July 6, 2009


MLB’s greatest game ever (Chris Jaffe, July 06, 2009, Hardball Times)

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.

For whatever reason, a lot of folks have developed McCarver Derangement Syndrome, but this game occurred in his early years as a Mets broadcaster, when he'd revitalized Ralph Kiner just in time for the great Doc/Straw run of the team. Between the two of them they knew pretty nearly every story in baseball (Kiner used to tell a story about a joke he heard from Honus Wagner) and they meshed wonderfully. At any rate, one wishes the telecast of this game was available because by the time the game ended, at 4 in the morning, they were pretty punch drunk and for the last few hours they were hilarious.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 6, 2009 7:19 AM
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