The winningest pitcher in baseball was shopping in his local supermarket in Oakland when a woman stopped him at the produce counter. She didn't care about Dave Stewart's 8-0 record or the Oakland Athletics' 13-game winning streak. "I can't let my son go to the Boys Club anymore, because of the kids hanging out on the corners," she said. "You're on the board of directors, so I wanted you to know."
"We met with the chief of police recently," Stewart replied. "He promised help. Don't keep your son away. Be positive." Stewart shook the woman's hand, paid for his apples and oranges and headed for the ballpark.
"I'm probably the only big leaguer who's actually playing for his neighborhood team," said Stewart, who lives near where he grew up, a 10-minute walk—through side streets and tenements—from the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. As a teenager, Stewart had been a member of Reggie's Regiment, a group devoted to A's superstar Reggie Jackson. On occasion he even got money to wash Reggie's car. "A lot of people are ashamed of what's happened to my city," says Stewart. "They call it Coke-land. I want the kids today to have the same chance I had growing up. I love my situation. I don't see how it could be any better for anyone."
It certainly isn't better for any other 31-year-old righthanded pitcher at the moment. On Sunday, Stewart threw a four-hitter and beat the Cleveland Indians 5-1 for his eighth victory in his eighth start. Manager Tony La Russa says Stewart is "the backbone" of a team that at week's end was eight games ahead of the second-place Chicago White Sox and looking like it was ready to run away and hide from the rest of the American League West. Says Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, "I hope we get a chance to play Oakland before we're eliminated."
To go with its strong backbone, the Athletics have plenty of muscle. They can send up a murderers' row that includes Jose Canseco (6'3", 230 pounds), Mark McGwire (6'5", 225), Dave Parker (6'5", 235), Don Baylor (6'1", 215), Ron Hassey (6'2", 220), Dave Henderson (6'2", 220) and Carney Lansford (6'2", 205). "This team reminds me of the old Pirate clubs," says Parker, the former Pittsburgher who came over in a trade from the Cincinnati Reds last winter.
"This team has so much power, it can strike anytime," says McGwire. To wit: On April 27, Game 4 of the winning streak, Henderson belted a solo homer in the eighth inning to insure a 5-3 win in Toronto. Four days later in Cleveland, the Athletics went into the eighth inning behind 4-2 and scored six times to win 8-4. When the streak ran to 12 on Saturday in Oakland, the Indians got within 4-3 in the top of the fifth. Oakland came right back with five runs in the bottom of the inning, scored five more in the seventh and won 14-3. In six of their first 23 victories, the A's had trailed going into the seventh inning. From the seventh on, Oakland had out-scored the opposition 79-28. "That says something about character and personality," says La Russa. "Not to mention talent."
The A's have a lot of past, present and future stars, but Baylor, who was signed as a free agent after his late-season stint with last year's world champion Twins, says, "No one is allowed to get carried away with himself, no matter how well he's going." McGwire, hitting .316 with seven homers and 24 RBIs, and Lansford (.355 and 20) were going well through last week; Parker, with just two dingers, and Baylor, with a .221 average, were not. But Canseco has grabbed the headlines: He was tied for the AL lead with eight homers and staying close to the top in runs (31), RBIs (30), stolen bases (12) and walks (21).
Stewart should be making headlines, too, for his pitching, but he got his biggest notice recently when he complained about last year's Cy Young Award balloting, in which he placed third behind the Boston Red Sox' Roger Clemens and the Toronto Blue Jays' Jimmy Key. Stewart, at 20-13, and Clemens, at 20-9, were baseball's only 20-game winners last season; Key was 17-8. "I never said I was better than Clemens, because he's the best," says Stewart. "I never actually expected to win the Cy Young. What I did say was that I didn't think Clemens's complete games and shutouts [18 and seven, respectively, compared with Stewart's eight and one] were as important as some voters felt. The Red Sox were out of it." Oakland was in the pennant race until the season's final week, but Stewart went 2-4 after Sept. 1. In his defense, though, the A's averaged fewer than two runs in seven of his last eight starts.
"I don't think Stewart has gotten the respect he deserves," says Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan. "Clemens is dominant in one way. But Stewart is dominant in another. I've never seen anyone who was so consistent. He takes the same stuff to the mound every start, and every time he starts, the A's think they're going to win."
From 1981 to '86, Stewart bounced from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Texas Rangers to the Philadelphia Phillies, winning 30 games and losing 35. When the Phillies released him in May 1986, he was dejected. "I sat in a room, lights off, for three days without eating," he says. "All I wanted to do was play ball." Oakland signed him two weeks later, and when La Russa managed his first game for the A's after replacing Jackie Moore on July 7, 1986, Stewart started and beat Clemens 6-4 in Fenway Park. That day Stewart tried a fork-ball that he had learned from Sandy Koufax in 1982 but had rarely used. The forkball—which is 10-12 mph slower than a split-fingered fastball and runs away from lefthanders—is a perfect complement to his rising fastball and curve. With the A's, Stewart is 37-18, and his 28 victories over this season and last lead the majors.
Moreover, no member of the A's has ever done more than Stewart for the local community. He's on the board of directors of the Oakland Boys Clubs. He helped raise capital to save the football program at his alma mater, St. Elizabeth High. He's a leader of Just Say No, an antidrug program. He works for Volunteers of America, an organization similar to the Salvation Army, and he sponsors eight youth baseball teams. "Some of them aren't playing too well—maybe I'll become a Steinbrenner," he says, without making clear whether he has in mind trading for new players or going to the free-agent market. Last winter he and a friend, Wornell Simpson, started Stewart's Corporations for Kids, a program that seeks to get large corporations involved in rebuilding neighborhoods. "The days of government financing are over," says Stewart, "so we have to rebuild ourselves. I provide all the legwork. With the exception of the day I pitch, I have plenty of time before I get to the park."
As long as Stewart has the ball, things will be looking up for the neighborhood—and for the neighborhood team.