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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Why do the Founding Fathers curse the Mets from beyond the grave?
Posted by Jill | 6:21 AM
As any longtime Mets fan (or Mets victim, if you prefer) knows, July 4 weekend is fraught with peril. Yesterday's game was no exception, and today's promised to be no better. Saturday's game saw the Mets facing the hapless Washington Nationals -- and Stephen Strasburg, the 6'4" hype-machine phenom.

I don't know what it is with the Mets and the Nationals. Even when the Mets are great (and this year they still only qualify as "pretty good at times"), the still can't seem to figure out one of the worst teams in baseball. They can take two out of three from the Yankees, and then lose two out of three to The Team Formerly Known As The Montreal Expos. I'd say it's a question of concentration, but yesterday saw one great infield play by David Wright, aggressive baserunning, an ability to lay off enough Stephen Strasburg fastballs to make the young phenom look like Nuke Laloosh after five innings, scratching out a few runs on almost no hits, a great outing by the crafty pickup-off-the-scrap-heap R.A. Dickey, and what should have been a satisfying 5-3 win.

Until Frankie Rodriguez came to the mound in the 9th.

I remember when there was such a thing as a closer. I remember when Jesse Orosco was good enough that if he came out, you could turn the game off and go get dinner. I remember when Randy Myers would come out and you could turn the game off and go to bed, confident that the game was in good hands. Those days are long gone. It all started with "Heart Attack Johnny" Franco, and it's been downhill ever since.

They call him "K-Rod", as if giving him a moniker similar to the third baseman in the Bronx will somehow turn him into a similar kind of machine. But with now five heartbreaking blown saves this year, one wonders how anyone could think he's a stopper, and where one can find the factory that produced Mariano Rivera -- the real stopper across town who at 40 shows no signs that he's ready to relinquish the role.

It must be something about 4th of July weekend. I can hardly bear to watch today.

But of course I have to, because today is the fourteenth anniversary of the greatest, looniest, craziest Mets game ever played. And remember, this is the team that took sixteen innings to take the pennant against the Houston Astros and Bob Knepper in 1986 and went on to take the World Series the day after Bill Buckner entered the same Hall Of No Fame as Ralph Branca. It was The Infamous July 4 Game Against Atlanta.

Mr. Brilliant and I had gone into the city for the Macy's fireworks, and then to get something to eat with friends. We came home, watched a few extra innings, and fell asleep, only to wake up around 3 AM to hear broadcaster Steve Zabriskie say, "If you're just tuning in now, write in and tell us why." Of course we stayed up to watch the rest of it, and sure enough, there were fireworks after the game ended. At 4:00 AM.

But what I remember most about that game is this, described brilliantly last year by Chris Jaffe, who called that game "MLB's greatest game ever":
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!

In his book "If at First", Keith Hernandez described how the next day, Tom Gorman (I wrote about this in 2006 and erroneously said it was Terry Leach) received a call in his hotel room from a caller who simply said, "Rick Camp? You gotta be shitting me!" -- and promptly hung up. And the player Jaffe refers to was Danny Heep, who last time I saw him at the closing of Shea Stadium looked like he could still play.

July 4. Hot dogs. Baseball. Everything that makes America great. Except that these days, it doesn't feel so great. And watching the Mets reminds us that no matter how well you think you're doing, utter futility is just around the corner.

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