MLB’s greatest game ever

It’s one of the great bar stool and water cooler conversation starters in all baseball fandom: what was the greatest game ever played? In general, the same handful of games get mentioned: the 1975 Fisk game, the 1951 Thomson game, the 1960 Mazeroski game, and so on.

A common theme permeates: these contests were not merely great games, but also greatly important ones. Heck, they were Important Games even before the first pitch was thrown.

Strangely, the above paragraph is precisely why I personally don’t pick one of the usual suspects as the greatest game. Allow me to explain. It might be a bit convoluted, but it centers on the nature of being a baseball fan versus that of other sports.

The pretentious part: my rationale

Let’s start with some cross-sport comparisons. I know a slew of NFL fans, but the NFL is purely a TV event for them all. I can’t think of a single person I know who has ever seen an NFL game in person. I’m sure if I asked everyone I’d find a few who have, but watching games in person is tertiary (at best) to the NFL experience. There are only eight home games, after all.

NBA fans are more likely to watch the games in person than NFL fans, but it’s not like the bond baseball fans have with their stadiums. There are only half as many NBA games as there are in MLB, and the stadiums hold only half as many seats. Plus most of it occurs in the brutal days of winter, which is enough to push many from wanting to venture out on icy roads.

Baseball fans are different from their NFL and NBA brethren. Going to the games is more common. Not all fans go every year, but plenty do. The relationship between fans and stadiums is different from other sports. There are books written about visiting every stadium in a year. That doesn’t happen with other sports. No one calls NFL buildings cathedrals.

(Admittedly, I believe NHL fans watch in person, but it’s such a distant fourth place it’s easy to forget it exists. In Chicagoland, where I live, it was difficult to find anyone who cared about, let alone watched it prior to Hawks owner Bill Wirtz’s death in 2007.)

On a personal note, seeing games in person is a key part of baseball’s allure. I can’t really explain why except to say that baseball on TV is merely something you watch, while a game in person is something you experience. I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way.

This leads to the problem I have calling an Important Game the best ever. They are primarily TV affairs. (That’s especially true in Chicago, which has hosted two World Series games in the last 18,169 days.) Since the games are Events, those who are fans can get lost in the shuffle with those with connections who just like going to happenings. Even if you live in the right town, in the rush of demand it can be tricky to get tickets (or to afford them, if you have to go to a scalper).

Thus for me the best game should be a meaningless regular season affair. I know whenever I go to the ballpark, I always think to myself that something really cool could happen there that day. Maybe a great back-and-forth contest, or a furious comeback or a no-hitter will occur. Again, I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way. Best of all, perhaps something that never happened before in baseball history will occur that day. That would be the ultimate baseball fan experience.

If you want to talk about something unprecedented happening, one game stands alone.

Baseball’s greatest game: Braves-Mets, July 4-5, 1985

Which, however belatedly, brings me to the topic of this column. When you look solely at what happened on the field before the fans, the pinnacle of baseball-dom happened in Atlanta almost exactly 23 years ago. It had no impact on any pennant race and no greater importance beyond what happened on the field that day. From my perspective, that’s perfect.

This had a very unpromising start. It was raining all day in Atlanta, and though the skies eventually cleared up, the game’s start had been pushed back by more than a little bit. Another rain delay early on kept everyone milling about even later. Ultimately, the ninth inning didn’t arrive until the wrong side of midnight.

The field conditions sucked. A ground ball single died in shallow center because the ground was so wet. So much water squirted up with every roll of the ball it looked like a slip’n’slide out there. In fact, a slip and slide is exactly what happened in right field at one point. When Atlanta’s Claudell Washington went to get one ball, he planted his foot only to find out there was too much water to stay planted. He went “Wheee!” away from the ball, and his slide allowed at least one Met run to score.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the waterlogged conditions, the first seven-and-a-half innings would be eminently forgettable, as the Mets took a 7-4 lead. This was the prologue.

Atlanta’s offense was offensive that year—tenth in runs despite playing in the Launching Pad—but it suddenly sparked in the bottom of the eighth. After loading the bases, Met reliever Jesse Orosco issued an RBI walk to shortstop Rafael Ramirez. Normally averse to taking pitches, that was only the second time in 2,785 plate appearances that Ramirez had walked in a run. Immediately afterward, Dale Murphy doubled home three more runs to give Atlanta a sudden 8-7 lead. The few fans hardy enough to sit through all the rain went crazy.

With Bruce Sutter relieving for the home team, the game appeared over. Though the future Hall of Famer tied the existing MLB record with 45 saves the year before, he didn’t have it this night. With three successive singles, the Mets tied the game, 8-8. Extra innings beckoned. It was a good game so far, but nothing special. Oh, how that would change.

After three innings of offensive deadlock, the Mets went ahead in the 13th inning, when Howard Johnson went deep with a man on first to put the Mets up 10-8, a difficult lead for the offensive-impaired Braves to overcome or even meet.

Despite allowing a leadoff single to Ramirez in the bottom of the inning, Met reliever Tom Gorman fanned the next two batters. Atlanta’s last out was Terry Harper, who hit .157 the year before. This, however, was another year. They say anything can happen on any given day, and Harper seemed determined to prove that notion true. To the surprise of the Mets, he blasted a ball off the left field foul pole to tie the game, 10-10.

And so it remained for the next several innings as neither side could push another run across the plate as the hours dragged on. Since the NL had no curfew, that game set the record as the latest contest in MLB history.

In the 17th inning, home plate umpire Terry Tata ejected Met star Darryl Strawberry and manager Davey Johnson for arguing a called third strike. When asked about it after the game, 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.”

Next inning, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. The Mets capitalized on Brave reliever Rick Camp’s throwing a would-be double play ball into the outfield, and scored the go-ahead run for an 11-10 lead.

Atlanta had the bottom of their order due up. The hitters looked as weary as they must have felt. In a handful of pitches, the first two batters each feebly grounded out. At 3:30 a.m, the Braves were down to their last man; not only was it the pitcher’s slot in the order, but they had no more position players left to pinch hit.

Thus Rick Camp strode to the plate, representing Atlanta’s last and least hope. Even for a pitcher, he was never much of a hitter in his decade-long career. A few years earlier he’d gone 1-for-41 on the season. Now a reliever, he rarely even hit. This would be his eighth plate appearance on the year, and he hadn’t had a hit all season. As he faced Tom Gormon at 3:30 a.m. on what was now July 5, 1985, his lifetime batting average was .060.

Gorman, now in his sixth inning of work, saw no need to mess around with Camp. He quickly got two quick strikes on the hapless “hitter.” Brave fans still in attendance—and one truly had to be a fan to stay in attendance this late through all that rain and time—could at least console themselves that it had been a hard fought battle, even if Atlanta was doomed before the better team.

Ah, but here is where the game became something for the ages. Part of the appeal of sports is that you never know what will happen next. What has just happened and what ought to happen merely serve as indicators for what could and should happen, not what will. The next moment was so ridiculous, that it defied all logic and a damn good chunk of all illogic. An ape on a typewriter would have a better chance typing out the complete works of William Shakespeare by sheer happenstance than a repetition of this at-bat.

When Gorman threw his third pitch, Camp went for broke on the 0-2, two-out offering and took a mighty swing. Crack! He made contact, and the ball floated out past the infield, into the outfield, beyond the wall and to the stunned horror of the Mets, landed in the bullpen for a game-tying home run. The Met outfielder in pursuit was so shocked he fell to his knees and grabbed his head with his hands. The fans were ecstatic, as well they should be, for if any fans deserved to see something great, it was the small band still in the stadium. Suffice it to say, it was not just Camp’s biggest career home run, but it was his only one. The game went on, tied 11-11.

You know the Braves were in trouble when Camp left the dugout to pitch the 19th inning. Fresh from his first and last homer, he had an unstoppably huge grin on his face. Upshot: he was not in the best frame of mind to pitch. In the space of three singles, a double, and two intentional walks, the Mets had a 16-11 lead, putting the game away.

Or was it out of reach? As difficult as it might be to top a five-run lead in the 19th inning, that would be nothing compared to what happened in Atlanta’s previous turn at the bat. The Mets weren’t leaving anything to chance, putting in star starter Ron Darling to pitch.

By all rights, it should’ve been an easy 1-2-3 inning. Two of the first three batters made simple outs. The inning stayed alive because Keith Hernandez, normally a superlative fielder, made an error to put a man on. With two outs, Atlanta went into its surreal clutch mode: two straight walks loaded the bases, and a single scored two runs. 16-13.

Not only that, but incredibly the tying run came to the plate. Again. Surely enough—you could not script it any better—the batter was the very last man on planet Earth the Mets would want to see represent the tying run with two outs in this Twilight Zone of a game. That’s right, up there stood the god himself: the man, the myth, the legend, Rick Camp, only now he stood tall with a whopping .065 career batting average. Though the rain had long since stopped, I like to think a dramatic thunderclap occurred when he stood in the batter’s box and faced Darling.

Just like last time, Camp fell behind quickly, and he stared down the barrel of a 1-2 count. At 3:55 a.m., Camp was in a perfect position to certify his position as the all-time grand master of the fourth hour of the morning, game-tying homer.

Darling threw his pitch and Camp swung. Somehow, someway, the ball miraculously sneaked past the uber-fearsome batter. Strike three. Game over. Camp, the most disappointed hitter since Mudville cut Casey, slammed down his bat on the plate in frustration. One can only assume in his previous 168 at-bats he had never been nearly so upset by any of the 83 earlier times he’d fanned.

The fans weren’t disappointed. How could they be after witnessing a game like that? Even the players in the Brave dugout stood and applauded as the game ended.

However, many others would soon be very upset. You see, like all games scheduled for the Fourth of July, this one advertised a fireworks display. And sure, even though the sky was beginning to lighten, the Braves began exploding their picturesque bombs promptly at 4:01 a.m. The noise woke up many in the neighborhood, causing many frightened souls to call the police, claiming Libya was bombing Atlanta!

Postscript: a personal note

One summer, about 10 years ago, I looked at the TV Guide and noticed that ESPN Classic was going to show portions of this game. I’d always heard about it, but had never seen it, so I had to catch it. (That’s why I could give much of the detail.)

Afterward I looked up newspaper accounts of the game on microfilm and printed them out. (I sent one to Rick Camp and got his autograph.) Later, in a summer class in grad school, I told a fellow student named Anthony Giacalone about it. Turns out he was a big baseball fan, too.

When he found out that I was also a fan (and into sabermetrics) he started giving me print ups from a website I’d never heard of before called Baseball Prospectus. When he formed an online fantasy baseball league, I joined it. Then he told me about a website called Baseball Primer, and I’ve spent a good chunk of the last decade there.

I spent much of the 1990s casually and sporadically following baseball. For example, you know the 1996 season? I don’t. Watching the Rick Camp game began a series of events that lured me back in.

I know this postscript negates the point of the pretentious part at the outset, as a TV event got me back into the game. However, I think it’s the greatest game not because of my personal connection to it, but because it really does seem like the ultimate baseball fan experience. As I noted at the top, going to games is more central to the baseball fan experience than it is with other professional sports, and the regular season games are the ones any fan can go to with relative ease.

There’s never been another game like that one, and there probably won’t be another one, yet every time I’m at the park I find myself thinking/hoping that maybe that will be that next one. And that keeps me coming back. God knows it ain’t the way the blasted Cubs usually play.

References & Resources
Much of this comes from watching the game on ESPN Classic, though I dimly remember watching some highlights on ESPN Sportscenter at the time. An old (and long gone) copy of Total Baseball mentioned that the homer was hit at 3:55 and the fireworks went off at 4:01.

I didn’t have room to mention this in the article, but Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle in the game, including a homer that left the park in about three seconds. Also, before both Harper and Camp hit their shots, the Atlanta announcers quipped, “If this guy can hit a homer right here, this will be the screwiest game ever.”

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Comments

  1. Dave Studeman said...

    That Met outfielder in pursuit was Danny Heep.  His reaction was classic.  I’ll never forget it.

  2. Eriq Jaffe said...

    You do, in fact, know at least two people personally who have seen an NFL game live.  I’ll give you three guesses.

  3. Chris J. said...

    “You do, in fact, know at least two people personally who have seen an NFL game live.  I’ll give you three guesses.”

    Well, obviously Mom is one . . .

  4. Will Young said...

    I was at the Twins-Tigers 16 inning game a couple of nights ago and was telling my wife about this one.  Now I can pass along the link.

  5. Gary from Chapel Hill said...

    Believe it or not, I was at that game… for the first eight innings.  Got up the next morning and couldn’t believe what happened after we got home and went to bed.

    The three things that still resonate with me from that game:

    1) Seeing an Atlanta Constitution box from across the street the morning after and knowing something was up because they put the LOONNNNGGG linescore above the masthead;

    2) Rick Camp’s HR;

    3) Reading about how everyone in the neighborhood was calling the cops when the fireworks started going off at 4:00 in the morning;

  6. Eric said...

    It was the summer before my senior year in High School.  I had been out watching our town fireworks, was going to bed around midnight.  I flipped the TV on Channel 9 and was amazed that the game was still on.  I was riveted for the next 4 hours.  Wildest game I ever saw.  What I remember most was Camp’s HR and the fireworks.

    Thanks for the great memories.  Super piece!

  7. Ricky West said...

    Man, do I remember that game. I was watching the game when lightening struck the house next door. It caught fire & I called the fire department. Went next door to see if anyone was at home (thank God, they weren’t) and stayed there for over an hour, till the fire was out. Came back in the house, & the game was still on! Braves down by a run and it was just at that time when Harper hit the foul pole! I will never forget Camp’s HR. You had it right when they said if he hits one here, it will make the game certifiable!
    Unless you followed the Braves then, you had no idea how bad a hitter Camp really was! It was just unbelieveable. Also, remember that Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle that game, all after the ninth inning!

  8. SW said...

    I was seven years old and went to the game.  We always went to the Braves game on the 4th of July.  We had terrible seats, top row of the upper deck, but that kept us dry through the multiple rain delays.  As a young kid, it was a thrill just to get to stay up that late, so even though I hated Terry Harper, I called his shot to tie it in the 10th.  At 3:30am my mom had had enough, and made us leave.  We heard the roar from the Camp homer in the parking lot.  I had to listen to the end of the game on the radio, but will never forget my favorite all-time independence day.

  9. Don Smythe said...

    My new wife and I were staying at my in-laws on the night of July 4, She called it a night after a rain delay in the third (I believe) inning—another interesting note is that Dwight Gooden, in the midst of one of the great pitcher’s seasons of all time, started, wasn’t great and didn’t come back after the rain. I decided I’d stay up and watch for a while. I kept watching … and watching … and watching. Made it all the way to the end, much to the consternation of my wife, who thought I was kidding about the game. In the pre-Internet age, it wasn’t until July 6, when the newspapers had the follow stories (and the box score) that she finally believed me.

  10. DG said...

    Was 16 that year.  I remember most everything from the game (at least from the 8th inning on).  I also remember my Mom waking up from the noise I was making after Camp’s homer.  She used to have to get up at around 5am, back then, to get ready for work and was none too happy with the noise.  (Can’t understand why she wouldn’t appreciate the historical nature of what had just happened, especially at 4am…hmmm.)

  11. TJ said...

    I was 11 at the time of the game…I went to Astoroia Park in queens to watch the fireworks display. Listen to the game on the radio, got home watched the game with my father until 1…Went to sleep woke up at 3 to see my father still watching the game… And watched the rest of it with him… I was and still am a Yankee fan but I always remember this night… it was a once in a lifetime game… Thanks for posting this article, my father died 9 years ago and every fourth of July I think of this game and Rags no hitter in 1983 (I was at that game)….

  12. Gerry said...

    I think the competition would be the Philadelphia at Cleveland game of 10 July 1932. Start with this: Eddie Rommel gave up 14 runs on 29 hits and 9 walks – in 17 innings – in relief – and won.

  13. Rick Camp said...

    I never hit a ball like that before and I never did again.  But as a pitcher, I’m still mad I didn’t win the game.

  14. Scott said...

    This was certainly a classic…I was a kid in Hawaii at the time and remember watching part of the game shortly after it started (we got TBS, so I saw a lot more Braves games than any other team).  Later on that evening (HAWAII TIME) I was at a 4th of July party and someone turned the game on…and I was shocked that it was still going.

  15. Norm said...

    Another detail—Howard Johnson scored four runs in spite of the fact that he only entered the game in the ninth inning as a pinch hitter.  I would guess that three runs scored in extra innings has got to be a record.

    My vote for the greatest game ever goes to the game between the Dodgers and Phillies on 09/30/51.  With the Dodgers in a win or go home situation, they came back from deficits of 4-0, 6-1, and 8-5 to tie the game at 8-8 in the 8th.  Then Don Newcombe and Robin Roberts, BOTH working on less than 20 hours rest after starting the night before, matched up into extra innings.  Jackie Robinson bailed Newk out with a diving catch in the 12th, and then homered in the 14th to win it.  Almost as much action as this game, with the pennant on the line every minute.

  16. Rick said...

    I’ve always believed that I am the only person outside of those involved to have seen every pitch of that unbelievable game. My howl of agony over Rick Camp’s homer at 3AM woke up my roommate who couldn’t believe I was still watching the game. One point you didn’t mention—-Gary Carter caught the entire game for the Mets, and led off the 19th inning with a base-hit that started the winning rally.  The 4AM fireworks were the perfect ending to that surreal marathon. As Rusty Staub (a pinch-hitting specialist by that time who played the field in that game and made a running catch) said the next day, “I’ve played a lot of ballgames in my career, but that sucker ranked.”

  17. Dennis McMahan said...

    I almost 15 years old and on vacation at the Oregon coast for the 4th back in 1985.  I must have come back from the fireworks show on the beach to see that the Braves game (thank God for TBS back then) was still going.  I sat transfixed, watching that game which must have lasted until 1 am Pacific time.  The memory of that game is indellibly marked in my mind as one of the most fantastic games in the history of baseball.  It was truly remarkable.

    I certainly don’t remember all of the details from Chris’s description but I do remember Rick Camp’s improbable home run and the fireworks show after the game was over.

  18. Roger said...

    I was about 15.  My grandmother and I sat up all night watching that game.  Great game, but as usual, the Braves break your heart in the end.

    Skip Carey would often mention that game in the years that followed and tell of the hotel guests in the area commenting on the storm (fireworks) that came though that night.

  19. TZig said...

    I was 18 then and playing summer baseball in Oklahoma.  The host home I was staying at had cable (& WTBS) and a few of the guys were over that night.

    By the last out, there were still about four of us watching.  We were so worn out knowing that too soon that day we had to play a doubleheader.  But I remember thinking about what Camp had done earlier and realizing that just about anything was possible.

    Cool memories.  Thanks for the reminder.

  20. Ed said...

    In a report on the game on TV the next day, an Atlanta reporter was interviewing an elderly African-American woman who lived near the stadium about the 4:00 a.m. fireworks and, besides saying she was startled from a sound sleep, she exclaimed “I thought that Sherman was bombing Atlanta”

  21. Scott said...

    I wasn’t even alive for that game and i still hear about it all the time.  That right there says that it was one of the greatest games in MLB History.

    And i have seen plenty of football games live.

  22. Stephen said...

    Man, I still remember that game!  My best friend and I were calling each other every inning or so, just to make sure that what we saw happening was really happening, and not some sleep deprived hallucination.  One detail not mentioned – in the bottom of the nineteenth, as the Braves were starting their latest rally, the fans were starting to chant “We want Camp!  We want Camp!”  Sure enough, they got him up as the tying run.  Thank God he struck out – if he hadn’t the game might have gone on for another two days!  And yes, I also remember Danny Heep falling to his knees in shock when Camp tied the game on the home run.  Great, great game – especially since the Mets won!

  23. Paul said...

    I watched this game at the time on TBS, from my parents’ L.A. home.  I caught the first few innings, then went out to celebrate the Fourth.  Around 11 pm PST, I was flipping channel and noticed the game was still on, and watched it till its completion – god, I remember that Camp HR, and his huge smile – like it was yesterday.  I remember how shocked I was that they still did the fireworks show.  One for the ages…

  24. Andrew Misura said...

    My best game i went to was in 2006 mets vs phillies where the mets were down a good bit in the 8th, and then jose reyes hit the game tying hr, then the gm went on to 16 innings and beltran won the gm on a walkoff.  is there any way to look up games from past years, because i wanna read the play by play of it.

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