• Sal Maiorana

Fourth of July became fifth of July on a memorable 1985 night for Mets, Braves

ATLANTA (July 4-5, 1985) – It was in the 17th inning, right around 3 o’clock in the morning, and New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez couldn’t resist the urge.

“I figured I just had to call somebody, so I called my brother Gary and told him I just wanted him to know I was still out here playing,” Hernandez recalled.

While Gary Hernandez and most of America was sleeping as the Fourth of July holiday had hours ago become the fifth of July, Keith Hernandez and the Mets were locked in an epic duel with the Atlanta Braves on a rainy and remarkable night at Fulton County Stadium.

“It was the most unbelievable game I have seen or been involved in,” said the Mets’ Ray Knight, who had left 11 men on base in his previous nine at-bats before delivering an RBI double in the top of the 19th inning which triggered New York’s decisive five-run outburst that resulted in an incredible 16-13 Mets victory.

Added New York’s Howard Johnson: “That was the greatest game ever played. Ever.”

It may not have been the greatest, but it was certainly one of the most unique, and definitely one of the longest.

A game that was supposed to have begun at 7:40 p.m. with a fireworks display at the conclusion, did not get underway until 9:04 thanks to an 84-minute rain delay. In the third inning, play was stopped for 41 minutes due to a downpour, and then, just after the Braves had stormed into an 8-7 lead with a four-run eighth-inning rally, things really got interesting.

Lenny Dykstra tied it for New York with an infield hit in the top of the ninth, setting the stage for another 10 innings of often spellbinding baseball that kept the few thousand of the original crowd of 44,947 who stayed until the bitter end awake enough for the fireworks show that started promptly at 4:01 a.m.

When this game for the ages was finally over, it left an indelible trail of statistical nuggets in its wake:

- From the time the game was supposed to have started until it was finished at 3:55 a.m., eight hours and 15 minutes had elapsed. In terms of actual playing time, the game took six hours, 10 minutes. And the end time broke the previous record for latest finish by 32 minutes.

- The teams combined for 29 runs and 46 hits, 28 of the hits by New York which shattered the previous team record by five.

- A total of 43 players got their names in the box score including 14 pitchers, seven used by each team. Not a big deal now, but it was then.

- Hernandez became just the fourth Met, and first since Mike Phillips in 1976, to hit for the cycle, and he had 20 put-outs at first base.

- New York’s Gary Carter and Atlanta’s Terry Harper had five hits each while Hernandez and New York’s Wally Backman had four apiece.

- Hernandez, Harper, Knight and Backman all had 10 official at-bats.

- Atlanta’s final pitcher, Rick Camp, hit the first home run of his career, a dramatic solo shot on an 0-2 pitch with two outs in the bottom of the 18th that prolonged the game.

“The tough thing about it is that there were a lot of lifetime memories in this game, and we lost it,” said Braves catcher Bruce Benedict. “It’s hard to put those things in perspective.”

The night began with the crowd anticipating a pitchers’ duel between the team’s two aces, New York’s Dwight Gooden and Atlanta’s Rick Mahler. But you knew that scenario was flawed when Hernandez doubled in the first inning and was able to score on Carter’s single because the ball came to rest in an outfield puddle.

Atlanta answered that run in the bottom half when Claudell Washington led off with a triple and scored on a groundout. Gooden’s night ended after Bob Horner singled in the third and the skies opened up, delaying play. Mets manager Davey Johnson decided Gooden had had enough waiting around and brought in Roger McDowell when play resumed. McDowell was immediately tagged for a two-run double by Ken Oberkfell.

Atlanta manager Eddie Haas had a quick hook for Mahler in the fourth, and the Mets promptly lit up Jeff Dedmon for four runs, the big hit being Hernandez’s two-run triple.

When Hernandez homered in the eighth to extend the Mets advantage to 7-4, New York seemed to be in command and the fireworks crew began preparing for the big show. Not so fast, which on this night was quite appropriate.

With closer Jesse Orosco in the game, the Mets couldn’t hold the lead. The Braves loaded the bases and when Orosco walked Rafael Ramirez to force in a run with two outs, Johnson yanked Orosco in favor of Doug Sisk. Dale Murphy then greeted Sisk with a bases-clearing double to put the Braves ahead 8-7.

Now the fireworks crew really got busy with the usually reliable Atlanta closer Bruce Sutter strutting to the mound. Once again, not so fast guys. Consecutive singles by Johnson, Danny Heep and Dykstra tied the game and forced extra innings.

Neither team threatened to score in the 10th, 11th or 12th, the lone highlight being a Hernandez single that enabled him to complete the cycle, but the action picked up again in the 13th when both sides put up a deuce. New York took a 10-8 lead on Johnson’s two-run homer off Terry Forster, only to see Harper tie the game with a two-out, two-strike, two-run homer off Tom Gorman who was pitching the first of what would become a six-inning relief stint.

Over the next four scoreless innings the teams combined to leave seven runners aboard, but only one reached third base, Dykstra in the 14th who was stranded when Daryl Strawberry struck out to end the threat.

The Mets regained the lead in the 18th when Johnson singled, took third when Camp threw away Heep’s bunt attempt for an error, and scored on Dykstra’s sacrifice fly. Bring out the fireworks? Once again, all together now, not so fast.

With two outs in the bottom of the 18th, Camp had to bat for himself because Haas had used all of his position players. Gorman worked the count to 0-2 but hung a forkball and Camp – who had only 10 hits and no homers in 165 previous at-bats – launched it over the left-field wall and the 8,000 or so fans still in the ballpark partied like it was the Fourth of July, which it no longer was.

“To give up a home run to the pitcher in the 18th inning is totally embarrassing,” said Gorman. “I started out with a chance for a save, then a win, then a loss and wound up with the win. Incredible. I don’t know what to say. I’ve never pitched before at 3 a.m. But they’ve never hit before at 3 a.m. either.”

On to the 19th inning where the Mets finally put it away. Carter led off with a single and after a sacrifice, pinch-hitter Rusty Staub was walked intentionally. Knight, who had left the bases full three times already, came through with an RBI double to make it 12-11. “I think I’ve never been more excited about one base hit in my whole career,” Knight said.

Heep proceeded to hit a bases-loaded single on which all three runners scored, the last coming across when Washington made a throwing error, and Backman’s RBI single plated the fifth run of the inning.

Mets pitcher Ron Darling took over for Gorman to start the bottom of the 19th – his first relief appearance since his college days at Yale – and the Braves pushed across a pair of runs helped by an error by Hernandez, but Darling struck out the slugging Camp to end the game.

Six minutes later, as the teams wearily began peeling their uniforms off, the fireworks show began. Needless to say, it was an anticlimactic display.

“I’ll never forget this one,” Murphy said. “I’ll be feeling it for the next week.”