When a pitcher fails four straight times to win his 20th game—twice throwing complete games and once allowing only one run and six hits over nine innings for a no-decision—he might reasonably be forgiven some overt expression of frustration. Shattering the dugout water cooler, maybe, or toppling the postgame meal table. Pitchers have done worse under less trying circumstances.
But Dave Stewart, who last Friday pitched a near masterpiece in his fourth shot at number 20, only to see his Oakland A's lose 2-1 in the 10th, is made of sterner stuff. "I'm a little short on the lucky side," he philosophized to reporters afterward. "But I'm not frustrated."
Stewart, no stranger to adversity, could afford a measure of serenity. His record was now 19-12, and he would probably get two more chances to win the big one before the end of the season. But even if he falls short, 19 won't be bad for someone who has never won more than 10 in a season, particularly when, at the end of last week, no other pitcher had 20 victories either. Stewart had 197 strikeouts, 251 innings pitched and a 3.63 ERA, statistics that ranked him among the top American League starters. On a pitching staff seemingly as vulnerable to illness and injury as La Grande Armèe in retreat from Moscow, he has not missed a start all year. Early on, the team lost key starters Moose Haas and Joaquin Andujar. Ace reliever Jay Howell fell by the wayside later with a sore arm, and Curt Young, who was supposed to be the A's workhorse, has won only four games since the All-Star break. Stewart, on the other hand, has been a genuine stopper, with 13 of his 19 victories following A's defeats.
And this is a guy who, when Oakland gave him a break early last season, was considered washed-up. He was a supposed malcontent coming off bone chip surgery, a free agent nobody wanted. And his off-field adventures, which included a 1985 arrest for "lewd conduct" with a transvestite prostitute, scarcely enhanced his prospects. But the A's took a chance on him and discovered somewhat to their amusement that not only was he a winner (he was 9-5 last season), a hard worker and a clubhouse leader but, as catcher Mickey Tettleton describes him, "absolutely the nicest guy you're ever gonna meet." If there was any doubt, the A's announced last week that Stewart had received the team's community-service award for his local fund-raising efforts and for lectures on such topics as drug abuse.
October 4, 1987
But Stew, as he's called, has been around the block too many times in his 30 years to risk breaking an arm patting himself on the back. "I've really been trying to concentrate on the ball club and the pennant race," he says, in a high voice that hardly fits his rugged physique. "But now that the season is coming to an end, I'm starting to realize that, hey, I've really had a good year. I'd never even dreamed of winning 20 games. I knew that if I got the chance I could be a good pitcher, but.... Anyway, I won't dwell on it until it's all over." Besides, he says, getting this far "hasn't been easy."
Stewart grew up in a tough neighborhood not far from the Oakland Coliseum that was made even tougher, he regretfully acknowledges, by his own belligerence. "I was a menace as a kid," he recalls. "A fighter, a rebel without a cause. They couldn't contain me. My mom kept switching me to different, stricter schools, but I didn't get any better. For some reason, and I'm still not sure why, I just didn't like people in general. I loved my family—there were seven of us, five girls and two boys—but I couldn't get along with anyone else. I suppose a part of it was that I would look at other kids and see they had more than I had. I'd had to work after school regularly since I was 12. Even in high school, where I played football, basketball and baseball, I pumped gas after practice."
By his junior year at St. Elizabeth High he became, he says, "just a different person. A P.E. teacher named Bob Howard would talk to me by the hour about trying harder, about doing something with myself. And then, during that time, I was influenced by a childhood friend, Wornel Simpson. I'd known him since I was four, and he'd never done anything bad in his life. He was as good as I was bad."
Stewart had 26 football scholarship offers when he graduated from St. Elizabeth in 1975, but he signed with the Dodgers. For several off-seasons he took classes at Merritt College in Oakland and Cal State-Hayward, and says he will someday fulfill a promise to his mother and get a degree, "even if I'm an old guy on a campus full of kids."
He had been a catcher in high school, but the Dodgers switched him to pitcher. Because he could throw a 95-mph fastball, he quickly became "Smoke" Stewart. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to go with the smoke, and as Stewart became painfully aware, "The only way you can get by with nothing but a fastball is in short relief." The Dodgers tried him there, spelling ace closer Steve Howe. They also tried him as a middle reliever and a spot starter. Finally, in August 1983, they traded him to Texas for Rick Honeycutt, who, in a typical baseball irony, is now Stewart's teammate on the A's. Rangers manager Doug Rader wasted no time putting Stewart into the starting rotation, and he finished the year with a 5-2 record and a 2.14 ERA in eight late-season starts. But in '84 Stewart struggled at 7-14 and fell out of favor with Rader over a new pitch he was fiddling with, the forkball.
Stewart was convinced he needed something to go with his fastball and curve; Rader was not. "He had his point of view and I had mine," the pitcher says. "We never got it settled, and he was the boss." But Stewart has now been vindicated. The forkball has been his savior. Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan encouraged Stewart to throw the forkball more and more, and it has made his fastball, which still travels in the 90's, all the more effective.
Stewart's problems on the mound in Texas were nothing compared with his problems off it. During spring training in 1984, he told a Texas newspaper he had known all along that his Dodger teammate in the bullpen, Howe, was using cocaine. Stewart even admitted covering for Howe when he was questioned by manager Tommy Lasorda and other players. Stewart admits now he was wrong in shielding Howe. "I certainly wouldn't do it that way again," he says. "With all Steve's gone through, I probably hurt him more than I helped him. It was a mistake."
Then, in January 1985, Stewart was arrested in a parked car on a skid-row street in Los Angeles with a prostitute named "Lucille," who turned out—to Stewart's ultimate surprise and humiliation—to be a 27-year-old transvestite. The lewd conduct charges were eventually reduced to soliciting, and Stewart was fined $150 and placed on a year's probation. Only two days after his arrest in L.A., he was scheduled to appear at a banquet to accept the Dallas-Fort Worth baseball writers' "good guy" award. Showing a lot of courage, Stewart appeared at the dinner and publicly apologized for his misconduct.
"It's part of growing up, I guess," he says today. "I was going through a period where one bad thing after another seemed to be happening to me. I've learned a lesson. Now I try to do what's right, knowing that sometimes I'll fall short. Some people might think of me as a hypocrite when I speak against drugs, since I'm the guy who protected Howe. And if I'm talking to a class, they can say, 'Hey, he was the one with the prostitute.' The thing is, I know I'm a sinner. But I do try. I also know you never finish growing."
Stewart had hit rock bottom in Texas. He was 0-6 in 42 appearances in 1985 and was traded to the Phillies in September. In the off-season he had surgery to remove two small bone chips from his pitching elbow, but the Phillies released him in May '86. He went cap-in-hand to Oakland, which with few expectations hired him. Stewart pitched just one game for the A's Tacoma farm club before being called up on May 29 to work out of the bullpen. He was cuffed around for 13 earned runs in 22⅖ innings in June and seemed to be headed nowhere. Then, on June 26, Jackie Moore was fired as manager, and six days later Tony La Russa was hired to replace him. La Russa, desperately in need of starting pitching, consulted Duncan and decided to give Stewart a shot. La Russa had not yet joined the team when he called Stewart on Friday, July 4, at the A's hotel in Milwaukee and told him, "If you want the ball on Monday, you've got it." Stewart wanted it. On July 7, in La Russa's debut as manager, Stewart beat Roger Clemens and the Red Sox 6-4 in Boston before a national television audience. He has never looked back.
"The thing is," says pitching coach Duncan, "it just couldn't happen to a nicer guy."