No End in Sight

Thousands of baseball books have been published. Millions of baseball stories have been written. Every one of them starts with the same basic understanding: two teams, nine innings, balls, strikes, runs, hits and errors. Along the way there are various twists and turns ending in perfect games, no hitters, walk off home runs and everything in between.

No two games are the same, but many are alike. They all come back to the final out. Strike three. Game over. But what happens when a game goes on and on and on … with no apparent end in sight? Then, when the moment seemingly arrives, hope is dashed by improbability. There was a major league game like this. It was played on July 4 (and July 5), 1985. This is the story, as told by those who played, reported, broadcast, watched and witnessed it.

Extra innings changes everything. The game of baseball is redefined. To score is to win. To err is to lose. Strategy is discarded. Position players become relief pitchers and relief pitchers are pinch runners, and occasionally hit home runs.

On Independence Day 1985 at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves played 19 innings, the equivalent of two baseball games (plus one inning) including two rain delays (totaling two hours and five minutes), 29 runs, 14 pitchers and 43 players, 155 official at bats, 115 outs, 615 pitches, 46 hits, 23 walks, 22 strikeouts, five errors, 37 stranded base runners, six lead changes, a cycle, two players were ejected and the most memorable moment was recorded by the losing pitcher Rick Camp.

Camp was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1974. He grew up on a farm in Georgia. He went to school and played ball in Georgia. He drove a pickup truck with Georgia license plates and the team agreed to give him a tractor as part of his deal. Now he was going to pitch for his hometown team. Camp was close to living his dream.

“To hit a home run in the big leagues — that was my dream,” said Camp. Prior to signing with the Braves he hit a lot of home runs, all of them as a designated hitter at West Georgia University where he attended college.

By July 1985, the odds of Camp seeing his dream come true seemed gone. He had 10 hits and a career batting average of .060.

“He couldn’t hit his way out of the cage when he’d take BP,” said former teammate Paul Zuvella.

Camp had been moved to Atlanta’s bullpen. The chances of him even getting an opportunity to bat would take, I don’t know, maybe a couple rain delays, a lot of pitching changes and extra innings. Good luck with that.

The Mets arrived in Atlanta for the July 4th weekend, grumpy. The team was slumping, winning three of their previous 11 games. When rookie Len Dykstra dug in to lead off the game after an 84-minute rain delay most of the sellout crowd was still in the ballpark.

Sporting a golf ball size wad of tobacco in his left cheek, Dykstra choked his pine tar covered bat about six inches from the handle. He weighed 155 pounds according to the Mets 1985 media guide. He was 30 at-bats into his major league career.

Back in New York, Mookie Wilson, the Mets regular center fielder in 1985 was watching from a bed in Roosevelt Hospital, one day removed from arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder to repair torn cartilage.

Dykstra dropped a bunt past Rick Mahler. Glenn Hubbard charged from second and bare-handed the ball to Bob Horner at first. Dykstra, in typical hard-nosed style, stumbled over the base, nearly colliding with umpire Jerry Crawford before being called out.

After Wally Backman legged out an infield dribbler, Keith Hernandez stepped to the plate. Mahler fired to first. Backman slid back safely. Mahler persisted, trying again … and again … and again …

Pete Van Wieren doesn’t own a Ouija board. He has no psychic powers. He has never been to a tarot card reading, but he does have an amazing sensory perception on matters related to the diamond. “At the rate this game is going the big 5th of July fireworks show will be presented right after the contest,” he said as the pickoff attempts continued like a broken record.

Mahler finally caught Backman leaning too far. As Crawford signaled Backman out, the Met second baseman slowly climbed to his knees and stared out at Crawford from underneath his helmet. The long give-and-take seemed to last longer than the 84-minute rain delay.

After Hernandez lifted the next pitch into left-center field for a double, Gary Carter grounded a single into center field. The ball took two hops and stopped dead in the rain-soaked outfield grass. Braves center fielder Dale Murphy raced through the puddle, scooped up the ball and fired it back to the infield. After a Darryl Strawberry single, advancing Carter to second base, and a George Foster walk to load the bases, Mahler struck out Ray Knight to end the inning.

A tall, thin, 20-year old Dwight Gooden was on the mound for the Mets. He was pitching on three days rest for the first time during the 1985 season. He would go on to win 24 games with a 1.53 ERA in 276 innings pitched. In 35 starts, Gooden pitched 16 complete games. His season performance cinched the Cy Young Award, claiming 120 votes, almost twice as many as John Tudor of the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished second (21-8).

Claudell Washington led off the Braves first inning with a triple. The 44,947 in attendance were on their feet. One pitch later, Rafael Ramirez grounded out to shortstop, scoring Washington. It took the Braves four pitches to tie the game.

Gooden followed by walking Murphy on four straight pitches, prompting Carter to zip halfway out between home plate and the mound to settle Gooden down.

Gooden walked Horner on four pitches; eight straight balls.

Terry Harper dug in and Gooden shoved a fastball on the inside corner at the knees for strike one. He sent Harper back to the bench on three pitches. It was as if Gooden pushed some internal on/off button.

“Just three years ago he was pitching to high school kids,” said the late Skip Caray. “My goodness, just think what that must have been like?”

Rick Cerone had missed three weeks due to a sore shoulder. He was activated two days earlier, but hadn’t played in a game since his return. His first at-bat came after a long rain delay against Gooden. Could the cards be any more stacked against the 31-year old Cerone?

“He probably said, ‘Thanks a lot!’ when he saw Gooden out there,” said Caray sarcastically. “He hasn’t played in a month.”

Cerone slashed the first pitch from Gooden to Mets first baseman Hernandez. The ball caromed off his midsection and he bare-handed a sidearm throw to Gooden covering first to end the inning.

“Back in the ‘70s, Atlanta had one of the worst infields in baseball – but there were a lot of bad infields in the old days,” said Hernandez. “I never liked fielding in Atlanta because it was so hot and everything baked. I always had to do a lot of gardening there, but by the ‘80’s, it was a very good infield.”

The rain returned in the third inning and Terry Tata stopped the game. Two nights earlier in San Francisco, Tata was informed by Major League Baseball he would the acting crew chief for the series in Atlanta, replacing Harry Wendlestedt, who was ill (Wendlestedt did not return to umpire until July 18).

“I took a redeye off the west coast and arrived in Hartford, Connecticut, spent some time with my wife and then took a flight from Bradley Field and arrived in Atlanta at 5pm,” remembers Tata. By the time he arrived at Fulton County Stadium it was already raining.

The Atlanta Braves employed two full-time groundskeepers and an estimated 25 part-time employees to help on game days. Sam Newpher, now the groundskeeper for Daytona International Speedway, was the head groundskeeper at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in 1985.

Newpher stayed in close contact with the National Weather Service at the Atlanta airport. The weather service could pinpoint the time and location of the incoming storm and its relation to the stadium.

In the press box the media were already playing weatherman. “Everyone working at the ballpark lives in different parts of the city, so it’s not at all uncommon for someone to call home and see if it’s raining in that part of town,” said Van Wieren. “Then you start hearing, ‘well it’s not raining in Dunwoody!’ Then Skip will say, ‘Well, let’s go up there and play.”

Newpher watched as the second rain storm soaked the tarp.

“All of the drainage was surface drainage which drains off to the outside edge (of the field) into two surface drains,” he said. “It was a turtle shell type mound with the center of it being about 25 feet behind second base. Keep something in mind, if a tarp is on the field and you dump the tarp, you’re taking a couple thousand gallons and just going plop in one spot,” he said.

Van Wieren watched the rain fall from the Braves press box. He glanced at his scorecard, then the stadium clock and back to the field. He took a deep breath and exhaled, well aware of how late this game was going to end.

“The team wasn’t very good and sellout crowds were very rare,” said Van Wieren. “We had a sellout crowd that night and the team would do everything in their power to get that game in so they could get the gate.”

When play resumed 41 minutes later, Mets manager Davey Johnson announced he was taking Gooden out to avoid risk of injury. It marked the first time in 27 starts dating back to Aug. 11, 1984 that he had failed to go six innings. Gooden, unhappy, retreated to the Mets clubhouse and began drinking.

The Braves took their only lead of the game, 8-7, scoring four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. But the Mets tied it in the ninth. By the time the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves began extra innings the calendar read July 5. Still, fans moved to the edge of their seats. Not in anticipation of a win, but the post-game fireworks.

When the Mets came to bat in the 12th inning, Hernandez was a single away from the cycle. He had doubled in the first off Mahler, tripled in the fourth off Jeff Dedmon, homered in the eighth inning Steve Shields.

Hernandez would be facing Terry Forster. He needed his brother, who was home in San Francisco. Hernandez dashed back to the Mets clubhouse, called the operator and asked for an outside line.

“He was my good luck charm,” said Hernandez. “He always came down on West Coast trips. When we left San Francisco he’d come with me to San Diego and L.A. – and I always killed San Diego and L.A.”

Ironically, eleven years earlier on September 11, 1974, as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, Hernandez pinch hit against the Mets in a 25-inning game at Shea Stadium. “That was my first year,” remembered Hernandez. “I pinched hit in the ninth off Harry Parker and Dave Schneck robbed me of a home run.”

The Cardinals eventually won, 4-3, after seven hours, four minutes and 25 innings. The Mets went to the plate 103 times and the Cards with 99 plate appearances and a major-league record 45 runners left on base. The game ended at 3:13 a.m., the longest game played to a decision without a suspension.

Hernandez singled off Forster to complete the cycle. Superstition rules.

Van Wieren stared at his scorebook. Nothing good could come in the 13th inning, maybe that’s why most scorebooks have 12 innings he thought. “Once you run out of innings in your scorebook it’s improvise time,” he said.

The Mets took a 10-8 lead in the 13th inning. Finally the end was in sight – finally. To his left, Van Wieren’s wife Elaine and two sons (Jon and Steve) sat, waiting for the fireworks.

All Tom Gorman needed now was three outs. After a leadoff single by Rafael Ramirez, the Mets left hander struck out Dale Murphy and Gerald Perry. One more out. Gorman zipped two strikes past Terry Harper. One strike left. Let the fireworks begin. Harper obliged, lining a two-run homer off the left field foul poll to tie the game again.

“I just looked over and they had their head down like, ‘we’re never gonna get out of here,’” remembers Van Wieren.

“You wondered where it’s going to end,” said Caray, remembering Harper’s home run in an interview years earlier. “When (Rick) Camp hit his (in the 18th inning), you figure, we’re going to go on forever. Once is amazing. Twice is incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life and I never think I will.”

The Braves broadcasters weren’t the only ones wondering.

Paul Zuvella was called up just a couple weeks before the July 4th game. His high school buddy Chris Hopson flew in from Milpitas in the Silicon Valley, south of San Jose, California to visit Zuvella and catch a game.

“That was the first game he had come to,” said Zuvella. “Poor guy, he was one of the very few remaining at the end.”

Zuvella was inserted in the sixth inning and faced five different pitchers in seven plate appearances – sidearm pitcher Terry Leach, Jesse Orosco, Doug Sisk , Gorman and Ron Darling – going 0-for-7.

“That, I do remember,” he said. “I remember hitting the ball hard. I hit some line drives right at people. I’m thinking, ‘How unfair is this?’”

“Pitchers tend to have an advantage in that type of game,” said Zuvella. “That’s why they keep throwing the zeros up. It gets a little tougher offensively as the game goes on. You start to think, is this game ever gonna end?”

Both teams put up zeros in the 14th, 15th and 16th innings. In the 17th inning, with nerves frayed, Tata called strike three on Strawberry. As he walked away, Strawberry “had some choice words” and Tata ejected him. “I still see the pitch today when they show it on ESPN Classic. It didn’t look like a bad pitch.”

As Strawberry walked back to the dugout, Mets manager Davey Johnson jogged toward Tata. The argument heated quickly.

“When Davey Johnson gets in my face and I turned my hat around backwards so I could get right in his kisser,” remembers Tata. “As I am looking over his shoulder there’s a digital clock along the first base line and it reads two – five – seven. It’s 2:57 in the morning and I say to Johnson, ‘It’s three o’clock in the morning, everything looks like a strike.’”

Tata ejected four managers, coaches or players in 1985, two of them within 60 seconds.

“The one thing you don’t put in your mind is the hope that it will end,” revealed Tata. “It will end naturally. You can’t root for a guy to hit a home run or driving in the winning run. You’ve got to block that out of your mind and concentrate on the game. Once you start hoping for that it’s going to detract from your overall sense of the game and your job.”

The Mets regained the lead, 11-10, in the 18th inning on a sacrifice fly by Dykstra.

Again, all Gorman needed was three outs. Again, he retired Perry. This time he shut down Harper. One out remained – pitcher Rick Camp. Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre was taking nothing for granted and paid Gorman a visit. Stottlemyre warned Gorman about Harper now he was warning him, don’t make the same mistake. Don’t take Camp for granted.

Gorman registered two quick strikes on Camp. One strike left. Let the fireworks begin – please let the fireworks begin. Gorman fired a forkball on 0-2 and, like Harper five innings earlier, Camp obliged, hitting one over the left field wall to tie the game.

“As soon as it left the bat you knew it was gone,” said Tata. “That just cut your legs off at the knees.”

“That certifies this game as the wackiest, wildest, most improbable game in history!” yelled John Sterling, then a Braves broadcaster on WTBS.

“You’re really certain it’s going to end with Rick Camp at the plate,” said Van Wieren. “When Skip talked about it he said he never saw me get animated in the booth. But when that ball was hit I literally jumped out of his seat and put my hands on top of my head and said, ‘you gotta be kidding me!?’”

 

Jay Horwitz joined the New York Mets as public relations director in 1980. He was in his fifth year with the team.

“I was in the press box,” said Horwitz, who watched most of the extra innings with then Mets scouting director Joe McIlvaine. “I had my binoculars, and I remember looking at the expression on Danny Heep’s face, it was the most incredulous look I’d ever seen. I remember thinking, ‘this game is never, ever going to end.’”

One year later, in 1986, the Mets were involved in a 16-inning marathon game against the Houston Astros, a game that decided the National League Championship Series.

When Billy Hatcher homered off the foul poll in the 14th inning at the Houston Astrodome to tie the game, Horwitz started having flashbacks of Atlanta. “It was the same kind of feeling,” said Horwitz. “You think you have the game won, you’re going to the World Series, they tie the game. We had enough fortitude to come back and win that game. But outside of the rain delays it was almost a duplicate game.”

Jonathan Leach grew up in metropolitan Atlanta and had been a Braves fan since 1973, captured by the Hank Aaron chase. He was home from college for the summer. He fell asleep as the game weaved through extra innings until “the early morning hours, when my brother burst into my room and woke me up to tell me they were still playing,” said Leach. “I saw Rick Camp’s home run which may be the most improbable event in the history of baseball.”

Hundreds of miles north in New Rochelle, New York, Jonathan Falk arrived home from a party at 10 p.m. and turned on the television. “I turned on TBS to find out how they’d done, figuring if I was lucky I might catch an inning,” wrote Falk, a lifelong Braves fan. “They were still playing. I was glued to the set. The Rick Camp homer was probably the single most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in 43 years of baseball watching.”

“That was the most unbelievable part. No one expected that,” said Ken Oberkfell, a member of the 1985 Braves. “I mean, I have a better chance of flying an airplane than he (Camp) did of hitting a home run, and there it went. I remember I was in the clubhouse figuring the game was over, but when I saw the home run I came running back to the dugout.”

When asked now if he remembers the pitch Camp said, “I would say it was a fastball. I mean, heck, I had a zero point something batting average. There wasn’t anyone else to hit. I was just trying to make contact.”

As he rounded third, Camp was smiling as he met Tata halfway between home and third base. “You SOB, I was only kidding,’” said Tata.

“Even after I got out of baseball, every time I’d see him he’d just point to left field and laugh,” said Camp.

The Mets scored five runs off Camp in the top of the 19th inning.

“When you’re involved in a season like that and you get into one of those games you really don’t have the same concern over who wins,” remembers Van Weiren. “If you’re in a pennant race you do. If you’re 30 games out, you don’t really care. Sure you’d like to win the game, but if they don’t it’s not going to impact the pennant race. So when you get to a point in a game like that you’re just ready for it to end.”

Not the fans. As the Braves mounted another rally in the bottom of the 19th, scoring two runs, the fans began to chant, “We want Camp!”

“If we have to rely on me to hit a home run to win a game, we’re in bad shape,” said Camp. “I’ll always remember the homer, but it was a hard thing for me to do that and then go out and suck up a loss.”

“Go ahead hit another one out, we’ll pay ‘til noon,” said Tata.

This time Camp was facing Ron Darling, the Mets seventh pitcher of the game. Darling had not made a relief appearance since his freshman year at Yale. The Mets were so certain Camp would not hit another home run, they began untying their shoes in the dugouts, equipment was being packed away.

“I remember the last pitch,” said Camp. “It was a high fastball I swung and missed. Struck out. You get a fastball from here up (motioning from his chest to eye level) it looks like a watermelon. I was trying to kill it.”

Strike Three. Game Over.

“This was the greatest game ever played – Ever,” said Howard Johnson.

“That was the greatest thing I’d ever seen,” added Bruce Benedict, Braves’ catcher, ” The tough thing about it was that there were a lot of lifetime memories in this game and we lost it. It’s hard to put those things in perspective. It was embarrassing.”

“That was the most bizarre game I ever played in – bizarre and fascinating, depressing and great, thrilling and boring,” said Darling. “It was all of those things mixed in. It would have been a story but Rick Camp made it a big story. I’m just glad I got my name in the box score.”

“I thought we were going to win it after that,” said Dale Murphy. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget that home run. I’ll never forget that game. I can’t explain that game.”

“Thrilling,” “fascinating” and “great” did not describe the experience for Carter, who was playing his first season in New York. He caught the entire game, handling seven New York pitchers and catching 305 balls.

“The game took a toll on me,” said Carter. “It was worse than catching both games of an afternoon doubleheader because of the rain (delays). My body was aching and throbbing.”

“Do you know what it’s like to be playing baseball at 3:30 in the morning?” asked Dykstra after the game. “Strange man. Real strange.”

“I saw things that I’ve never seen in my major league career,” added Hernandez.

Like Camp hitting a home run … or Knight who left 11 runners on base in his first nine at bats, including three times with the bases loaded.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other continuous game in major league history had ended so late. Prior to July 4-5, 1985, the previous latest game was completed at 3:23 a.m. in Philadelphia when the Phillies beat the Montreal Expos 6-1 on Aug. 10, 1977.

Rick Aguilera never saw it, any of it. Aguilera was sent home in the 13th after Johnson’s go-ahead home run. ”When I got to the room, I turned on the TV and saw the game still going,” he said. “I thought it was a delayed broadcast. I couldn’t believe it when they said it was tied.”

Aguilera went to bed. His roommate Sid Fernandez arrived a few hours later and Aguilera asked if the Mets won. ”He said we did,” remembers Aguilera, “but he also said I wouldn’t believe it.”

“When the game ended we were all so exhausted we were just thinking, we gotta get out of here and get ready for tomorrow … I take that back, we gotta get ready for today.”

Gorman was credited with a win. It was then that Gorman found himself in a save situation with the Mets ahead 10-8 in the 13th inning. He lost that lead. And then another.

“To give up a homer to the pitcher in the 18th inning is totally embarrassing,” Gorman told the media a couple hours later. “I learned I can’t take anything for granted. I felt like I saw it all tonight. I should have saved the game; I should have won the game; I should have lost the game. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.”

”There’s not one thing you can say you feel at that moment,” added Gorman. “It’s not like pitchers don’t hit home runs; they do. I’m not trying to take anything away from Camp, but you know if you hit the ball good here, it’s going to go out. I’d never pitched at three in the morning, but guess they’d never hit then either.”

Newpher and the grounds crew headed back to the field after arriving at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium at 8 a.m. “One of the very few people left in the stands was my wife,” he said.

“What are you still doing here?” he asked.

“I came to see the fireworks,” she said.

Fireworks? It’s four in the morning. But the Braves were in no position to negotiate. There were 8,000-10,000 people still in the stands, delirious and jacked up on coffee, waking up their children for the fireworks. Then, there was WTBS, who sold sponsorships for the July 4th fireworks show.

“There was a great concern about whether the fireworks show would or would not go on,” remembers Van Wieren. “Ted (Turner) had gotten the station (WTBS) to sell a separate post-game that would include the fireworks. Once the game ended there was going to be a commercial break, we’d come back on the air and televise the fireworks.”

Braves television broadcaster Ernie Johnson was beside himself about the whole concept. Fireworks on TV? Come on, who’s going to watch that.

“We kidded about that,” said Van Wieren. “Ernie (Johnson) said ‘what are we supposed to say when the fireworks go off? Do we just sit there and go ‘Ooooh! Ahhh!?’ It was going to be a strange deal.”

Van Wieren said as the game went deeper into the night, there were a lot of questions about “whether they were going to do the fireworks,” he said. “We got the word that the fireworks were gonna go because this was a sold program on TBS and they were going to get the sponsored money.”

So, at 4:01 a.m. on July 5 the July 4th fireworks display began. For nearly 10 minutes the skies over Atlanta thundered. Bright colors lit up the night followed by the sounds of massive explosions. The roar hit a crescendo with a finale so intense, Atlanta resident Vivian Williams jumped from her bed.

Like many others living in the Atlanta suburbs, Williams believed the city had come under attack. The phones lit up at the police station. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution later reported “residents of Capitol Homes and other areas near the stadium called the police to complain that their neighbors, the Braves, were disturbing the peace.”

Williams told the police “setting off fireworks at 4 a.m. is inappropriate and ill-advised.”

Meanwhile, calls were pouring in to the Braves public relations office. Some came from fans who left before the end of the game and were angry that the fireworks display was not postponed until another date, he said. Other calls were from neighbors of the stadium who called the Braves to complain about the noise.

“We went back to the hotel and the USA Today was already under the door,” remembers Horwitz. “That’s always a bad sign, when the USA Today beats you there.”

Chip Caray, then home on college break, remembers his father stumbling in as the sun rose. He figured it was a late night with the guys.

“It’s the latest I’ve ever stayed out in my life and not done something I was ashamed of,” Skip said.

Perfect for a Day

On June 21, 1964 Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Jim Bunning threw a perfect game against the New York Mets in the first game of a doubleheader at Shea Stadium. With his wife and children in the stands, here’s what happened …

(more…)

Subway Series: Dave Who?

Just as he did an hour earlier, New York Mets pitcher Dave Mlicki walked from the team’s dugout to the pitchers mound at Yankee Stadium. It was the same understated stroll he made to and from the dugout during the game only now the Stadium was quiet, empty and dark. It was eerily cool for a mid-June night. The heat — along with the cheering, jeering and chanting — left in the shadow of 56,188 New Yorkers.

Now it was just Mlicki and the mound. No blue and orange cap, no spikes, no glove or uniform, just Mlicki in street clothes carrying a plastic cup. He quietly reached down with his pitching arm, scooped up a handful of dirt from the mound and walked away.

Sixty minutes earlier, Mlicki’s face was captured close-up by ESPN cameramen just before he delivered his 119th and final pitch on his first major league complete game, a 6-0 shutout win over the storied New York Yankees.

If witnessed, his post-game walk would’ve resembled an opening scene of some big budget baseball movie, complete with all the Hollywood clichés. But this was real. It’s a true story, despite the surreal feelings Mlicki was experiencing.

Mlicki became the inspirational backstory to the Subway Series, the first-ever interleague meeting between two New York teams and the first time in 40 years since September 8, 1957 that two teams from the Big Apple (New York Giants beat Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds) played a regular season game.

FROM OBSCURITY TO BASEBALL’S BIGGEST STAGE

Dave Mlicki stepped off the team bus and walked past the screaming fans into the Mets clubhouse at Yankee Stadium – uninterrupted. No one asked for an autograph, no well-wishers and no taunts from the Bronx faithful.

He thought to himself, ”They don’t know me.” Four-and-one-half years of major league service, the last two-and-one-half playing in New York for the Mets, and no one, not a single baseball fan had any idea the man with the duffle bag walking by them was the game’s starting pitcher.

To fans, Mlicki was Average Joe. He was no different than a member of the road crew, your supermarket checkout person or your next door neighbor. Humble and described by the New York media as “understated,” Mlicki’s ego was not bruised by the lack of attention. In fact, he told the New York Times, ”I’m very lucky to be doing this.”

That was an understatement. Pitchers of Mlicki’s ilk have been crushed by the pressure of performing in New York. He was on the brink of suffering the same fate. Mlicki’s record was 2-5. His ERA was 4.70. In his previous start, Mlicki lasted five innings, allowing five runs and 11 hits in a 10-6 win over the Cubs. He had won only two of his previous 13 starts.

Still, under pressure from the fans and the media, Mets manager Bobby Valentine supported Mlicki. As first pitch neared, Valentine offered only one piece of advice to his starting pitcher: ”Try to enjoy yourself.”

Not, win or watch out for this guy, but enjoy yourself.

‘I HOPE YOU ENJOYED IT’

The Mets jumped on Yankees starter Andy Pettitte for three runs in the first inning. ”I think maybe a couple of people changed hats after the first inning,” Yankee second baseman Pat Kelly told the media after.

Then it was Mlicki’s turn. After a lead-off single by Derek Jeter, Mlicki retired Kelly on a ground ball, then struck out Paul O’Neill and Cecil Fielder and a roar went up as the Yankees went down – quietly – in the first inning.

”When there was a strike three, they’d roar like we were at Shea … never a New York crowd like this,” said Mets reliever John Franco.

Mlicki baffled the Yankees inning after inning, piling up zeroes and pitching out of tight spots. The Mets tacked on two runs in the seventh and another in the eighth to take a 6-0 lead as Annie Herbst, Mlicki’s wife, watched her husband retire the pinstripes.

Kelly and O’Neill delivered back-to-back singles with one out in the eighth. With the pitch count mounting, Mlicki’s wife watched as Greg McMichael began warming up in the Mets bullpen. But, again, Mlicki wiggled out of the jam.

”It’s New York; you’re going to have fans from both sides,” Joe Girardi, Yankee catcher now manager, told the New York Times after the game. “That’s what makes this great. There was a lot of electricity. Unfortunately, none of it was on our side.”

The Yankees loaded the bases in the ninth inning with two outs and Valentine never budged. This was Mlicki’s game. He needed one more out – or he would be out of the game.

Mlicki finished off the Yankees, striking out Jeter looking. The book was closed: 9 innings, no runs, nine hits, eight strikeouts, two walks, 119 pitches and 11 Yankees left on base. Hundley trotted to the mound, tossed Mlicki the ball, shook his hand and said, ”You earned it.”

Valentine greeted Mlicki on the way to the dugout.

”I hope you enjoyed it,” asked the Mets manager.

 

GEORGE SET THE TONE

The New York Times referred to the Subway Series as “George Steinbrenner’s personal World Series.”

He hated losing to the Mets. It didn’t matter if it were an exhibition or a regular season game said former Yankee and Met player, coach and manager Willie Randolph.

”We played the Mayor’s Trophy game … [and] Steinbrenner got involved and tried to make it very serious, like we had to win,” said Randolph. “It was do or die. I remember feeling the pressure about winning: this is a big game. We’re playing the Mets.”

Don Zimmer said Steinbrenner was “adamant” about beating the Mets – during spring training. It was “well documented that these games are important to our owner,” added David Cone, then with the Yankees. “They should be. It’s for the bragging rights of New York City.”

This was a new experience for Torre, who only heard the stories about George.

”As a manager, my responsibility is to beat whoever I play.” Torre told the media. “You can’t start getting emotionally involved. Then something is getting in there that shouldn’t be in there. If all of a sudden you want to beat the Mets more than Cleveland, why don’t you want to beat Cleveland? That’s unfair to the players.”

THE MORNING AFTER

The next morning Mlicki and his wife walked to a local diner in New York. As they ate breakfast, New Yorkers at the next table ordered their coffee and eggs, read the back pages of the morning newspaper and talked about the game.

Mlicki appeared impervious.

”Dave, are you more excited than you’re letting on? You don’t seem to be reacting to this,” Annie asked.

He smiled. No one noticed.

The Magic is Back, If Only for a Night

“ Home runs are over-rated. You don’t have to hit home runs to win. If I don’t get a home run all year, and the team wins, I’ll be more than satisfied.”  Steve Henderson

The Reccoppa family piled into Dad’s burnt orange 1970 Plymouth Duster for the short ride across the bridge on Route 37 to Seaside Heights. A visit to grandma’s summer house, a sure sign school would be out soon.

Anthony, 10, the youngest of three boys and the lone New York Met fan, suffered through his share of summers. “In school, in New Jersey, there were three teams: Mets, Yankee and Phillies,” Reccoppa remembers. “In the late-70’s, early 80’s there weren’t many Met fans and here I was with my Lee Mazzilli t-shirt.”

But this was the summer the misery and suffering would end. This was 1980, the year the Magic was Back in Flushing.

The season lived up to its catch phrase on the night of June 14, 1980, when Pete Falconehooked up with John Montefusco at Shea Stadium. Playing in front of 22,918, the Mets were in mid-summer form, falling behind early and often.

Falcone couldn’t finish the second inning, allowing five runs, five hits and two walks. He retired four batters. By the sixth inning, the Giants had built a 6-0 lead and the Mets were held hitless through 5 1/3 innings when light-hitting second baseman Doug Flynn singled. Anthony and his father kept one eye on the game as they wandered “in and out of the house” through the evening, preparing for the trip to Seaside. The Mets scratched out two runs to cut the Giants lead to 6-2 as the Reccoppa family climbed into the Duster at sunset.

“It was the first new car my father ever bought,” remembers Anthony Reccoppa. “It was red-orange, black interior, no air conditioning and an AM radio,” but good enough to pick up the Mets flagship station WMCA-AM, where sports director Art Rust Jr. boldly guaranteed the 1980 Mets would be playing October baseball at “Flushing by the Bay.”

Any hope for magic was almost snuffed out, when Mets outfielder Elliot Maddox grounded to short to lead off the ninth. Then, Flynn delivered a bunt single but Jose Cardenal grounded out, advancing Flynn to second base. The Mets were down to their final out, trailing by four runs.

Then, Lee Mazzilli singled, scoring Flynn. Frank Taveras walked. Claudell Washingtonsingled, scoring Mazzilli. With the Giants white-knuckling a 6-4 lead, manager Dave Bristol relieved Greg Minton with Allen Ripley, needing one … more … out.

Henderson had a flair for the dramatic.

Six days after the Seaver deal, on June 21, Mets chairman M. Donald Grant made his first Shea Stadium appearance since his infamous Midnight Massacre. He was greeted by a custom-designed banner that read GRANT’S TOMB.

Henderson bailed out Grant for the moment, smacking his first major league home run in the 11th inning, giving the Mets a 5-2 walk-off win over the Atlanta Braves. The longball became a long-term problem for Henderson.

The Mets adjusted Henderson’s batting style to meet their needs. The team needed power and when Henderson delivered a pair of game-winning home runs against the Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates (a grand slam off Kent Tekulve), the Mets saw an opportunity.

“After my first season [1977], the Mets changed my batting stance, to make me hit more home runs,” said Henderson. “But [in 1980] I went back to my old stance. I was more relaxed at the plate.”

By mid-June 1980 Henderson was, again, feeling comfortable with his new-old closed batting stance. Coming into the night, he was batting .340 including 17 multi-hit games. On June 8, Henderson went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader against the Pirates.

Henderson, who struck out in his first three at-bats of the night, was now facing Ripley. He took the first pitch. He remembers feeling “tight” and “unable to concentrate,” so he walked back to the on-deck circle loaded his bat with pine tar, took a deep breath and cleared his mind.

Ripley delivered the next pitch under Henderson’s chin, causing him to “jack knife out of the way,” in the words of legendary Mets announcer Bob Murphy.

“I try to keep my temper, but when someone does something like that to me, throwing too close, I sort of turn into a monster,” Henderson would tell the New York Times after the game.

He took the next pitch for strike two. The Mets were down to their final strike. The following is pure speculation, but it would be fair to suggest that a burst of wind stimulated the magic dust surrounding homeplate, landing squarely on the barrel of Henderson’s bat.

Henderson turned Ripley’s 1-2 fastball from improbable, to maybe, to probably and ultimately magic. The ball cleared the right field fence and was caught on the fly by Mets reliever Tom Hausman.

Final score: Mets 7, Giants 6

The Shea Stadium scoreboard in right field began flashing, HENDU CAN DO! Then, HENDU DID DO! Fans coaxed Henderson out of the clubhouse for a curtain call before parading down the exit ramps chanting “Lets Go Mets!”

“My dad was pounding on dashboard and my mother was yelling at him, ‘We’re going to get in an accident,” said Reccoppa.

It was Henderson’s first home run of the season and his first home run since July 13, 1979 (226 at-bats). One month after losing 15-4 to the Cincinnati Reds, the Mets were 9-18. Now, the Mets were 27-28, one game under .500.

“The ones over the Pirates and Dodgers were nice, but this one was unbelievable,” said Flynn later. “You keep busting and busting, then Henderson hits his first home run, and it’s a three-run game winner.”

The Reccoppa family arrived, greeted Grandma with a quick hug and turned on WOR in time to catch Henderson and then Mets manager Joe Torre on Kiner’s Korner.

The Mets would follow that magical night with seven straight losses, followed by an August swoon, losing 14 of 17 games. The 1980 Mets were better remembered for a magic moment.

Strawberry Season

“I think some of the pressure comes from the expectations of other people; they expect you to be the big lifesaver or something when you play a sport.” – Barry Bonds

For years, New York Mets fans dreamed of a player, a hero, a Superman — a mythical figure who possessed the power of Willie; the arm of Roberto; the swing of Ted; the speed of Rickey; and the ferocity of Ty.

On June 3, 1980, the New York Mets used the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft to select a 17-year old, 6 foot 6 inch, 190 pound high school athlete from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. His name: Darryl Strawberry. He batted .400 his senior year. Strawberry had that raw talent that is often shadowed with high expectations and intense pressure. He was coming to a franchise so desperate for hope, on the biggest stage in baseball, the name Strawberry was showing up in print beside Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. The New York Times referred to him as ”the black Ted Williams.”

”I’m not familiar with the things Willie (Mays) has done,” he said. ”I’m just Darryl Strawberry and I have to play like me. I know I have the talent to play, but it’s not going to be easy. I’m going to have my ups and downs, and I have got to be able to deal with them.”

After signing with the Mets, Strawberry was sent to the Mets rookie league affiliate in Kingsport, where he batted .268 with five home runs and 26 RBI.

”I’m not ready for the majors yet,” Strawberry humbly confessed at the end of the season. “I know it, and they know. I don’t want to put any pressure on myself, get up there before I’m ready and have the fans boo me.”

Too late. The pressure was already mounting on Strawberry. The Mets promoted their top prospect to Double-A Jackson (Miss.) to start the 1982 season. Strawberry started the season in a slump, going 2-for-44.

”A lot of people expected him to get a home run every time up,” former Kingsport manager Chuck Hiller told the Times. ”And now he couldn’t even get on base. He was under a lot of pressure.”

As Strawberry began to relax he also began to hit. By season’s end his batting average was .283 with 34 HR and 95 RBI. He was voted league MVP and and was recognized by the franchise as the team’s top prospect winning the Nelson Doubleday Award.
Strawberry appeared at his first major league training camp in the spring of 1983, but the franchise eventually decided to let their Strawberry ripen a little longer at the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Tidewater. ”I realize they don’t want to put that kind of pressure on me, not at this stage,” he said. “So I suppose they’ll start me at Tidewater for a while. But I may be in Shea Stadium before the season’s out.”

The Mets started the 1983 season struggling to score runs and wins games. They had lost 15 of their first 22 games and the Mets were right back in last place. Hope was fading and attendance was falling fast. So, on May 7, 1983, the Mets picked a Strawberry.

Darryl Strawberry was on his way to New York. In 17 games at Tidewater (AAA), Strawberry was batting .333 with three home runs and 12 RBI. The Mets wasted no time, penciling Strawberry into the starting lineup as the starting right fielder against Mario Soto and the Cincinnati Reds at Shea Stadium. ”I don’t remember anyone coming up to the majors with this kind of attention,” Mets GM Frank Cashen told the media. “I talked to him and told him not to go shouldering the burden. The danger is that Darryl will think he has to do it.”

His debut was one to forget. Strawberry was hitless in four at-bats, striking out three times. He also walked twice and stole a base in the Mets 7-4 win over the Reds. The media chronicled Strawberry’s slow start in the next day’s paper. The Times had little sympathy writing, Strawberry knows that when he finally puts his 6-foot-6-inch, 190-pound frame into the white uniform with the orange-and-blue pinstripes and piping, and takes his place in right field, greatness will be expected.

Greatness would come, but it would take a little patience. After going 3-for-24 over his first seven games, Strawberry delivered, crushing his first career home run in front of 1,970 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh off Lee Tunnell. Strawberry finished his rookie season with the slash line: .257/26 HR/74 RBI/.336 OBP, and the National League Rookie of the Year honor.

Strawberry would go on to hit 251 home runs in New York before signing a five-year, $100 million free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He still holds the Mets franchise record for most home runs (252).

The Worst Trade in Baseball History

Every year since 1977, New York Mets fans have viewed the Major League Baseball trade deadline as the darkest day in team history.

The trade deadline – June 15, 1977 – was the day the Mets traded Tom Seaver.

Trading Seaver, best known to fans and the media as “The Franchise” or “Tom Terrific,” marked the beginning of a long, dreadful decline for the organization and, despite the pain and suffering, the deal remains one of the most compelling stories in team history.

After checking in to his hotel in Atlanta, Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Bud Harrelson settled in for dinner at a nearby restaurant. The turmoil, already in headlines on the back pages of every New York newspaper, was swiftly heading toward an unthinkable resolution.

“I’m gone,” a melancholy Seaver told Harrelson and Koosman. “I don’t think anybody can save it.”

Seaver was right. In less than 72 hours he would be packing his bags for Cincinnati.

Unlike the recent “out-of-the-blue” trade demand rumors surrounding Manny Ramirez, the drama concerning the Seaver trade had been picking up momentum since spring training 1976.

As management and Seaver struggled through the spring to work out a new contract, the Mets pitcher decided to visit Joe McDonald, then the Mets general manager. “You know what he said to me? He said, ‘No one is beyond being traded. I have one deal I can call back on right now.’ I was livid,” Seaver said. “I said, ‘Pick up the fucking phone and make the trade.’ But he never moved.”

It was later revealed, McDonald was not bluffing Seaver. The deal was a real possibility. The Mets GM had a deal in place that would have sent “The Franchise” to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for Don Sutton. All McDonald had to green light was Sutton’s request to make a spot for him in the broadcast booth upon retirement.

With a deal on the brink, the media reported the supposed trade, Mets fans and management balked and negotiations broke off.

It was the beginning of the end for Seaver. “My unhappiness started … during my contract negotiations,” Seaver said in a 1977 post-trade interview with Jack Lang published in The Sporting News. “They charged me with a lot of things … threatened to trade me … all of a sudden, nine years of performance and loyalty was being thrown out the window.

“I kept it all inside for a year,” Seaver continued. “ … I realized I could no longer work for Mr. [Donald] Grant. The situation was impossible.”

The days leading up to the Seaver trade were like a soap opera – and the New York media was eating it up as fast as the could and spitting it back to the public in flashy headlines. The allegations and finger-pointing were chronicled by the late, legendary New York columnist Dick Young who, in hindsight, is believed to be the man responsible for pushing the button on the trade.

As the 1977 pushed on toward summer, the heat between Seaver and Grant was intensifying. The media wasn’t helping. Journalists were polarized on the Seaver contract issue.

Seaver was making $225,000 in 1977 and the free agency, then in its infancy, was already driving up salaries, especially in New York. Everyday, the Mets pitcher had to suffer the splashy headlines Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was creating when he inked Reggie Jackson to a four-year, $2.7 million deal (big numbers in 1977).

Seaver felt underpaid and underappreciated and he let Grant know it. He wanted a new deal, fair market value, based on a growing list that “sub-Seaver” quality players were signing in the free agent market.

Grant called Seaver an “ingrate.” Seaver felt Grant treated him as an underling, and he didn’t appreciate it. “Grant has a way of talking down to everyone,” said Seaver. “Grant only understands what he wants to understand. You can be talking to him and you suddenly are aware he isn’t understanding a thing you say, because he isn’t listening.”

The war of words created a deeper disrespect between Grant and Seaver, pushing the parties further apart.

With the deadline looming, Seaver had breakfast with new Mets manager Joe Torre. Using the manager, Grant asked Torre to play mediator. The Mets chairman of the board had his manager convince Seaver to reach out to in an attempt to bridge the gap.

Seaver, anxious and hoping to remain a Met, called Grant. They talked for nearly an hour. “I didn’t even bring up a lot of the old junk, because I knew it wouldn’t make a difference,” Seaver said. “When we finished talking, I knew I was going.”

Seaver made one last ditch effort to save himself from a trade. On the day before the trade deadline, he stepped over Grant, and called to Lorinda de Roulet (daughter of the late Joan Payson). Seaver stated his case, then asked for de Roulet to break he own rules and interject. She agreed. After four phone calls, it appeared a deal had been struck and Seaver would remain a Met.

In reality, it was the calm before the storm. Seaver was in good spirits when he woke up in his Atlanta Marriott hotel room on the morning of June 15, 1977. Then, the bottom fell out.

While dining poolside with Lang, Seaver was blindsided by the news of a story written in that mornings New York Daily News by Young. According to the story, Young believed Seaver and his wife Nancy were jealous of former Met Nolan Ryan and his wife Ruth for financial reasons. Seaver sat and listened as the story was read aloud to him at the table.

Seaver blew a fuse. He charged off to his room and immediately called Mets public relations director Arthur Richman, shouting “get me out of here!” Next, Seaver sent a note to de Roulet, writing, “Tell Joe McDonald everything I said last night is forgotten. I want out. The attack on my family is something I just can’t take.”

Seaver then packed his belongings and flew home to Greenwich, Ct. to avoid the media.

Before that nights game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium over a hundred members of the media squeezed into a scorching hot clubhouse as the Mets officially announced that Tom Seaver – “The Franchise” – had been traded to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Pat Zachry, light-hitting second baseman Doug Flynn and a pair of outfield prospects, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman.

The news was stunning. Met fans were aghast. Seaver’s teammates also struggled to comprehend the trade. “How could they trade him?,” Koosman said in hindsight. “We lost someone who shouldn’t have been traded, and we were in mourning … It was as if we had lost our leader, our spokesman.

 

“It was tough to see it happen,” Koosman remembered. ”I remember that day it happened … a lot of tears were shed.”

“The impact was awesome,” said former Mets infielder Len Randle. “I had no idea a player could have that much impact on a city, since Joe Namath, I guess … it was a bad move.”

Young, the New York Daily News reporter, lauded the deal, a decision that nearly killed him professionally – and over time personally. In a letter to the editor published in the July 9, 1977 issue of Sporting News, one fan wrote:

Since Dick Young is the correspondent whom you employ from New York, objectivity demands that you inform your readers of the part Young played in the Mets’ trade of Tom Seaver.

Young has become a hatchet man for Mets’ Board Chairman Donald Grant. Seaver decided he didn’t want to leave until Young wrote a column slurring Seaver’s family. It capped a long campaign against Seaver and other Mets’ dissidents which began when Young’s son-in-law went to work for Grant. Young never acknowledged his family connection with the Mets.

It remained Maury Allen of the New York Post to reveal the truth writing, Young makes the concept of journalistic integrity a joke.

Koosman later said, “Getting Tom Seaver traded became Dick Young’s legacy. All the great things you do in your career, and you do one thing that’s not correct, and you get remembered for it. He’s never been forgiven … in New York.”