Braves’ ‘nuttiest’ night: A home run by Rick Camp and 4 a.m. fireworks

Mets catcher Gary Carter waves in his team’s outfielders just before Braves relief pitcher Rick Camp hits an 18th-inning home run in a legendary 1985 game.
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Mets catcher Gary Carter waves in his team’s outfielders just before Braves relief pitcher Rick Camp hits an 18th-inning home run in a legendary 1985 game.

Editor’s note: At a time when sports are shut down, we are taking a look (in no particular order) at some of the bizarre moments from Georgia sports history.

John Sterling, still wide awake in the Braves’ broadcast booth at 3:22 a.m., set the scene perfectly and prophetically.

“Ernie, if he hits a home run to tie this game, this game will be certified as absolutely the nuttiest in the history of baseball,” Sterling said to his TBS partner Ernie Johnson Sr. as Braves relief pitcher Rick Camp batted in the bottom of the 18th inning in a legendary game 35 years ago.

The Braves trailed the Mets 11-10. The game had been twice delayed by rain. The calendar had turned from July 4, 1985, to July 5. Camp was batting with two out and no one on base because Braves manager Eddie Haas had run out of pinch-hitters. Mets catcher Gary Carter waved in his team’s outfielders, imploring them to play shallow against Camp, a career .060 hitter at the time.

Long kidded by teammates about his helpless hitting, Camp fouled off the first pitch and took a called strike on the second. Then, on an 0-2 count, he inexplicably homered over the left-field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, tying and prolonging the already wild game. It was the first and last home run of Camp’s nine-year big-league career, all spent with the Braves.

“Holy cow, oh my goodness! I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” said Sterling, exuding the same enthusiasm that late night that he has shown for the past 31 years as a New York Yankees broadcaster. “Rick Camp! Rick Camp! I don’t believe it!

“Remember what I just said: If he hits a home run, that certifies this game as the wackiest, wildest, most improbable game in history.”

Consider it so certified.

Consider its place secure in any compilation of bizarre moments in Atlanta sports history.

Perhaps no single home run in Braves history – other than Hank Aaron’s 715th on April 8, 1974, and David Justice’s in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series – has been more talked-about or more cherished through the years.

As soon as Camp’s homer left the bat, Mets third baseman Ray Knight threw up his hands in exasperation. As the ball cleared the fence, Mets left fielder Danny Heep put his hands on his head in disbelief. Center fielder Lenny Dykstra dropped to his knees. Up in the broadcast booth, Johnson said: “We’ve got to look at this (replay) another 50 times.”

“The whole thing was incredible,” said Dale Murphy, who played center field and went 1-for-8 with two walks that night. “I’ll never forget it.

“I’ll never forget that home run. I’ll never forget that game.”

The Braves ultimately lost the game, 16-13, in 19 innings, one of their 96 losses in 1985. The Mets scored five runs against Camp in the top of the 19th. The Braves scored two runs in the bottom of the inning before Camp again came to the plate with two out. This time, he struck out with two runners on base to end the game.

It was 3:55 a.m.

And the long night at the ballpark still wasn’t over.

The Braves had promised postgame fireworks, as they always do on the Fourth of July. So, four hours into the fifth of July, they decided not to disappoint the 8,000 or so folks who remained from the night’s original crowd of 44,947. The fireworks show began at 4:01 a.m., and phone calls immediately poured in to Atlanta police headquarters from stadium neighbors awakened and alarmed by the noise.

The prevailing reaction, a police spokesman said at the time, was that fireworks at that hour were “inappropriate and ill-advised.” Some folks reported that, when awakened by the noise, they thought Atlanta was being bombed.

Caption
Rick Camp, just before hitting his famous 18th-inning home run.

Rick Camp, just before hitting his famous 18th-inning home run.
Caption
Rick Camp, just before hitting his famous 18th-inning home run.

Chris Mortensen, then an Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports writer, covered the game. (Yes, the same Chris Mortensen who would become nationally known as an NFL reporter on ESPN.) His story, published on the front page of the afternoon Atlanta Journal on July 5, 1985, began: “In what was the longest, the latest, and maybe the greatest major league baseball game ever played in Atlanta, the New York Mets beat the Braves 16-13 in a 19-inning marathon that ended at 3:55 this morning.”

Accounts of the game quoted Camp as saying: “I’ll always remember the homer, but it was a hard thing for me to do that and then go out and suck up a loss. I’d rather have the luck on the mound. I’m supposed to get them out, not hit ’em out.”

Home-plate umpire Terry Tata had said to Camp when the weak-hitting pitcher came to bat in the 18th inning: “Might as well hit it out and we’ll play all night.” After the home run, Tata would bellow: “I was joking!”

Camp's big-league career ended when the Braves released him at the end of spring training in 1986. The Trion native later worked as a lobbyist at the state Capitol. He spent nearly two years in federal prison after a 2005 conviction as one of five defendants in a conspiracy to defraud an Augusta mental health facility. He died at age 60 in 2013 at his northwest Georgia home.

Camp won 56 games and saved 57 as a Brave from 1976 through 1985, but nothing he did on the mound could top what he did at the plate past 3 a.m. against Mets reliever Tom Gorman’s hanging forkball.

“I thought I was dreaming,” teammate Bob Horner said of Camp’s homer that night.

“I’ve never pitched at 3 a.m. before,” Gorman said after the game. “But then, I guess they’ve never hit at 3 in the morning, either."

Caption
Rick Camp is congratulated by Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa after his 18th-inning home run that tied the game against the Mets.

 Rick Camp is congratulated by Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa after his 18th-inning home run that tied the game against the Mets.
Caption
Rick Camp is congratulated by Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa after his 18th-inning home run that tied the game against the Mets.

The game didn’t begin until 9:04 p.m., the start delayed one hour and 24 minutes by rain, and it was stopped for another 41 minutes by more rain in the third inning. The game lasted six hours and 10 minutes, not including the rain delays. The teams combined for 46 hits, 28 by the Mets and 18 by the Braves, on a soggy field. Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle.

The Mets’ starting pitcher, 20-year-old Dwight Gooden, who won the National League Cy Young Award that season, was removed after the second rain delay. The Mets played the remainder of the game under protest because of a dispute about an attempted double-switch when Gooden left.

The Braves took an 8-7 lead when a three-run double by Murphy capped a  four-run rally in the eighth inning, but relief pitcher Bruce Sutter gave up the tying run in the ninth, sending the game spiraling into extra innings. The teams traded two-run homers in the 13th, Howard Johnson for the Mets in the top of the inning and Terry Harper for the Braves in the bottom, and kept playing. Harper’s homer, one of his five hits in the game, came against the same pitcher, Gorman, as Camp’s would five innings later.

In the 17th inning, the game still 10-10, Mets manager Davey Johnson and right fielder Darryl Strawberry were ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Tata, the home-plate umpire, reportedly told Johnson: “Davey, at three o’clock in the morning, anything’s a strike.”

After the Mets scored a run against Camp in the top of the 18th, the remaining fans, mostly sticking around for the fireworks, were rewarded with the most improbable home run in Braves history. And even after the Braves lost the game in the 19th, many of the fans still at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium gave the team a standing ovation for its endurance.

Five words from the great Dale Murphy in the Braves’ clubhouse at about 4:15 a.m. summed it all up: “I can’t explain this game.”

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