In 1985, the Mets earned their independence on July 5.
There are few phrases that can properly describe the 19-inning game that seems so etched in players’ memories, it might as well be woven into their DNA.
The game began on the evening of July 4 and included two ejections, multiple rain delays, Keith Hernandez hitting for the cycle and Rick Camp — one of the worst-hitting pitchers in baseball at the time — hitting a tying home run in the 18th before the Mets outscored the Braves 5-2 in the 19th for a 16-13 victory, mercifully ending it at 3:55 a.m.
And that still doesn’t completely describe the weirdness, the chaos and the sheer improbability of all these things converging exactly 35 years ago.
Ron Darling: “It was a game that made no sense . . . It was a Twilight Zone episode.”
Hernandez: “I was never, ever more exhausted after a game than I was after that one.”
Howard Johnson: “[When it ended] the guys that had already come out of the game were up in [the clubhouse] already hammered. They were knee-deep in beer cans. They were already toasted and laughing and high-fiving, and you’re just like, man, what else can we do this year? What else can happen?”
From the very beginning, the game looked to be trouble. It was Fireworks Night and it was pouring — the type of one-two punch liable to ruin a ballplayer’s day.
“I think everyone was on edge,” Darling said, “because ballplayers, whether it’s 1920, 1985, or 2030, they know on Fireworks Night on July 4, it doesn’t matter how bad it’s raining, you’re going to play at some point. So everyone gets a little angry, because they know they shouldn’t play.”
The first rain delay lasted an hour and a half before the game ever started, and after 2 1/3 innings, it came down again. That delay lasted 41 minutes, bouncing Mets starter Dwight Gooden from the game. He, in a show of sterling good judgment, called it a night and went back to the hotel. The rest of the Mets weren’t so lucky.
Parts of the outfield were nearly unplayable, with a swampy warning track, balls drowning in puddles, and various other misadventures that made Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium look like the world’s largest Slip 'N Slide.
Mets manager Davey Johnson, already annoyed at the conditions, played the game under protest after he wasn't allowed to make a double-switch when Gooden left the game.
In the sixth inning, Hernandez got one hit closer to hitting for the cycle . . . except he didn’t. He singled, one of the two hits he needed, but umpire Terry Tata incorrectly ruled that his line drive to center had been caught. Fortunately for Hernandez, he had a whole other 13 innings to get his home run and his single. He got the homer in the eighth and the single in the 12th.
“When I did get my base hit . . . Tata looked at me and said, 'Sorry,' ” said Hernandez, who added that it wasn’t even the most memorable hit of the game for him (that would be Camp’s homer).
Each team scored twice in the 13th, with Howard Johnson hitting a two-out, two-run homer and the Braves tying it on Terry Harper's two-out, two-run homer off the leftfield foul pole off Tom Gorman.
The game progressed in fairly unremarkable, if interminable, fashion after that — until the 17th. The score was tied at 10 when Davey Johnson and Darryl Strawberry got ejected for arguing balls and strikes.
Lenny Dykstra's sacrifice fly gave the Mets the go-ahead run in the 18th, and with no one on base and two outs in the bottom of the inning, all looked well and good when Gorman got ahead 0-and-2 on Camp.
A note on Camp: He was hitting .060 entering the at-bat and wound up with a career .074 batting average (think Bartolo Colon, only worse). He retired with exactly one home run in his nine years in MLB — the one he hit on an 0-and-2 pitch from Tom Gorman with two outs in the bottom of the 18th inning on July 5, 1985.
“Five percent of pitchers who hit are good hitters and then there are five percent that can’t hit at all and then everyone else is grouped into the middle,” Darling said. “Rick was one of those guys in the five percent that couldn’t hit at all. Except for that game.”
As Camp stepped to the plate and took his practice swings, Gary Carter, who caught all 19 innings, stood up and waved the outfielders in.
Camp looked almost sheepish as he waved his bat around. He swung hard and fouled the first pitch straight back, and John Sterling, then announcing for the Braves, applauded him for a good effort.
Said Sterling, “If he hits a home run to tie this game, this game will be certified as absolutely the nuttiest in the history of baseball."
Gorman got the call on a breaking ball away to go ahead 0-and-2 and then came right at Camp with a fat pitch up in the zone. Big mistake.
Darling watched the no-doubter homer to leftfield from the top step of the dugout. Third baseman Ray Knight threw his hands in the air. Howard Johnson, the shortstop, dropped to his knees. Dykstra collapsed to the ground in center.
Darling: “I knew as soon as he hit it . . . Everyone was like, well, this game has had everything and now it’s had more than everything.”
Hernandez: “I had the same reaction [leftfielder Danny Heep] had. He put his hands on his head. I was in disbelief. I remember looking at Gorman and Gorman looking at me like, ‘I didn’t mean to do it!’ ”
Howard Johnson: “In my mind I’m going, that looks like a home run . . . just couldn’t believe it. I watched Danny drop his glove. It was one of the weirdest games I’ve ever been in.”
Sterling, on the broadcast: “Holy cow! Oh my goodness! I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! . . . That certifies this game as the wackiest, wildest, most improbable game in history!”
More Sterling: ''I mean, if you told me that John Sterling's going to run for president and win, that wouldn't be any more improbable, and I gotta tell you, that's improbable. Un-be-lievable . . . That's the most amazing thing that's ever happened, in baseball. That's mind-boggling . . . The odds on that have to be a million to one. Ten million to one. What do I know.''
The Mets ended up scoring five runs in the top of the 19th. Darling, who had pitched two days earlier, had thrown a bullpen session that day and would pitch two days later, was called in to close it out. He didn’t mind: “I think everyone wanted to be in the boxscore.”
He allowed two runs before recording the final, blessed out: Camp, who struck out.
The fireworks went off at 4 a.m., frightening area residents who thought Atlanta was under attack.
The time of the game was 6 hours, 10 minutes, not counting the rain delays, which tacked on more than two hours. There were 22 walks and 46 hits, including 28 by the Mets, who left 20 runners on base. Carter and the Braves' Harper had five hits each and Wally Backman matched Hernandez with four.
The clubhouse, full of players who hadn't set foot on the field in hours, was littered with Chick-fil-A wrappers and beer cans. "It was full of half-drunk guys who were so excited for these adrenaline-pumped dudes coming off the field," Darling said. "It was a weird clashing of people in different mindsets. They were so emotional over a kind of nothing game in the middle of July."
The ride back to the hotel was nothing short of delirious, even giddy. They were riding in an articulated bus — the ones with the accordion structure in the middle — and the streets were flooded.
“We were going down a hill and the bus bottomed out because there was a three-foot puddle,” Darling said. “All the water rushed onto the bus and everyone’s feet got wet and pants got wet and no one complained. No one said a swear word. Everyone just laughed. Bring it on.”
In the end, it was another team-bonding experience for the juggernaut that was to become the ’86 Mets. It was long, exhausting and bizarre, and, in Howard Johnson's words: “I remember saying this is the greatest game I’ve ever played in.”