It was one line of tiny type in the spring of 1986, and it hardly raised an eyebrow. The Oakland Athletics had offered a minor league contract to pitcher Dave Stewart.
Who cared? The hapless A’s were on their way to an 86-loss season, and Stewart appeared to be playing himself out of the game. In the previous 12 months, he had been traded from the Texas Rangers to the Philadelphia Phillies for a pitcher named Rich Surhoff.
The Phillies had been so impressed that they used him in 8 games before putting his name on the waiver wire. At 29, Dave Stewart had hit rock bottom.
“No, I never really lost confidence in myself,” Stewart says. “I had lost confidence in baseball. I knew if I got a chance, I could still pitch. I’m not saying I wasn’t down, because you never know where your next chance is going to come from.”
In the end, it came from the best place possible--his hometown A’s. Stewart’s friend Frank Robinson couldn’t get him even a tryout with the Baltimore Orioles, and the A’s, who were in Baltimore at the time, looked at Stewart only because he was convenient.
They signed him to a contract with triple-A Tacoma, and after one game, Stewart was back in the majors. Two years later, he has become one of baseball’s remarkable success stories, going 50-30 in 2-plus seasons and establishing himself as the best pitcher on what may be the best team in the game.
He’s the first Oakland pitcher since Catfish Hunter to win 20 games in consecutive seasons, and when the A’s clinched the American League pennant last Sunday, Stewart got the victory with a performance that Boston Red Sox Manager Joe Morgan called “as strong as I’ve seen all year. He must have been throwing 95 m.p.h. The ball was just exploding.”
It was a perfect moment, and in some ways a celebration of 1986, the summer Tony La Russa was hired as manager, outfielder Jose Canseco was promoted to the big leagues and Stewart’s career was reborn. During the champagne celebration Sunday, La Russa announced that Stewart, the Athletics’ ace and spiritual leader, will be back on the mound for Game 1 of the 1988 World Series Saturday at Dodger Stadium.
“He’s the guy we want out there,” La Russa said. “I love Dave Stewart. I love his approach. He’s one of the most intense competitors I’ve ever seen. When I took him out (Sunday), he had that same death stare that he’d started the game with. It gives your team a lot of confidence when your pitcher is throwing the ball like that.”
Two years ago, though, a nightmarish period in Stewart’s life was just ending. It began in 1983, when the Dodgers, who signed him out of Oakland’s St. Elizabeth’s High School in 1975, traded him to the Texas Rangers.
There, he shuttled between the rotation and the bullpen, he feuded with Manager Doug Rader, and in the winter after the 1984 season, he suffered the most embarrassing incident of his life--being arrested for soliciting a female impersonator outside a Los Angeles bar.
“I’ll never live that down--ever,” he said. He learned that lesson again last week when he warmed up at Fenway Park as hundreds of fans chanted “Lucille"--the name the transvestite gave Stewart.
“I’d like to thank those fans for motivating me,” he said after pitching 6 innings in the Athletics’ Game 1 victory.
He had other problems. During the spring of 1984, he admitted having helped cover up pitcher Steve Howe’s cocaine use during several Dodger games. Stewart said he was doing what he could to help a friend. Now, he says, “I’d handle that situation totally different.”
Once, after being booed in Texas, he directed a tirade at the fans, saying he didn’t need the abuse of “John the bread maker and gas-station attendants.”
His problems off the field might have been a product of his troubles on it. He and Rader almost came to blows on more than one occasion.
“I just came apart down there,” Stewart said. “One of the differences now is I don’t have Doug Rader looking over my shoulder. I’ve got a manager who respects my ability.”
He remembered a game in the spring of 1985.
“I was working on a forkball against the Orioles and getting hit hard,” he said. “I know it wasn’t pretty, but it was something I needed to do. (Rader) got tired of seeing it and came to the mound. He openly embarrassed me, pointing his finger in my face. Then he followed me into the clubhouse to yell at me. He called me out (to fight). I think he was surprised I didn’t back down.”
Rader was fired a few months later, but Stewart was in a downward spiral that ended in his release by the Phillies.
Stewart said Rader called his forkball a ridiculous pitch and ordered him to put it in his pocket.
But it was the development of that forkball that a lot of baseball people credit with turning Stewart’s career around. Dave Duncan, Oakland’s pitching coach, noted that Stewart had terrific velocity, but that his fastball was straight as an arrow.
“To tell him to stick with the fastball, that’s one of those macho National League attitudes,” Duncan said. “Over there, they see a guy throw 94 m.p.h., and that’s all they think he should throw.
“The thing was, Dave didn’t have great control or movement just using that pitch. The forkball gave him an off-speed pitch he could control. He can throw that thing for strikes almost whenever he wants.”
Scouting reports told opponents to wait for the fastball, which was hard but true. Yet, soon after Stewart returned to the majors, he suddenly had a forkball that also was hard, but dipped sharply as it approached home plate.
“He’s got an outstanding fastball,” Boston right fielder Dwight Evans said. “But he’s got a great forkball, and you have to keep it in the back of your mind.”
The change has been remarkable. Last season, his first full one with the A’s, Stewart went 20-13 with 8 complete games in a workhorse 261 innings. This season, he bettered that by going 21-12 with 14 complete games in 275 innings.
On a staff that’s deep and talented, Stewart is the acknowledged leader.
“In 20 years of baseball, I’ve never met a player of higher quality,” La Russa said. “No one is more generous, more kind or more giving.”
Almost everyone seems to like Stewart. When he began to re-establish himself in 1986 and ’87, opposing players and coaches offered congratulations.
“Dave Stewart is one of the few people you meet in this game, in this world, who really cares about people,” teammate Dave Parker said.
And in the autumn of 1988, this season of the A’s, Stewart has become a folk hero in his hometown.
He leads an anti-drug program and is a director of the Oakland Boys Club. He launched Kid Corp., which has gotten corporations involved in refurbishing ghetto neighborhoods. He also outfits eight youth baseball teams.
“This is my hometown,” he said. “I’d always planned on coming back here when I was 34 or 35, but coming back to play ball is a dream come true. I used to sneak in to see Reggie (Jackson) and Catfish play. I take what has been said about Oakland personally. But the sad part is that most of it is true. I see why they call it Cokeland. We do have problems with drugs here.”
He remembers his childhood, when baseball was one of the things that kept him out of trouble. “I was in and out of trouble,” he said. “I always knew where to find it.”
These days, he signs autographs and makes appearances and spends time with kids. Having seen the bottom, he clearly is enjoying the top. “It bothers me I can’t talk to all of them,” Stewart said. “I try to remember the ones I miss and get back to them the next time. . . . It’s the least I can do.”