as Gary Carter approached the plate after a Strawberry single, the smoke began to emerge. Then it happened. Whoooosh! Robinson morphed from baseball coach to pig roast. The flame shot up his shoe and along his leg, and he jumped up and down, screaming and kicking.

"It was like NASA just launched something," McDowell said years later. "The greatest hotfoot ever. And Bill, to his credit, never got mad. He just said, 'You won't get me anymore. I'm done with that.'"

McDowell nodded. By season's end, Robinson fell victim to at least 15 more shoe lightings.

He endured each one with a smile.

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer. You can reach him at anngold22@gmail.com.