Only John Lowenstein, the zany mountain man accustomed to backpacking in the Rockies, could have done it.
In a driving snow storm with 35 mph winds and a wind-chill factor near zero, the Baltimore Oriole left fielder blasted a 400-foot home run through the gale in the bottom of the eighth inning to beat the Texas Rangers, 4-2, tonight before a wildly cheerful crowd of 6,305 in Memorial Stadium.
Moments after Lowenstein's hit off Ranger knuckle baller Charlie Hough had crashed into the empty bleachers beyond the Rangers' bullpen in right, ending a 2-2 tie, rookie Leo Hernandez homered deep into the seats in the left field corner for an insurance icicle.
Starter Storm Davis, who worked five innings, and victorious reliever Sammy Stewart, who was overpowering the final four shutout innings, held the frost-bitten Texans to three hits as the Orioles--normally horrendous in April--won their third straight game and sixth in their last eight. The Orioles are 7-4 and remain in first place in the AL East.
By the time Lowenstein launched his homer, snow was swirling wildly about the diamond and the umpires were periodically calling time until the wind abated enough to allow play to continue. No one could recall an Orioles game played in such blizzard conditions. By the fifth inning, the U.S. weather bureau said, the wind chill factor was down to 6 degrees, and that was before the snow started in earnest.
Before the eighth inning, the public address system announced, "Will the driver with Saskatchewan license plates please report to your sled. Your dogs are ready."
"Nobody was even out there to greet me at home plate," lamented Lowenstein, the hero of perhaps the most bizarre ball game in modern Orioles annals. "And there were only three guys in the dugout. They're not fools. Everybody was back in the clubhouse where it's warm."
Lowenstein loves to climb mountains, run rapids and generally meet nature on its own terms. But this evening was too much even for him. "Even mountain men have the sense to wear equipment . . . appropriate to their task," he said before the game.
"Hitting a knuckle ball in a snowstorm is not easy," he said, deadpanned. "Once, in Milwaukee, I hit a home run in a whirlwind. I picked a breaking ball out of the debris. Tonight, I was fortunate that the flakes weren't bigger."
Appropriately, the Orioles' winning pitcher was the team's other super-flake, Stewart. "Sometimes, John and I aren't quite right," he said, grinning devilishly. "It was our kinda night."
Stewart and the bullpen denizens kept warm by sitting in a station wagon beyond the outfield fence, heaters turned on high and the game playing on the radio. Credit for the novel idea, and thus, perhaps, the "save," should go to clubhouse man Jimmy Tyler.
Before the homers by Lowenstein and Hernandez, the tone of this game was clear: the Rangers couldn't touch the Orioles' heaters and the Orioles blew one scoring chance after another. "Everybody was saying, 'Great night for a 17-inning game,' " said Stewart. "I could just see me givin' up a walk, a sacrifice bunt and some chink hit and I'm out there sayin', 'Come on fellas, wait a minute. Let's play some more. That isn't the end of the game is it?' "
After the homers, all those fears disappeared.
"Leo's sitting in the clubhouse moanin' about how his relatives are watching the game on Super TV somewhere and he can't hit a knuckle ball," said Stewart. "He's sayin', 'I no can hit that crazy pitch.' Next thing you know, 'Ka-boom!' he's drilled it right through the wind into the seats. That ball was crushed. That's the first time I ever saw fans in the bleachers run from a ball."
Texas Manager Doug Radar called this "the coldest game I've ever been in, by a considerable margin. All the others come in second.
"Oh, my god, those poor buggers (his players), I'm just proud of 'em for goin' out there . . . I know Joe (Altobelli) wanted to call the game before we ever exchanged lineup cards. Well, that was the rumor."
Altobelli said he hadn't asked Orioles management for a postponement.
The frozen few were treated to a fascinating ball game, one which at times resembled baseball. In the first, Dan Ford singled, Cal Ripken Jr. doubled and back-to-back walks by Lowenstein and Jim Dwyer forced home a run.
Texas answered in the third with two runs on a swinging bunt hit, a throwing error by Hernandez, an RBI sliced bloop double by George Wright, an error by Ripken on a pickoff throw and an RBI ground out by Bucky Dent. The Orioles tied the game in their third when Ripken doubled again and Lowenstein singled him home.
Thereafter, the game went into the deep freeze until Lowenstein hit one of the most picturesque game-winning homers any fan could see.
"It looked real pretty on TV," said Ripken.
What most Orioles never saw, and so will never remember, was the breathtaking sight of Lowenstein's lomg snowball boring its way through a black sky awash with swirling clouds of snow. The storm was barrelling across the green tableau of the park from the left field foul pole to the right field line, but that home run ignored it.
It was a sight seldom seen on a major league baseball field, but for the few who witnessed it, a treat well worth the risk of frostbite.