Monday, July 5, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again for John Sterling

It was 25 years to the day earlier, July 4, 1985, that John Sterling was a young man broadcasting for the Atlanta Braves on TBS, as the Braves hosted the Mets at Fulton County Stadium. Braves owner Ted Turner had promised fireworks for after the game, scheduled for a 7:05 start.

The game started very late due to a rain delay. After 3 innings, there was another rain delay. Afterward, not wanting to tax Dwight Gooden's arm, Met manager Davey Johnson decdied to bring in a reliever and make a double switch, but got into an argument with the umpire he was telling this to, and got tossed. The game went to extra innings. The Mets took the lead in the 13th, but Terry Harper homered to keep it going.

The game went to the 18th, and the Mets took the lead, 11-10. With 1 out to go, all Met reliever Tom Gorman had to do was get one more out. Because the Braves had run out of pinch-hitters, the Braves' current pitcher had to bat for himself. Stupid National League, and it's been 25 more years, and they still don't get it.

The batter/pitcher was Rick Camp. The Georgia native was 32 years old, pitching for his home-State team, and had been serviceable for them as both a starter (10-9 in 1983) and a reliever (22 saves in 1980). He had helped the Braves win the NL West title in 1982 and almost did it again in 1983. But, at this moment, he had a career batting average of .067. In other words, he got a hit an average of once every 15 times he came to the plate. He had exactly 5 major league RBIs.

The game had already seen all kinds of wacky occurrences, the kind that make you shake your head over it every few years when somebody says, "Hey, Mike, you remember the time when... "

And Sterling turned to his broadcast partner, former Braves pitcher Ernie Johnson (whose son Ernie Jr. now broadcasts for them), and said, "I'll tell ya, Ernie, if he hits a home run to tie this game up... (dramatic pause)... that'll certify this game as the nuttiest in the history of baseball."

Sterling's next words: "Now, the three-two pitch, and he hits it to DEEP LEFT! Heep goes back! It is... GONE! Holy cow! Oh my goodness! I don't believe it! I don't believe it! RICK CAMP! RICK CAMP! I told you, Ernie, if he hits it out... That certifies this as the wildest, wackiest, most improbable game in history!"

Tie game. We went to the 19th. The Mets decided that enough was enough, and scored 5 runs in the top of the 19th. Ron Darling was brought in to pitch the bottom of the 19th, but the Braves scored 3 runs, and it was 16-13, and the Braves got 2 runs on, and the tying run came to the plate again. In the person of... Rick Camp.
Hearing the broadcast, Sterling sounds as if he's going to have a heart attack if Camp so much as gets a hit to keep this thing alive again. But, no, Darling struck him out. Ballgame over, Met win.

The time was 3:55 AM, on July 5, 1985. There were 44,947 fans in Fulton County Stadium at the start. There might have been 5,000 left at the end. And, at 4:00, as promised... the fireworks went off. Local residents thought they were being bombed.


Incidentally, when you type "Mets Braves" into Google, this game is the first thing that comes up -- not their 1999 NLCS battle, not the Mets' 1998 collapse, not the 2001 first game back after 9/11, not even the 1969 NLCS when the Mets won their first Pennant.

I wish I could say that Camp was able to cash in on this, but that was his last season in the majors -- his final lifetime batting average was .074. On April 1, 1986, Bobby Cox, having been hired by the Braves as their new general manager after previously managing them and the Toronto Blue Jays, released Camp, Terry Forster, Len Barker and Pascual Perez, all pitchers who'd been good (and al pitchers who'd been quirky) at some points, and it became known as the April Fool's Day Massacre. Camp did have a sore arm, and no one picked him up.

He became a lobbyist, eventually earning $30,000 a month -- more than he was making as a player for most of his career. But in 2005, after years of heavy drinking and having been convicted in a sting along with several others, including a State legislator -- named Robin Williams, I swear, I'm not making that up -- he was sentenced to 3 years in federal prison for conspiring to steal more than $2 million from the Community Mental Health Center in Augusta, Georgia. Like another somewhat goofy pitcher who ended his career with the Braves before going to jail, Denny McLain, Camp still swears he was innocent.

He served 2 years, and is now out, sober, 20 pounds lighter (his weight was a running joke among Braves fans of the 1980s) and rebuilding his life, at last check in a sales position.

So, 25 years later to the day, the Yankees played the Toronto Blue Jays. Throughout the game, Sterling -- now famous (or infamous) as the voice of the Yankees since 1990, a supreme homer, producer of "It is high! It is far! It is... a foul ball!" (and other variations), and, of course, of the words every Yankee Fan wants to hear at the end of a game -- and Suzyn Waldman kept referring to the game in front of them as one of the craziest games ever.

And Sterling did mention the 4th of July marathon between the Mets and the Braves in '85. I did not, however, hear him use Yogi Berra's classic line, "It's deja vu all over again."

Phil Hughes started for the Yanks, but for the 2nd straight time after starting the season 10-1, did not get the job done over 6 innings, giving up home runs to Lyle Overbay (one of these guys who always seems to do well against the Yankees), DeWayne Wise and Adam Lind.

The Yanks trailed 4-3 going into the bottom of the 6th, with one of the Yankee runs scoring on a fluke play, Ramiro Pena hitting a grounder to shortstop Alex Gonzalez -- the one whose home run permanently branded Jeff Weaver with the middle name "Fucking" in my mind and cost the Yankees the 2003 World Series, and who, in the 2003 NLCS, benefited from the Steve Bartman play and an error from "the other shortstop named Alex Gonzalez," who is now retired -- who couldn't handle it, scoring Curtis Granderson.

In the bottom of the 6th, Jorge Posada got on base, and Brett Gardner, one day after hitting his 1st career grand slam, hit a ball that Toronto center fielder Wise butchered. Posada scored easily, and Gardner went all the way around the bases to give the Yanks a 5-4 lead. The official scorer generously awarded Gardner a home run. Mark Teixeira doubled home Derek Jeter in the 7th, making it 6-4 Yanks.

Damaso Marte and Joba Chamberlain each pitched a scoreless inning, and the lead looked safe. But Mariano Rivera, for only the 2nd time all season, blew a save when Wise, having balanced his home run with a play that allowed a "home run," singled home the tying run in the top of the 9th.

The game went to extra innings (of course), and in the bottom of the 10th, Joe Girardi sent Marcus Thames, in his first at-bat after coming off the Disabled List, to bat for Pena. He got a hit, scoring Robinson Cano with the game-winning run.

And John Sterling, who's seen so many crazy games over the years, finally got to say, as I called them, the words every Yankee Fan wants to hear at the end of a game: "Ballgame over! Yankees win! Theeeeeeee Yankees win!"

One bit of bad news, as the Yankees fly to Oakland to begin a weeklong West Coast roadtrip prior to the All-Star Game (conveniently, also on the Coast, in Anaheim): Posada sprained a finger, and, in words that always make us cringe as much as the injured player, "he's day-to-day."

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