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Why May 23 is Such a Special Day For Athletics' Dave Stewart

It was on this day in 1986 that the Oakland Athletics signed Dave Stewart as a free agent. It was the turning point in the career of the Oakland native, who would have four consecutive 20-win seasons 1987-90 and become the MVP of the 1989 World Series. This May 23 had been set aside to have his No. 34 retired by the A's, but with baseball in COVID-19 lockdown, that's been put off to next year.

Today was supposed to be Dave Stewart’s big day. The Oakland A’s had set aside Saturday, the third day of a scheduled four-game series against the Angels at the Coliseum, to honor their four-time 20-game winner by retiring his jersey, No. 34.

To be fair, 34 itself has already been retired. It was the number that Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers wore during his nine-year career in Oakland when he helped the A’s to three consecutive World Series wins 1972-73-74.

But 34 was available when Stewart, who grew up in Oakland as an A’s fan, was acquired by the A’s in 1986 after he’d been released by the Phillies.

When the A’s announced in 1992 that Fingers number was going to be retired the next year, Stewart took notice.

“Rollie is a good man,” Stewart said. “I made a call to him and asked him if he would allow me to continue to wear the number. He was totally fine with it. It was almost like `How stupid can you be to even ask.’”

It happens that 34 wasn’t the last number Stewart would wear with the A’s. He spent two seasons in Toronto 1993-94, but he came back to Oakland to close out his career in 1995. By that time, Fingers’ 34 had been retired, so Stewart wore 35 “to honor my friend Bobby Welch,” who was released by the A’s during spring training that year.

So, today was supposed to be a special day for Stewart with his number being retired. The A’s announced last year that they would be doing this, and at the time Stewart “was overwhelmed, quite frankly.”

“I’m obviously grateful to be in the company of everybody whose numbers are retired,” Stewart said. “Those guys are all all-timers.”

With the 2020 season up in the air, the ceremony honoring Stewart has been pushed off to the 2020 season. It will be emotional, to be sure, but it may not be quite the same.

That’s because May 23 was already a special day in Stewart’s career. It was on that day in 1986 when he signed with the A’s after having been released by Philadelphia two weeks earlier. At that point he was a journeyman pitcher. In six seasons he’d won 30 times and lost 35. 

"I will always be grateful to the A's for that," Stewart said. "Oakland is where I come from and it's always going to be part of me."

Oakland would prove to be a rebirth. In the next season-plus, he’d win 29 games; his 20 wins in 1987 alone made him the winningest pitcher in the American League that season.

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1987 was the first of four consecutive 20-win seasons for Stewart, who would be named the Most Valuable Player in the 1989 World Series when the A’s swept the San Francisco Giants in a Series that will always be remembered for the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit just before Game 3, delaying it for 10 days as Northern California regrouped.

After that, it was perhaps inevitable that Stewart would become the sixth player to have his number retired, following Catfish Hunter (1991), Fingers (1993), Reggie Jackson (2004), Dennis Eckersley (2005) and Rickey Henderson (2009). The No. 42 worn by Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers has been retired by the all 30 big league clubs, and Oakland in 1995 retired an honorary jersey for former owner Walter A. Haas Jr. whose 1980 purchase of the club kept it in Oakland.

“One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m good until I get into the moment,” Stewart said suggesting he would emotional even weepy a bit, when the ceremony happens. “What I mean by that is, I knew maybe a week before it happened that I was going to retire (midseason, 1995). I was good with it, brave until I started to talk to the fans on the field. This would probably be the same.”

While 34 is the number that Stewart is known for, it wasn’t his first favorite number.

“I wore 12 all the way through Little League, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack and even in the minor leagues,” Stewart said. “And then I got to my first big league camp. And the Dodgers had just traded for Dusty Baker, and 12 was his number. So, I wound up getting 48.”

Baker and Stewart would go on to become friends and teammates, and somewhere down the line “I would tell Bake I ended up with 48 because I was four times better than him.”

Having his No. 34 will be retired by his hometown team resonates strongly with Stewart.

“To do that at home in the town that I grew up in,” he said. “You know, almost no one gets an opportunity to do that. There aren’t very many players who have found their numbers retired in the stadium in the city that they grew up in. This is rare. So, when you have that emotional connection to the organization.

“And there is no city with stronger ties than the ones I have with Oakland, California. My guess would be on that actual day when it happens, once I have to speak to those fans, it will be emotional. You will see how happy I and and how much gratitude I have for the Oakland A’s in honoring me this way.”

It just won’t be today.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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