Rick Camp and Rick Mahler: Santurce Crabbers Imports and Atlanta Braves Teammates (Part I)

Rick Mahler with Santurce

Rick Camp and Rick Mahler were born in 1953—Camp in Trion, Georgia, on June 10; and, Mahler, in Austin, Texas, on August 5. They were Atlanta Braves teammates, 1980-85. Part I highlights the big-league and winter league careers of Camp and Rick Mahler; thoughts from Paul Hartzell, Camp’s 1976-77 Santurce Crabbers teammate, and Rick Mahler’s 1980-81 La Guaira Sharks teammate. Dale Murphy caught the Mahler brothers in the Dominican Republic, 1977-78. Jack McKeon was Camp’s 1976-77 skipper. Ray Miller managed Mahler with the 1983-84 Crabbers. Rene Lachemann managed Mahler and Hartzell, 1980-81 Sharks, and Hartzell, with Milwaukee, September 1984. Part II will cover the 19-inning New York Mets-Atlanta Braves six-hour-and-10-minute game, excluding two rain delays, on July 4-5, 1985. Rick Mahler started it and Camp—who hit his only big-league homer in the 18th inning—lost it, 16-13.

Camp: West Georgia College to Richmond, Santurce, and Atlanta

Camp was drafted by Atlanta in the seventh round (1974) via West Georgia College Braves. His September 15, 1976, big-league debut was with Atlanta, managed by Dave Bristol, two days after catcher Dale Murphy’s September 13 debut. Murphy was Atlanta’s number one draft pick, in the 1974 draft. Jack McKeon managed Camp with the 1976 Richmond Braves, when Camp pitched 49 games, started 14, completed four, and recorded one SHO and seven saves. McKeon suggested that Camp fine-tune his relief work with 1976-77 Santurce.

Santurce owner Hiram Cuevas and GM Carlos Pieve flew to New York City to watch Hartzell’s start for the 1976 California Angels at Yankee Stadium. They were impressed by his poise and control. They went to Richmond to scout Camp, lefty Frank La Corte, and sign McKeon to manage them, in Puerto Rico’s Winter League (PRWL). Cuevas moved from their first base box seats to behind the screen facing home plate when Camp came in. Moments later, laughter broke out near the screen. Cuevas fell asleep and began snoring. The home plate ump was laughing. Richmond and Santurce infielder Manuel “Nolín” Ruiz alerted Pieve through signs to check out this scene. Pieve discovered that Cuevas had narcolepsy and could sleep at a moment’s notice under strange circumstances and understood why his domino partner suddenly dozed off. Pieve served as an Angels scout in Puerto Rico, thanks to Cuevas’s friendship with Angels executive Harry Dalton, and discovered that Angels minor-league second baseman Julio Cruz was of Puerto Rican descent.

Camp, La Corte and Ramón “Mon” Hernández gave Santurce a solid bullpen trio, with Camp’s 3-2 record, 3.81 ERA, and 15 strikeouts in 26 innings. Hernández was 2-2, 3.16 ERA, fanning 14 in 25.2 innings. Fourth-place (32-27) Crabbers qualified for the semis but lost to Caguas (40-20) in six. Santurce had four catchers: Elrod Hendricks, Luis Isaac, Ron Pruitt, and Orlando Sánchez, with versatile Pruitt playing the outfield. Danny Walton and Wayne Gross covered first and third. Santurce’s Tony Solaita hit 11 homers before departing, to Walton’s 12. Roger Freed’s 16 for Ponce, led the loop. On January 6, 1977, Three Kings Day, Walton won the pre-All-Star Game Home Run Derby and $100. Natives defeated the Imports [Stateside players], 8-7, at Bayamón’s Loubriel Stadium. Santurce’s double-play combo was Sandy Alomar Sr. and Nolín Ruiz. Juan Beníquez anchored the outfield. Luis “Puchi” Delgado, Orlando Isales, and Pruitt manned corner outfield spots. Ismael “Trucutú” Oquendo was the DH. Hartzell (8-2, 2.92 ERA), Santurce’s ace, ”remembered Rick and Frank Lacorte and their wives. Rick had played for Jack [McKeon] in Richmond the summer before and Jack used him as our closer. I was always glad to hand him the ball because I knew he would throw strikes and get ground balls. He went on to have a fine career with Atlanta and I’m sure his experiences in PRWL contributed to it.”

Table I includes Camp’s Atlanta pitching stats. Cooperstown Hall of Famer Bob Gibson and Rube Walker were his 1982-84 co-pitching coaches. Johnny Sain, from Havana, Arkansas, was Camp’s 1985 pitching coach. McKeon opined that “Camp benefitted from winter ball with Santurce. He worked on his sinker and made the 1977 Braves out of spring training.”

                                                                                   Rick Camp

Table I: Rick Camp’s Atlanta Pitching Statistics


#NL All-Star. Source: Baseball Reference.

Camp is eighth in games pitched and seventh in saves for the Braves franchise (Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta) per Table II.

Table II: Top 10 Braves Leaders—Games Pitched and Saves

Phil Niekro740Craig Kimbrel186
Warren Spahn708John Smoltz154
John Smoltz708Gene Garber141
Gene Garber557Mark Wohlers112
Kid Nichols557John Rocker83
Tom Glavine518Cecil Upshaw79
Lew Burdette468Rick Camp57
Rick Camp414Mike Stanton55
Mark Wohlers388Jim Johnson51
Greg Maddux363Arodys Vizcaíno50

Source: Baseball Reference.

Rick Mahler: Trinity University, Minors, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela

Mahler pitched collegiately for Trinity University, in San Antonio, Texas, before signing with Atlanta as a 1975 free agent. His 1975-79 minor league experience was mainly as a reliever with Kingston (Appalachian League), Greenwood (Western Carolina League), Savannah (Southern League), and Richmond Braves. He transitioned to starter in 1980 and 1983 stints with Richmond before a 1990 rehab start for the Nashville (Tennessee) Sounds, Cincinnati Reds Triple-A affiliate.

Winter ball in the Dominican Republic (LIDOM), and Venezuela (LVBP), was a plus. His 1977-78 Estrellas Orientales (EO) played home games at Tetelo Vargas Stadium in San Pedro de Macoris. EO’s catcher was 21-year-old Dale Murphy. Cincinnati prospect Ray Knight played third. Murphy played 57 games, with a .234/.289/.367 slash line, and .656 OPS with seven homers and 31 RBIs. Knight’s slash line was .232/.302/.339. Rick (6-8 W-L) and Mickey Mahler (7-3) combined for 30 starts and 13 wins for 27-30 EO. Rick’s 16 starts and three CGs comprised 110 innings. He fanned 53 and walked 34, with a 2.95 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. Mickey hurled 95.2 innings, with a league-leading 80 strikeouts, and 35 walks. (Mickey’s 40 wins and 17 losses in nine seasons resulted in a LIDOM all-time best .702 career W-L PCT.) Dale Murphy recalled: “That winter was important. I’m from Portland, Oregon, where it rains a lot, and didn’t play many high school games.”

EO’s three 1977-78 skippers were Pedro “Speedy” González (2-4), Wes Westrum (6-10), and Tommie Aaron (19-19). EO was defeated by Águilas Cibaeñas, managed by Johnny Lipon, in the semis, three games to one. Rick Mahler was 0-3, 5.91 ERA for Escogido in 1979-80, and 2-0, 3.53 ERA, for Felipe Alou’s Escogido Lions, 1981-82. Escogido toppled EO, five games to one, in the finals. Pedro Guerrero, Clint Hurdle, and Tim Wallach were Escogido’s top hitters. Rick’s sole Caribbean Series start in Caracas came on February 7, 1982. He went 10.2 innings, in losing 1-0 to series winners Caracas Lions (5-1 W-L) managed by Alfonso “Chico” Carrasquel. Escogido’s line-up included catcher Tony Peña, Julio Franco, and Alfredo Griffin. (The author’s 2024 Caribbean Series history book will have more details.)

Rick’s 5-2 mark and 2.31 ERA in nine 1978-79 starts for Lara Cardinals (LVBP) helped him in 1979 spring training before his April 20, 1979 Atlanta debut. Mickey went 7-4 for Lara in 11 starts, with a 2.92 ERA. On September 25, 1979, the brothers pitched for Atlanta versus Houston at Fulton County Stadium. Rick returned to Venezuela, 1980-81, to pitch for La Guaira, managed by Rene Lachemann. “I managed Mayagüez to the 1978 Caribbean Series title and 1979-80 Arecibo,” noted Lachemann. “Venezuela gave me a chance to manage in another league with talented natives and imports.”  

La Guaira used 40 players. “Rick Mahler (7-2 W-L) was the best pitcher on the team in Venezuela,” said Hartzell. “I remember watching him warm up and being impressed with his slider and control. He seemed like a player ready to do well in the game and he soon did.” Hartzell added: “We had a huge number of import players on that team and league rules allowed only 6 or 8 to be active for each game. I had won 10 games for Rochester and just wanted to pitch every 5th day in winter ball to show an organization I could continue as an MLB pitcher. That situation wasn’t for me and I came home early. Rene knew the game but most of my memories were spending time with one of his sons and helping him with his math homework!”

Dan Graham and Brian Harper caught for La Guaira. Jesse Orosco and Juan Berenguer were on that staff. La Guaira’s third-base coach was Pompeyo Davalillo. “I learned many years later that he was a well-known player for the Havana Sugar Kings in the 1950s,” stated Hartzell. “He knew the game and seldom if ever made a mistake with base runners…very nice man. Venezuela’s rabid baseball fans were much like those in Puerto Rico—knowledgeable and passionate. The difference in Caracas was they would throw bottle caps and firecrackers through the screen as you walked off the field.” https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/paul-hartzell/

                                                                         Rick Mahler, 1980-81 Tiburones de La Guaira                                                                           Credit: Personal collection of Luis Rodríguez

Rick Mahler with Santurce, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Montreal

Ray Miller managed Mahler with 1983-84 Santurce; led Caguas to the 1980-81 PRWL title; handled the delicate balance between winning and preserving fresh arms down the stretch. “Now and then you had to take one on the chin,” said Miller. “I did this in Caguas and Santurce to rest my pitching staff. Eduardo Figueroa retired on November 29, 1983 due to injuries after one start and two relief appearances. Mahler and Bob Walk helped pick up the slack. In 1987, he was glad Pittsburgh hired Ray Miller as their pitching coach. Walk: “I had already dealt with him [Miller] in Puerto Rico and knew what to expect.”

This was Rick’s most enjoyable winter with 10 wins, time on island golf courses, modern amenities, and U.S. currency. That winter turned Mahler’s career around and he became a better big-league pitcher. Mahler’s 10 wins are a landmark; no other PRWL pitcher since won in double figures nor surpassed his 113 innings. Santurce fans called him “El Incansable” (never tires). His 10-2 mark helped Santurce (31-30) finish third, behind Ponce (32-29). Mahler bested Ponce, 3-2, Game One of their semis, January 19, 1984. He pitched Game Five, a 10-inning Santurce win, and relieved John Pacella in Game Seven after Walk was lifted early in Ponce’s 5-3 victory. Mahler enjoyed pitching to Jerry Willard, PRWL MVP, a .338 BA, league-leading 18 homers, 48 RBIs, and 51 runs. His 18 homers surpassed Joshua Gibson’s 13 for 1941-42 Santurce but Gibson hit one HR every 9.46 AB to Willard’s one homer/11.17 AB. Center fielder John Shelby, MVP of PRWL All-Star Game, was the Crabbers’ third center fielder in three decades to join them shortly after winning a World Series title—Willie Mays (1954-55), Paul Blair (1966-67), and Shelby (1983-84).

Mahler helped  Joe Torre’s Braves win the 1982 NL West before St. Louis defeated them in the NLCS. He pitched five Opening Days for Atlanta, 1982 and 1985-88, going 4-0, with a 0.92 ERA in 39 innings. He allowed 20 hits; fanned 15 and walked 11. In his first four openers, he did not permit earned runs in 34 innings, per Bill Shanks’s March 26, 2020 blog: https://www.si.com/mlb/braves/news/rick-mahler-thrived-on-opening-day-for-the-braves. In 1990, he was Cincinnati’s spot starter and long reliever, earning his only World Series ring after the Reds swept the Oakland A’s. He finished his big-league career with the 1991 Braves but was released before the post-season. Table III includes his NL, Minors, and Winter Leagues pitching statistics.

Table III: Rick Mahler’s NL, Minors and Winter Leagues Pitching Statistics

LVBPTwo     12-42.29     
PRWLOne     10-23.50113 55  

Sources: Baseball Reference, winterball data, Luis Rodríguez, and Jorge Colón Delgado.


The author met Rick Mahler at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, in January 1992, before a San Juan-Santurce round-robin baseball game. Mahler was signed by the San Juan Metros for the post-season. He introduced himself to the author and asked: “What’s the scoop?” Mahler proceeded, amicably, to answer questions. San Juan (29-21) finished first in the regular season; and won the four-team round-robin (8-2 mark), but lost the finals to second-place Mayagüez (28-22), five games to four. Luis Rodríguez Mayoral, Metros front office administrator, helped facilitate the signing of imports. “Mahler was a gentleman and a good person,” recalled Mayoral. Jerry Royster managed San Juan and Claude Osteen was Mahler’s last pitching coach, albeit for the post-season.

Paul Hartzell concluded his big-league career in September 1984, with Milwaukee. “When I came back to Milwaukee in 1984 I played at every [1984] level of minor league baseball from Stockton to El Paso to Vancouver and when I joined the team in Milwaukee, Rene came out of his office and shook my hand and said ‘I have a lot of respect for what you did this summer to get back here,’ which was a classy thing to do.” Hartzell’s gap between big-league pitching appearances was four years and 83 days.

Special thanks to Paul Hartzell, Rene Lachemann, Jack McKeon, Rick Mahler, Ray Miller, Dale Murphy, Carlos Pieve, Luis Rodríguez (LVBP expert), Luis Rodríguez Mayoral, and Bob Walk. Jorge Colón Delgado did editing and photo placements.

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