If everything had gone according to plan, Rick Camp would have never left the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium bullpen on the 4th of July 1985. The Braves jumped out to a 3–1 lead on Doc Gooden and the New York Mets, but it was going to be a weird night. Gooden was out of the game in the third. Braves starter Rick Mahler was lifted in the 4th and his replacement, Jeff Dedmon, promptly gave up the lead to the Mets. The Mets expanded their lead throughout the game and the game went to the bottom of the eighth with the Braves down 4 to 7. The Mets sent Jesse Orosco, an All-Star each of the previous two seasons, to the mound to shut the Braves down.
That’s what should have happened. The game should have been over. Instead, Ken Oberkfell singled and Rick Cerone followed with a walk. Orosco settled down striking out Brad Komminsk before getting Paul Zuvella to fly out to center. It would be an understatement to say that the usually reliable Orosco hit a rough patch. He simply couldn’t find the strike zone. He walked the free swinging Claudell Washington to load the bases. He then walked Rafael Ramirez allowing the Braves to close the lead by a run. With Dale Murphy coming to the plate, Davey Johnson pulled Orosco for Doug Sisk. Murph laced a double to the fence clearing the bases and giving the Braves an 8–7 lead. That’s the lead the Braves took to the ninth.
Again, the game should have been over at this point. The previous December, the Braves signed Bruce Sutter to a big free agent contract. It was a big deal at the time and it was the move that the Braves hoped would make their fans forget about the Len Barker trade. Sutter had already established himself as one of the greatest closers in the history of the game. His performance with the Cubs and the Cardinals had made him a bona fide star. He would eventually enter the Hall of Fame. Certainly, it seemed like a lock that he would shut down the Mets and the game would be over. Instead, he gave up three straight singles to Howard Johnson, Danny Heep and Lenny Dykstra allowing the Mets to tie the game.
The tenth, eleventh and twelfth innings passed without either team threatening. Then, in the top of the thirteenth, with two outs, Braves reliever Terry Forster gave up a two run homer to Howard Johnson. Up 10 to 8, the Mets brought in Tom Gorman to shut the Braves down. If he had, I doubt anyone would remember the game. Rafael Ramirez led off the inning with a single, but Gorman set Murphy and Gerald Perry down on strikes. Improbably and impossibly, he couldn’t get Terry Harper. Instead, Harper belted a home run to tie it up. The game was now on the path that made it legendary.
* * * *
I think it’s hard for a lot of younger Braves fans to realize just how popular the Braves were on TBS. The team was, despite performing poorly on the field more years than not, a national phenomenon. Without the Superstation, guys like Dale Murphy, Bob Horner and Phil Niekro would have still been national names. Thanks to TBS, guys you wouldn’t expect to have a national following, did. I’ve travelled through much of the country for work and where ever I go, when people find out I’m a Braves fan, they drop names like Bruce Benedict, Glenn Hubbard and Rafael Ramirez. You’d expect people in Atlanta to be fans of these guys, just not people across the country.
Rick Camp is one of those guys. He had a scruffy disheveled look that made him relatable to the average fan. He was never a great pitcher, but he always seemed to make the most of what he had. (He did, in 1981, receive MVP votes and finished 20th in the race. That’s really inexplicable.) He wasn’t great, but he didn’t need to be. The Braves weren’t a terribly good team so it was easy to keep a guy who pitched barely above replacement level who was a fan favorite around. People in Atlanta loved the pride of Trion, GA. Braves fans across the country loved Rick Camp.
Fortunately for baseball fans of the Braves from that period, it’s easy to find Rick Camp baseball cards. It was a different time and all of the major manufacturers made the effort to get as many players as possible into their sets. Today, it would be shocking if a player like Rick Camp got more than a care or two over the course of his career. At the time, he got one in every major set, every year of his career.
It may surprise some that when Rick Camp passed away this past week, baseball fans everywhere knew who he was. Braves fans all over the country could picture Rick Camp in their mind. Braves fans all over the country could remember him coming in from the bullpen on the Superstation. Braves fans everywhere could remember that 4th of July game against the Mets.
* * * *
By the time Rick Camp entered the game to pitch in the 17th inning, it’s safe to say there weren’t many Braves fans left watching the game on TBS. It was already midnight on the west coast when he took the mound. Strangely enough, for the game on which his reputation rests, Camp didn’t pitch especially well. His first inning went without incident, but he ran into trouble in the 18th. He gave up a single to Howard Johnson to start the inning. He followed that up with an error on a Danny Heep bunt that sent HoJo to third with nobody out. Camp needed a strikeout, but Lenny Dykstra flied out to center and Johnson scored. The situation already looked dire for the Braves when they came to bat down a run in the bottom of the 18th. After Perry and Harper both grounded out to start the inning, a comeback looked impossible.
The Braves bench was depleted so manager Eddie Haas had no choice but to let Rick Camp bat for himself. John Sterling was on play by play for TBS, and his words proved prophetic.
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.
On a night where Jesse Orosco walked the bases loaded, Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter blew a save, and Terry Harper hit a game tying 12th inning home run, Rick Camp accomplished the most amazing and startling feat of the game. A pitcher with four extra base hits in his career hit a home run to tie the game in the bottom of the 18th. The stadium wasn’t full when he did it. The majority of the fans who watched the Braves religiously on TBS had already turned in for the night. No matter. Every fan in the stadium made themselves heard and I think it’s safe to say that in the living rooms of those homes where people were still awake there were fans screaming in the excitement of the moment. In the midst of a period of Braves baseball that didn’t yield a lot of memorable moments, this one has stayed with everyone.
The home run is what everyone remembers and that’s good. Camp came unglued on the mound in the 19th and the Mets put five runs on the board. Remarkably, the Braves staged another come back in the bottom of the frame, but after getting two of the runs back, Rick Camp struck out with runners on the corner to end the game. (It was four in the morning in Atlanta and the Braves decided to go ahead with their 4th of July post-game fireworks display.)
According to FanGraphs, Rick Camp put up a career WAR of just 5.4. There are literally hundreds of players in that range. One thing we can say for certain is that very few players of his talent level left us with a memory like the one Rick Camp left us that 4th of July in 1985.
Rest in peace Rick Camp, dead at the age of 60.