A very long time ago, the Mets and Braves played 19 innings on the 4th of July in Atlanta. Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle, while Davey Johnson and Darryl Strawberry got ejected. There were rain delays, key blows by Ray Knight and Howard Johnson, pitching performances brave and determined and desperate by the likes of Doug Sisk and Roger McDowell and Tom Gorman and finally Ron Darling. There were fireworks that went off at 4 a.m., terrifying some residents of Georgia into thinking Sherman had returned.
And most indelibly, at least for me, there was utterly anonymous Braves middle reliever Rick Camp, who batted with the Braves down to their last out and behind 11-10 in the 18th. Earlier this week I met a fellow journalist for beers and it took us only a few minutes to go from checkpointing that we were both Mets fans to laughing incredulously at what Camp had done 28 years before. Facing Gorman, Camp swung and connected and the next sight was left fielder Danny Heep clasping his hands on his cap in a spasm of involuntary horror. The teams would play on, the Mets would score five in the top of the 19th, the Braves would claw back with two and damned if Camp didn’t come again as the tying run against an understandably disoriented-looking Darling.
Mercifully, the second time Camp struck out.
Greg, just out of college, watched and listened to it from a patchwork of Long Island locales. I, halfway through high school, watched in increasing disbelief from my parents’ couch in St. Petersburg, Fla., then wrote up a somewhat-crazed account of the game and sent it off to the local paper — the first time, now that I think of it, that I was ever moved to chronicle a Mets game and what it had been like to be simultaneously apart from it and trapped inside it.
The game has become legend, and deservedly so. But it’s a legend that still echoes through team history, perhaps never more oddly or eerily than today.
Today’s game was only 15 innings, was thankfully rain-delay-free (we’d had enough of those this week) and did not feature fireworks that will be mistaken for an enemy bombardment. And it wound up with the wrong team winning by a mere 5-4. But it had strangeness aplenty for all that — and lots of little brief-lived lessons in pluck and bad luck and inevitability.
First of all, can the Geneva Conventions be extended to ban Cody Ross from baseball? I’m sure fans of the cities where Ross has plied his trade like him just fine, but I’ve never been able to stand him — I haven’t loathed an opposing player this much since Michael Tucker. Wherein lies a terrible inevitability: Tucker, to my outrage, eventually became a Met. And Jim Leyritz also wore orange and blue, though mercifully only in spring training. I am grimly certain this means that Ross will arrive in a deadline deal one year, probably in conjunction with Greg Dobbs, the only guy I hate with vaguely comparable intensity. When that happens, it really might kill me, for I cannot abide Cody Ross’s smashed-up porcine features, his showboatery or (of course) his habit of beating us with apparent effortlessness. He’s an excrescence, an abomination, an ex-Marlin. In a couple of hours, when a chunk of blue ice falls out of the sky and smashes your car’s back window, you’ll know Arizona’s charter flight was overhead and Ross was using the lav.
Games like today’s leave you wondering if you’re watching a really taut duel or just gaping at crummy teams flailing spastically at each other, until you’re too tired to make up your mind. So both starters were good and then both bullpens were good, at least until the opposing managers found the unlucky relievers who didn’t have it. For them, it was Heath Bell and Chaz Roe; for us, it was David Aardsma, the currently dreadful [edit: and now pink-slipped] Brandon Lyon and finally Scott Rice.
But there was heroism too! Start with Anthony Recker, who walked to the plate in the 13th as the Mets’ apparent final out. Recker was 0 for 5 but had acquitted himself well in a couple of at-bats, lacking only the desired results. When he connected off Bell to keep the Mets alive, I flashed back to the game Recker lost against Florida with one of the worst innings I’ve ever seen for a catcher. If that had been Recker’s final appearance in a Mets uniform, suffice it to say there wouldn’t have been a rush to the barricades. Two months later, Recker’s not exactly lighting the NL East on fire, but he’s shown you enough to make you think he should get a chance to play more, or at least more than John Buck. Patience is a virtue!
Fairness then compels me to admit that the same gentle reminder should apply to Kirk Nieuwenhuis, whose strike-zone judgment has been pre-Vegas Ikean but who has shown a knack for pinch-hitting and late-inning homers — an inning after Recker kept the Mets alive, Nieuwenhuis hit a tracer that just topped the orange wall and somehow rattled through the bars of the fencing of the Party City deck. Amazing, though the amaze was brief-lived — Nieuwenhuis was the final out of the game, an anecdote that will give him something to discuss with Rick Camp should they ever wind up bending elbows together.
Plus there was a generous heaping of weirdness throughout: the misadventures of Arizona’s Tony Campana, whose speed is as startling as his ability to do dumb things on the bases; Gerardo Parra’s bunt double that just happened without being anyone’s fault; and Parra then short-circuiting the D-backs’ 13th by getting called out for running inside the line on his way to first. Even with six extra innings, that’s a whole lot of never-seen-that-before.
To say nothing of Keith Hernandez’s slow-motion meltdown as the game dragged on, punctuated by doleful sighs and Gary Cohen jabbing well-placed needle after well-placed needle into his broadcast partner. We were about an inning away from Keith collapsing into Dadaist poetry, which would have been entertaining provided he’d stayed away from thoughts on gender roles and kitchens, which is always a clear and present danger.
Oh, and then there were the kids who’d left the stadium in the eighth to run the bases, unaware that the game was in fact barely past the halfway mark. Presumably a good number of them were hauled off by exhausted parents before getting to run; I assume the rest grew up, went to college and started families, now and again stopping to wonder if anyone ever won that eternal and slightly interminable Mets game they attended once upon a time.
If so, those kids are luckier than we are. When Nieuwenhuis grounded out and the Mets had lost in a cool
1,776 346 minutes, I found myself surprisingly disappointed — and I realized something. It’s Independence Day, but being a Mets fan is a life sentence.