The New York Yankees were down to their last strike. The crowd of 38,646 in Memorial Stadium rose in a collective roar imploring Baltimore Oriole reliever Sammy Stewart to put the final note of triumph on this 6-4 win by the Birds.
Such a moment of triumph was this that even Edward Bennett Williams leaned out of the owner's mezzanine-level box to lead the cheers. "Great, great," bellowed the accomplished lawyer and blossoming baseball fan. "Almost super."
His face was glowing with the knowledge that his Orioles were about to complete their second consecutive victory over the Yanks, this time thanks to two homers, the second a game-winning three-run shot in the fifth, and four RBI by Terry Crowley and 4 1/3 innings of one-hit shutout relief by Stewart.
The Orioles were so excited by this victory that they may have overstepped the bounds of baseball propriety and angered a slumbering Yankee team that is far too good to taunt. On that potential final pitch -- an 0-2 delivery to lefty Dave Revering -- Stewart turned his back, picked up the resin bag, switched his glove from his left to his right hand and prepared to deliver a final strikeout pitch LEFT-HANDED. Revering, in shock, stepped out of the box before Stewart could throw. The fans may not have noticed, but every man on both teams did.
"Ask Stewart what the hell he was doing," said Graig Nettles. "I think it's illegal."
"I thought I'd seen everything in baseball," said Yankee Coach Charlie Lau, "but that was amazing."
"It was going to be a sweeping sidearm curve on the outside corner," said Stewart. "Am I kidding?Good Lord, I've been working on it for two years. I've got some nice left-handed heat, too. (Catcher Rick) Dempsey knew it might be coming. I just got up on the rubber too soon before Revering was set in the box. Sure, it's legal."
"A lot of us wondered what in the world Earl (Weaver) would say," said pitcher Mike Flanagan, instrumental as might be expected in the concoction of such a mischievous pitch. "He said, 'Sammy, if it had been a strike, you'd have been in the bullpen tomorrow night warming up left-handed.'"
Plenty of Birds were not so charmed. "As soon as I saw it," said Ray Miller, Oriole pitching coach, "I said to myself, 'Oh, my God, not now, not against these guys.' I had nothing to do with him learning it and I certainly didn't want him to do it."
Why the big worry over a little prank, even if it is an almost totally novel one?
Let Crowley, the night's other hero, explain in a roundabout way.
Crowley had hit a solo homer off rookie loser Gene Nelson, the youngest player in the majors (20), to ignite a three-run Orioles' fourth that whipped out a 2-0 Yankee lead. And the Crow had crashed Nelson's last pitch of the night into the same right field bleachers above the 360-foot sign for the three-run shot in the fifth that turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 O's lead. After the second blast, the veteran was called out for a standing ovation.
"I came out of the dugout out of respect for the fans, and because they absolutely forced me to," said Crowley, who knows the unwritten codes of the game. "But I didn't want to, I don't like to tip my hat in front of the Yankees. They're too good a team. I have too much respect for them. It shows them up and they'll remember. Older players know that. If this were the last day of the season and the win really meant something and were warranted, that would be different. But we've got months to go. It worried me."
In the first five innings, as they crushed lefty Scott McGregor for 11 hits, the Yankees left men in scoring position in every inning. "We were one hit away from breaking the game open in every inning, and didn't get the hit," said Lau. "That's been the story of the whole season."
The O's begged the Yanks to win. John Lowenstein dropped a tough Reggie Jackson bloop for a two-out RBI double. Ken Singleton played a Bucky Dent liner into a ground-rule double. Rich Dauer ran into Mark Belanger and gave Jackson another scratch hit that ended up producing a run.
But the Yanks, now 23-18 to the streaking O's 26-14, were snakebitten. With two out in the fourth, Lowenstein was called safe stealing second base when he slid under Willie Randolph's tag. Replays supported the umps. Yankee Manager Gene Michael didn't, loudly blasting away since a Doug DeCinces RBI double and a Mark Belanger RBI triple -- yes, that's right, a rope 'tweener to the warning track in right after his mighty home the night before -- immediately followed.
As if that weren't enough, just before Crowley's second homer -- and Michael's eminently questionable decision to let Nelson pitch to him -- Jackson had played a seemingly catchable Eddie Murray fly into a double (Sympathetic fans threw Jackson a life preserver as he returned to his position.)
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner also was not amused, calling the press box from Tampa, Fla., following the game to complain about the umpiring.
Nonetheless, when this night is remembered in the distant future, it will be Stewart's earnest attempt at ambidextrous pitching that will be remembered. b
"My father pitched with both arms," said Flanagan deadpan. "He was an ambiguous man."
"Yes," said Yankee reserve catcher John Oates, joining in the spirit, "I once knew a fellow who was amphibious."
It's the Orioles who are swimming away to a significant early-season lead while the sinking Yankees look ambiguous indeed.