Rick Camp, 59, died last week, presumably of natural causes.
A pitcher, Camp, spent his entire nine-year big-league career with the Braves. He was in the starting rotation on manager Joe Torre’s 1982 team that won its division. Three years later, however, Camp was a bullpen arm, Torre had been fired, and the franchise was entering a period of malaise that would last through the end of the decade. On the Fourth of July, Atlanta’s record was 34–41 and only San Francisco was behind it in the NL West standings.
Not yet a junior in high school, I experienced the summer of 1985 as another prolonged break from classes and the last one that did not involve holding a job. I recall watching the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks display from my parents’ apartment building in Brooklyn Heights and then hanging out with friends in the neighborhood. On returning home after midnight, I turned on the TV and was surprised to find that the Mets–Braves game was still ongoing and about to go into extra innings. (The game had started an hour late due to rain.)
Here’s pretty much what my mind remembers from the game that might end up becoming the most memorable regular-season game I will watch in my lifetime:
- Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle but also got robbed of a base hit when the second-base umpire did not see center fielder Dale Murphy, who had dived for the sinking line drive, drop the ball.
- Eventual Cy Young Award winner Dwight Gooden had started the game but lasted only two and one-half innings, presumably because of an in-game rain delay.
- Eventual Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter blew a save.
- Howard Johnson hit a home run with a man on in the top of the 13th inning; Terry Harper evened the score with a two-out, two-run blast off the left-field foul pole in the bottom half.
- Manager Eddie Haas summoned Camp, who by now was used almost exclusively as a reliever, to pitch the 17th inning
- The second batter he faced, Darryl Strawberry, was ejected after arguing a strike-three call. Skipper Davey Johnson was tossed as well.*
- After the Mets had taken a one-run lead in the top of the 18th inning, southpaw reliever Tom Gorman, who was in his sixth inning of relief, retired the first two batters. Since there were no more available position players left on the bench, Camp, a career .060 hitter, had to hit for himself. He fouled off the first pitch, then took strike two. The third pitch — I think Gorman threw him a slider — was unbelievably deposited over the left-field wall, tying the game once more.
- After the batted ball cleared the outfield fence, exasperated left fielder Danny Heep took both hands and placed them on top of his head. In contrast, Camp appeared to have the biggest sh*t-a** grin on his face as he rounded the bases.
- The Mets shook off Camp’s offensive heroics and battered him for five runs in the top of the 19th.
- Unbelievably, the Braves rallied in the bottom half off Ron Darling, usually a starter, and cut the lead to three. With two on and two out, up stepped . . . Camp.
- This time, Camp came up empty. At 3:55 a.m., he struck out to end the game.
- As the players staggered toward their respective clubhouses, the few thousand fans who remained were treated to the planned fireworks show.
- By the time Mets broadcasters Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver** said good night — or, more likely, good morning — I was passed out in the living-room recliner.
* According to Chris Jaffe of the Hardball Times, “When asked about it after the game, [home-plate umpire Terry] Tata responded with the words later engraved at the Tomb of the Unknown Umpire: ‘At three o’clock in the morning, there are no bad calls.’”
** Camp’s home-run shot on the Atlanta telecast was called by none other than current Yankees radio play-by-play man John Sterling, who called Braves games for Turner Sports from 1982 to 1987. (Thankfully, he had not yet come up with the “It is high, it is far” shtick.)
Camp finished the season with the Braves but was released before the 1986 season. He became a Georgia lobbyist and, years later, served two years in a federal prison after being convicted on an embezzlement charge.
Nonetheless, he remained popular in and around Atlanta and was always given a warm welcome when he showed up to Braves old-timers’ games.
Rest in peace. And thanks so much for the memories.