Friday, April 26, 2013

Rick Camp, 1953-2013

Rick Camp died yesterday, from causes as yet unrevealed, though an early determination by the coroner in Rydal, Georgia suggests there was no foul play, nor a violent suicide -- apparently, natural causes.  He was just short of his 60th birthday.

Rick Lamar Camp was born June 10, 1953, in Trion, Georgia, 95 miles northwest of Atlanta, grew up there,  and pitched for his home-State Braves from 1976 to 1985.  He had a career record of 56-49, with an ERA of 3.37, a WHIP of 1.386, and 57 saves.  His best year was the strike-shortened season of 1981, when he went 9-3, ERA 1.78, WHIP 1.053, and 17 saves for a 50-56 Braves team.  He pitched for the Braves in the 1982 National League Championship Series, but got rocked in his only appearance, losing a game to the St. Louis Cardinals, and that was the closest he ever got to a World Series.

By 1985, he had lost his effectiveness, and on October 5 of that season he pitched his last major league game.  But it was on the 4th of July that season -- or, more accurately, the 5th -- that he made himself a baseball legend.

*

The Braves were hosting the Mets at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and owner Ted Turner, showman that he was (and is), scheduled a postgame 4th of July fireworks show.  Paid attendance at the 52,007-seat concrete ashtray just south of downtown Atlanta was 44,947.

But the game was delayed by rain, and didn't start until 9:04 PM.  Rick Mahler started for the Braves -- and, like Camp, he would also die young -- and the Mets hit him hard, and he didn't get out of the 4th inning.  Dwight Gooden started for the Mets, and, in a year when he seemed to be touched by God, he was no better.  A second rain delay came, and Met manager Davey Johnson didn't take any chances, and he took Doctor K out.

Did I say Davey didn't take any chances? When they came back from the rain delay, he let Roger McDowell, normally a late-inning reliever, finish the bottom of the 3rd inning.  Terry Leach pitched the 4th through the 8th, but Davey brought in Doug Sisk, and he let the Braves score 4 runs in that inning to take the lead, 8-7.  This included a Keith Hernandez home run.  But future Hall-of-Famer Bruce Sutter blew it in the 9th, and the game went to extra innings.  At one point, Davey got thrown out of the game.

The Braves got 2 men on with 1 out in the bottom of the 11th, but the Mets got out of it with a double play.  In the top of the 13th, with 2 out, Ray Knight singled, and Howard Johnson hit a home run.  10-8 Mets.  But in the bottom of the 13th, Tom Gorman -- the only reliever the Mets had left -- allowed a leadoff single to Rafael Ramirez.  He struck out Dale Murphy and Gerald Perry, but then gave up a home run to Terry Harper.  10-10.  More baseball.

Gene Garber walked Lenny Dykstra and Hernandez in the top of the 14th, but got out of it.  Knight singled for the Mets in the top of the 15th, but got no farther than 1st base.  With 2 out in the bottom of the 16th, Ken Oberkfell singled off Gorman, and Bruce Benedict drew a walk.  But Gorman got out of it.

Camp, the Braves' last reliever, came into the game in the top of the 17th, and walked Gary Carter, but then struck out Darryl Strawberry and Gorman, and got Knight to ground into a force play.  Ramirez singled with 2 outs in the bottom of the 17th, but Gorman got out of it.

Top of the 18th.  HoJo led off with a single.  Danny Heep bunted, and Camp rushed it, and threw it away.  1st and 3rd, nobody out.  Dykstra hit a sacrifice fly, and it was 11-10 Mets.  Nothing Braves manager Eddie Haas could do, as Camp was it: The only pitchers he had left were starters, same as the Mets.

Bottom of the 18th.  Perry and Harper grounded out.  That brought up Camp, as Haas couldn't pinch-hit for him.  He had nobody left to bat or pitch.  This pudgy bearded guy, wearing Number 37 for his home-State team, came up to bat.  He came into that game 10-for-168 for his career -- a lifetime batting average of .060.  He hadn't gotten a hit since September 1, 1984.  He was 0-for-his-last-13.

John Sterling, now the main voice of the Yankees, but then doing games for the Braves, turned to his partner, Ernie Johnson -- who pitched for the Braves in Milwaukee and was the father of basketball announcer Ernie Johnson Jr. -- and said, "I'll tell you, Ernie: If hits a home run to tie this game, this game will be certified as absolutely the nuttiest in the history of baseball."

What do you think happened? Have you ever heard 8,000 people make as much noise as 50,000? You did if you were watching TBS -- or WOR-Channel 9 -- that middle-of-the-night.

Sterling:

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 game as the wildest, wackiest, most improbable game in history!

Mets 11, Braves 11.  And to make matters worse, Gorman walked the next batter, Benedict.  But he got Runge to ground into a force play, and we went to the 19th inning.

The Mets play a game this long every few years.  In 1964, they went 23 innings in a loss to San Francisco.  In 1965, they went 18 innings in Philadelphia before getting called due to a curfew, and it was replayed.  In 1968, they went 24 innings in a loss to Houston.  In 1974, they went 25 innings in a loss to St. Louis.  In 1986, they played what was then the longest game in NLCS history, going 16 innings in beating Houston to clinch the Pennant.  They had a few more 14+ inning games before their most recent marathon effort, a 2010 game in which they went 20 innings in beating St. Louis.

At some point in all this, Ralph Kiner, the great Pittsburgh Pirates slugger who'd been broadcasting for the Mets since the franchise began in 1962 (and still does one game a week at age 90), left the stadium, and returned to his hotel, and turned on the TV.  He saw the game, and thought it was a recap.  Nope, the game was still going on.

Finally, at about 3:30 in the morning, with only about 8,000 people left in the stands, the Mets decided enough was enough, that they'd had it with these mother-freaking Braves in this mother-freaking game.  They pounded Camp, who could not be relieved.  Carter led off with a single.  John Christensen, who'd pinch-hit for Darryl, bunted him over to 2nd.

Whoever was managing the Mets at that point -- it might have been 1st base coach Bill Robinson -- decided to let the next day's starter, Ron Darling, pitch the bottom of the 19th, and a few innings thereafter if necessary, since who knew if this game had another 9 innings in it, and sent Rusty Staub, playing one of his last games, up to pinch-hit for the exhausted Gorman.  Haas ordered Camp to walk Staub intentionally to set up a double play, but it didn't work: Knight doubled home Carter and sent Staub to 3rd.  (Staub wasn't fast even before he turned into a flame-haired Fat Elvis -- or, as Sterling called him in this game, "Babe Ruth.") HoJo was intentionally walked, and that didn't work, either: Heep singled home Staub and Knight, and the throw from the outfield was mishandled, and HoJo scored, too.  Dykstra flew out, getting Heep to 3rd, and Wally Backman singled Heep home, before Camp finally got Hernandez to ground out.

Mets 16, Braves 11.  Remember, this was the mid-1980s Mets, not today's joke of a club.  These Mets were good.  Surely, these Mets could hold a 5-run lead.  Surely, the Braves wouldn't score 6 runs and win it in the bottom of the 19th.  Or, potentially worse, score 5 runs and send the game to a 20th inning!

Darling came out, and got the first out, a groundout by Paul Zuvella.  But Claudell Washington hit a bouncer to 1st that Hernandez mishandled.  (No, Kramer and Newman were not in the stands to yell, "Nice game, pretty boy!") Claudell and his long neck got to 2nd.

No problem, Darling would get out of it, right? Sure enough, he got Ramirez to pop up.  One more out.  That left only the dangerous Murphy, the 1982 & '83 National League Most Valuable Player and still one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, but what could he do? A home run would make it 16-13.  But Darling walked him.  And then he walked Perry.  And now the bases were loaded for Harper, who had already homered.  And Harper singled.  Washington and Murphy scored.  Perry was on 3rd.  It was 16-13 Mets.  Men on 1st and 3rd.  A home run would tie the game.  Again.

And who was up? Rick Camp.

Darling struck him out on a high fastball.  Finally, mercifully, at long last, ballgame over.

Camp was the losing pitcher, but he won something more important than a baseball game.  He won a place in baseball lore.  It's 28 years later, and we're still talking about this mind-boggling game.

Oh yeah: Although the game was over, the night wasn't.  The game ended at 3:55 AM.  At 4:00 on the dot, Ted Turner kept his promise: The fireworks went off.  The 8,000 or so fans who hadn't left cheered.

People living near the stadium did not.  They heard booms and saw flashes of light, and they called the police, thinking that Atlanta was under attack.

*

Incredibly, Camp got 2 more hits that season, for a batting average of .231.  He closed his career 13-for-175, .074.  On-base percentage, .109.  Slugging percentage, .114.  OPS, .224.  OPS+, -39.  RBIs, 7.  Home runs, 1.

After leaving baseball, Camp became a lobbyist.  He got into legal trouble in 2005, indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to steal over $2 million from a mental health agency. He was convicted, and served 3 years in prison.  But everyone who met him seemed to say he was a wonderful guy.  Is it possible that, like Denny McLain, who went to prison on a similar charge, he simply got in with the wrong people?

At any rate, rest in peace, Rick.  You gave baseball fans a memory they might cherish, or they might not, but they will never, ever forget.

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