Rick Camp was a north Georgia boy, through and through. He was born in Chattooga County, matriculated at West Georgia College in Carrollton, and never played for a franchise other than the Braves. He died today at age 60, less than an hour’s drive down GA Hwy 140 from his childhood home.
The Braves drafted him in the seventh round of the 1974 draft, and would end up having the best career of any Braves ’74 draftee, with the slight exception of first round pick Dale Murphy. He began his minor league career as a starter, but was already transitioning to the swingman role that would define much of his baseball life by the time he got to Richmond in 1976. Camp never had overpowering stuff – he had a mid-80s fastball, and his best pitch was a sinker. He and Murph both earned September call-ups at the end of that season, and then Rick broke camp with the big club as its closer in ’77.
After a fast start, he began to struggle in the role, and served as a setup man for most of the season, the same role in which he began the 1978 season. Camp was inserted into the rotation in late June when the team traded Dick Ruthven, and responded by allowing zero earned runs in three of his first four starts. I vaguely remember Skip, Ernie, and Pete being pleasantly surprised at this development, which coincided with Murph’s first extended hot streak as a Brave, as well as the arrival of collegiate slugging phenom Bob Horner. For a half a second, the future appeared very bright, and homeboy Rick Camp was being touted as one of the reasons why.
But the midseason transition wore on Camp, and he spent the next few weeks on the DL. He was ineffective upon his return, and ended up having surgery that cost him the entire 1979 season. He came back in 1980, and claimed the closer role when Gene Garber coughed it up, as Garber was wont to do. Hardly the prototypical fireballing closer, Camp posted 22 saves and a 1.91 ERA despite striking out only 33 batters in 108.1 innings. He followed up with 17 saves and a 1.78 ERA in the strike-shortened 1981 season.
Garber reclaimed the closer role when Camp endured an extended rough patch in 1982, but he made himself useful until a spot opened up in the rotation, and again he pitched well for much of the second half of the season, before wearing down and losing his last five starts in the middle of a pennant race, and seemingly solidifying his role as jack of all trades for the remainder of his career.
Of course, Rick Camp is best known for his role in the game that has come to bear his name. On July 4, 1985, an in-his-prime Rick Mahler faced off against Doc Gooden in what was seemed likely to be a two-hour pitcher’s duel. Then the rains came, and in between drops the runs rained down for the next 11 hours. Camp, by now at the end of the bench and near the end of his career, came in to relieve in the 17th inning with the score tied at 10. After a scoreless inning, he gave up a run in the 18th on a Lenny Dykstra sac fly. Gerald Perry and Terry Harper grounded out for the first two outs in the bottom of the inning, sending Camp (a notoriously bad hitting pitcher) to the plate and all but sealing a Mets victory.
Unfortunately, Camp had nothing left in the 19th, giving up five runs. But the Braves came back again, scoring two and getting two more runners on base, and Camp again strode plateward with two outs. John Sterling had already deemed this the wackiest game in baseball history, and now those of us still in its thrall waited to see if it would become the wackiest event in HUMAN history. Alas, no, as Camp struck out and the city was treated to a 4:00 AM fireworks show that still ranks high on the list of Atlanta civic blunders.
That was essentially Camp’s swan song, as he played out the string on what had become a succession of disappointing Braves teams. He was cut loose at the end of 1986 spring training. The record does not show whether he attempted to catch on somewhere else, but I like to think he didn’t, that he just packed up and went back home. Much later in life he was convicted of attempting to defraud an Augusta mental health facility, and served three years in prison. There’s no way to dress that up – it reads as an irredeemable terrible thing to have done, and you wonder how he could have done it. Maybe Augusta felt like the other side of the world to him.
For us Braves fans, though, Rick Camp served honorably and mostly well. Despite his ever-changing role, Camp registered seven consecutive >100 ERA+ seasons, and he remains the franchise leader in games pitched in a Braves-only career. He was famously good-spirited – I remember sitting near the Braves bullpen during a game Camp was called in to pitch. He began his jog onto the field facing backwards, as he had been in the middle of telling a joke and wanted to make sure he finished it. Whereupon he turned and ran to the mound, laughing.
Rest in peace, Rick Camp.