Even as chaos enveloped the wet and muddy baseball field around him, Cliff Phillips stayed focused on his job.
That’s why, as members of the Braves and Padres threw tackles and haymakers, his bat boy instincts compelled him to run in middle of the infield between first base and third base to pick up a wayward bat that had been discarded amid a tsunami of mayhem.
Then the mayhem came calling.
“I pick up the bat … I turn around and I get nailed,” Phillips said. “And it was Alan Wiggins, nailed me.”
With that, as Phillips crashed to the ground and sullied his home white uniform, the 17-year-old became unwittingly but officially involved in arguably the wildest brawl in the history of Major League Baseball. The brouhaha that took over Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Aug. 12, 1984, was epic not just for its size and scope, but also for its relentlessness. It seemed to just. keep. going.
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The series of dust-ups and all-out brawls that spanned seven innings and became the main attraction on a day later described by many involved as the worst/wildest day they’d experienced on a baseball field.
And there for it all, with a unique perspective, were Phillips and his bat boy colleagues, who had an uncomfortably up-close look at an ugly game that netted 13 ejections and five arrests, and ended with both benches ordered to their clubhouses in the ninth inning so the contest could conclude without further shenanigans.
This is the story of that infamous game, though the eyes and memories of the bat and ball boys who were there.
‘We would’ve known something was going on’
By his third season as a Braves bat boy, Phillips had the kind of access to players and managers – the blending-into-the-scenery eyes and ears – that would make a conspiracy fairly easy to sniff out. He spent most of his days in the Braves’ clubhouse, quietly and dutifully going about his bat boy routine, but also building the kinds of relationships one builds when working with the same people for 12 to 14 hours a day over a six-month season. In other words, it would be hard for anyone to keep secrets for very long.
This is relevant because the Padres were pretty sure Atlanta had plotted some connivance that Sunday afternoon, which is the necessary context when telling this story.
See, the Braves and Padres had battled for the NL West lead for a big chunk of the season, with each having spent time in first place through June. But the Braves started to slide in July, while the Padres began to pull away. By the time they met for the last game of their mid-August series in Atlanta, the Padres were 10.5 games up on the second-place Braves and essentially the undisputed division champs.
But the Braves had the faintest of pulses. So when Braves pitcher Pascual Perez drilled Padres lead-off man Alan Wiggins in the back on the game’s first pitch, San Diego manager Dick Williams concluded that the pitch was part of a plan to intimidate his team into some kind of tailspin that would allow the Braves to eventually capture the division lead.
The Braves, of course, denied this. Perez hitting Wiggins was just a random baseball happening, they said. But if there had been an evil plot, Phillips likely would’ve been in the loop, even if accidentally.
“I would’ve known something,” he said. “We would’ve known something was going on.”
So, nothing was going on – until Perez hit Wiggins. Then something was going on, just not on the Braves’ side.
“You hit the first batter of the game (on the first pitch), there’s a pretty good chance that somewhere down the road that they’re going to retaliate,” Phillips said.
Williams was long known as a proponent of that old-school baseball way – the eye-for-an-eye self-policing that acts as the glue that binds the sport’s sacred unwritten rules. So he ordered his pitchers to throw at Perez – and only Perez – until they hit him.
So they did. The only problem was, the Padres had trouble executing.
‘It’s only just begun’
San Diego starter Ed Whitson threw behind Perez on the first pitch of his first at-bat, prompting the slender, excitable Perez to become jumpy and scamper around behind the plate while wielding his bat for protection, perhaps sensing that things had suddenly gotten real. Benches emptied and tensions spiked, but not much came of it. Whitson got a warning, as did both managers, before Perez eventually struck out.
At this point, the Braves assumed the hostilities had ended. A strict adherence to the unwritten rules dictates that a team takes one shot at retaliation, one chance to send their message.
The Padres were not strict constructionists on this day, however.
“I specifically remember looking at Greg Booker, who was a pitcher for the Padres, and I said, ‘I can’t believe that just happened,'” said Dave Hill, who was 21 at the time and on ball duty down the left field line by the Padres’ bullpen. “And he just looked at me and smiled. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, something’s getting ready to go down.'”
Two innings later, Whitson made three inside pitches to Perez – none of which hit him – before he and Williams were ejected by umpire Steve Rippley.
Hill looked to Booker again.
“I go, ‘Are we now over?'” Hill said. “He goes, ‘No, it’s only just begun.’ And I went, ‘Oh, s—.'”
Booker soon replaced the departed Whitson, and Perez’s at-bat finished with a walk. But that only made for a false sense of security.
When the Atlanta pitcher came to bat again in the sixth inning, Booker’s first pitch sailed behind Perez, but, again, without hitting him. Booker got tossed, as did acting Padres manager Ozzie Virgil.
“At this point, everybody knows what’s going on. It’s blatantly obvious,” Phillips said. ” … Pascual, I think, felt like they were truly trying to hurt him. From where I sat at the on-deck circle, that’s what it felt like.”
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Still, they hadn’t hit him yet, which only grew the general uneasiness in the Braves’ dugout. Atlanta’s players felt the Padres weren’t following the spirit of the unwritten rules.
“Usually you hit or you throw at a position player, not a pitcher. But because they were intentionally going after Pascual, the Braves were mad. They were angry,” said Greg Kolb, another bat boy, 18 at the time, who was seated at the Braves’ on-deck circle during the game. “The tensions were getting higher and higher as they continued to throw at Pascual. It would’ve been different if they had thrown at or hit Claudell – he may have charged the mound because that’s the kind of player that Claudell was – but after that melee, it would’ve ended. … They were saying this is not something that you do.”
Things continued to simmer for the next two innings, though the prevailing thought among many observers – the broadcasters, the fans, even some players – was that the situation had likely concluded itself by that point. After all, the Padres had taken shots at Perez in each of his first three at-bats. Certainly the message had been delivered and the score settled, right?
So, naturally, things finally went sideways when Perez came to bat in the eighth inning against Padres reliever Craig Lefferts. The crowd cheered heartily as Perez stepped to the plate, perhaps in support of his having escaped San Diego’s revenge efforts to that point, and perhaps to serve as a collective middle finger to the Padres.
Catcher Terry Kennedy flashed a quick sign and set up over the middle of the plate. Then Lefferts’ first pitch nailed Perez in the side. They finally got him. It only took four pitchers and 15 pitches.
And that’s when things got really crazy.
The Braves charged out of the dugout and after Lefferts. The Padres’ dugout emptied too. There were punches. There were tackles. There were body slams. Writhing bodies were strewn about seemingly everywhere for about 45 seconds.
Gradually, despite the growing uneasiness, the action slowed, mostly reduced to a couple of piles of bodies – with players trying to get people at the bottom of the pile off each other, like football referees trying to see which side recovered a fumble. But the peace was temporary – because things were about to go nuclear.
Padres backup first baseman Champ Summers – who, at 6-2, 205 pounds, was not a small man – broke away from the grips of the Braves’ Bob Watson and bolted toward the Atlanta dugout to go after Perez, who had sought refuge inside. He was met by Braves slugger Bob Horner, who was on the disabled list and had been watching the game in street clothes in the press box but was now suited up and ready to battle.
“Bob Horner is a team guy through and through. Bob Horner had everybody’s back,” Phillips said. “… I don’t think you could ever find one person that was on that team or was in that clubhouse that will ever tell you that they were surprised Bob Horner showed up. I’ll give you $500 if you can find one person who says they were surprised.”
As Horner and Summers mildly tussled their way toward an alcove between the dugout and the on-deck circle, fans – presumably (definitely?) intoxicated – decided to get in on the action. One guy threw a beer at Summers. Another guy tried to grab Summers from behind. Yet another literally jumped into the fray. It was definitely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, and it was all happening just feet away from some anxious bat boys, who weren’t quite sure what to do.
“With everything else that was going on on the field, it almost didn’t register,” Phillips said of fan involvement. “I knew it was happening, but I didn’t really care.”
The mess involving the players was enough to occupy the mind, in part because the bat and ball boys still had to keep track of equipment.
“It was a challenge just for us to try to stay out of the way of what was going on,” Kolb said. “… When we had to pick up the stuff and move out of the way, that’s when I felt anxiety because it was coming right at us.”
What made things especially unpredictable was that the action would slow for a brief moment, bringing yet another false sense of security, before ramping up again somewhere else on the field. It seemed to go on forever.
“I do remember being frightened at one time. I didn’t know if we were going to get sucked into it,” Kolb said.
The uneasiness did allow for nervous levity, however.
“The bat boys from the other side came over,” Kolb said. “We were joking. We said, ‘Are we supposed to fight with each other?'”
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Of course, nobody wearing a bat boy uniform wanted any part of these fights. But there was concern that, amid all the hubbub and bodies, they’d be mistaken for players because their uniforms were essentially the same.
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Which brings us back to Phillips and his inadvertent participation in the Great Fulton County Fracas. A reminder of his involvement: He saw a bat on the infield during a melee, ran out to get it, then got smashed by the Padres’ Alan Wiggins.
“So I go down. A couple of guys pick me up, walk me into the dugout,” he said. “… I remember Joe Torre looking at the security guard and says like, ‘Don’t let these guys out of the dugout,’ which, I wasn’t going to go anywhere anyway.”
Though he was only a bat boy, he was still part of the Braves’ family. And that meant players had his back, too.
“I remember Claudell Washington looking at me and saying, ‘You know what? I’ll take care of this.’ And he did,” Phillips said. “I’m not going to go on record to how he did that.”
In any case, the whole thing was likely just an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.
“The fact that he (maybe) didn’t know I was a bat boy, we’ll never know. He’s now passed away,” Phillips said of Wiggins, “(but) he absolutely knocked me down.”
Phillips wasn’t the only bat boy to get dirty.
Mike Borzello, who was Torre’s godson and in uniform as an honorary bat boy that day, also found himself on the ground as things intensified. The 13-year-old was noticeably smaller than the other bat boys, and Phillips had been tasked with keeping an eye on him. That only added to the day’s stress.
“I don’t want to say we babysat them, but we kind of looked after them because they weren’t full-time bat boys,” Phillips said. “… I’m not sure how Michael got knocked down, but I remember I got back to the dugout and his uniform was completely muddy.”
(Attempts to reach Borzello, who’s now a coach with the Cubs, were unsuccessful.)
Even though it was muddy on the field – rain delayed the start of the game by 90 minutes – soiled bat boy uniforms were not an expected sight.
“I kept thinking, ‘Why is (Borzello) covered in mud?’ And then I remember thinking, ‘Why is Cliff so dirty?’ Because you’re never dirty. You don’t ever get the uniform dirty,” Hill said. “The only reason you get the uniform dirty is if you were on the ground. I remember both of them were dirty, and I was like, ‘What the heck?'”
But any measure, what unfolded in the seemingly eternal bottom of the eighth was one of the wildest, ugliest things to ever happen on a baseball field. Before the game resumed more than 12 minutes later, six more players had been ejected, and a few fans arrested. Just about any negative adjective was an appropriate description.
Had it ended there, it would’ve been an all-time classic in the worst way. But it didn’t end there.
‘Champ came unglued’
As the top of the ninth got underway, it was still unclear who had been ejected after the eighth inning. When the official announcement finally came, there was but a few seconds to process it before Braves reliever Donnie Moore drilled Graig Nettles in the backside on his second pitch – starting the whole thing over again.
Nobody was surprised, though, especially after Moore and Nettles had tussled during the eighth-inning festivities. Between innings, Torre reportedly told more Moore not to pitch inside. He didn’t listen.
“Knowing Donnie Moore the way I knew him, there was zero doubt it was gonna happen. I think everybody was ready for it,” Phillips said.
So, Nettles charged after Moore and Round 2 picked up right where Round 1 left off. There was another roving brawl. Previously ejected players returned to the field. More punches. More tacking. More chasing. More everything.
This particular batch of on-field drama subsided relatively quickly compared with the eighth-inning, but then more drama erupted in the stands as fans again felt the need to insert themselves. Several people above the Padres dugout jawed at players, then someone threw another beverage.
“I was right there at the dugout and a fan threw a beer on Champ Summers and Champ came unglued,” Hill said. “He tried to go over the top of the dugout to go after this fan.”
Summers didn’t make it that far, but at one point the Padres’ Kurt Bevacqua became so angry that he went after a fan and had to be restrained by police officers on top of the dugout.
A now-shirtless Whitson also had to be restrained as he divided his anger between the fans and the Braves on the field – producing a memorable demeanor that was mentioned in real time on the broadcast, and independently recalled 35 years later by multiple bat boys.
It was a look of vengeance.
“I remember the look in Ed Whitson’s eyes,” Hill said. “It was a look that I went, ‘Oh, s—.’ I didn’t want to see Ed like that – ever.”
Fan stupidity wasn’t limited to monkey shines near the Padres’ dugout.
Further down the left field line, a guy stormed the field and tried to steal a batting helmet. It didn’t work out.
“I remember this idiot jumping the fence in front of me and running down to the third-base line,” Hill said. “And (Braves infielder) Jerry Royster … just kind of tackles him, throws him back on the ground, kicks him in the butt and says, ‘Get the hell off the field.'”
The ninth-inning circus and ensuing delay lasted nearly 15 minutes. The umpires ordered both teams’ benches to the clubhouse for the remainder of the game. Only the players on the field, a couple of bat boys, and some bullpen personnel were allowed to remain.
Phillips was one who got to stay.
“It could’ve been worse than it was, I’ve gotta be honest. It could’ve been worse,” he said, noting that the decision by either umpire Steve Rippley or John McSherry to send both teams to the clubhouse “was probably the smartest decision he ever made.
“At least in my dugout, there were a lot of really ticked-off people,” he said.
In the end, the Padres scored two runs off reliever Gene Garber in the ninth, but the Braves held on for a 5-3 win. Not that the outcome mattered much.
‘Stay tuned for Round 2’
The end of the game put a stop to the physical hostilities, but then verbal barbs took over. The Padres blamed the Braves. The Braves blamed the Padres. Both sides expected the nastiness to continue when they met again in late September.
A colorful sampling of the postgame commentary:
Joe Torre: “Dick Williams is an idiot. Spell that with a capital ‘I’ and a small ‘w.'”
Dick Williams: “Tell Joe Torre to stick that finger he’s pointing.”
More Williams, blaming Pascual Perez: “There is not enough mustard in the state of Georgia to cover Mr. Perez.”
Pascual Perez, denying intent: “I’m no hot dog.”
Jerry Royster: “Too much went on for it to be over with. We’re looking for it.”
Bobby Brown: “Stay tuned for Round 2.”
Both clubhouses were understandably more energized than usual, especially the Padres’.
“Typically, it’s pretty quiet (after a loss). That’s how you act. You’re pissed that you lost. You can hear a pin drop, basically,” said Mike Hill, Dave’s brother, who was 22 and working as a San Diego clubhouse attendant that day. “But this particular one, they were talking throughout, from the beginning – what was going on, who did that, who did what. … It was not your typical loss environment.”
The Braves’ clubhouse had a different kind of energy.
“That era of players that played with each other, they may or may not have been overly great as a team, but boy they were close. … That group of guys in the early ’80s, they were a real brotherhood,” Phillips said. “A really great way to describe the clubhouse after that game, it was a huge amount of respect for each other.”
Meanwhile, the aftermath extended beyond the Braves and Padres. There was at least some thought that the fallout from ugliness could have some kind of league-wide impact. Minutes after the game ended, Kolb walked into the umpire’s room and saw an exasperated McSherry on the phone with the league office.
“I remember this quote: He said, ‘This has put baseball back 50 years,'” Kolb said.
In hindsight, obviously, that turned out not to be true. But it did garner a lot of national attention . News outlets, including ABC’s famed “Nightline,” broadcast stories about it. The craziness was the buzz of baseball, especially in the National League, for a while after.
“We showed that clip to every single team that came in (after that), maybe even the next year,” Mike Hill said with a chuckle. “We would show that tape because guys wanted to see it all the time. It was big during the rest of that season.”
‘There’s nothing like that day’
As much as everyone expected the battle to continue when the teams met again nearly six weeks later, it just … didn’t. Time might not heal all wounds, but it apparently healed these.
By the time they played again, the Padres had already clinched the division. Torre and Williams made up and everything was fine. Perez even earned a win in the rematch, with no extra-curricular activities.
Since then, the events of Aug. 12, 1984, have never really left the baseball spotlight. Even after more than three decades, the day routinely ranks high, if not at the top, on lists of the biggest sports brawls of all time . It’s even been commemorated on a T-shirt .
For the bat boys and ball boys, the day was a mix of anxiety, anger, some excitement and a little bit of fear – and not necessarily in equal parts.
“I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?'” Dave Hill said. “Because I played baseball my entire life, all the way through high school, and I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this – ever.'”
It was the kind of day that, even with the passage of dozens of years, keeps memories fresh.
“It was a non-stop kind of day,” Kolb said. “You’d have to be there to get the sense of it.”
There would be other wild days at the ballpark for some of those bat boys – the 19-inning “Rick Camp Game” in 1985 and Horner’s four-homer game in 1986 among them – but Aug. 12, 1984, was its own brand of special.
“There’s nothing like that day,” Phillips said. “Here I am, 30-something years later, and it’s still somewhat vivid in my mind.”