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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sammy Stewart

"I went to a party [in 1988] and there were some girls moving around a little funny after going into the bathroom. I said, ‘What are they doing?’ and they said they were smoking crack. And I said, ‘Won't that bust your heart?’ They said, ‘No, no, try it.’ The high was euphoric, super. It took away the absence of baseball."
– Sammy Stewart

Sammy Stewart had some euphoric highs. In 1978, in the very first game of his rookie season, he struck out seven Chicago White Sox batters in a row to set a record that still stands: most consecutive strikeouts in a major league debut. Stewart also owns an admirable string of scoreless innings pitched in the World Series, a mark that he did not get the chance to extend late in his career, despite being on the playoff roster of the 1986 Boston Red Sox.

My sole memory of him being on the Red Sox that year involved seeing his name on a disheartening list of available pitchers that flashed on the TV screen as the Red Sox bullpen unraveled in Game 6 of the World Series. Either just before or just after that list flashed, the tragicomedy team of pearshaped Bob Stanley and nearsighted Rich Gedman combined to allow a sloppy sinker free passage to the backstop, which allowed the tying run to score, which allowed Shea Stadium to erupt into a sound that, had I myself been an available reliever in the Boston bullpen, would have caused me to lose control of my bladder.

Before the hobbling, mustachioed man playing first base ever got involved, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was over. Like every other Red Sox fan, I’d already been feeling pretty doomed the moment that the camera swung away from the image of undone would-be closer and future icon of the notion of "failure face," Calvin Schiraldi, to the image of the bullpen door swinging open to reveal that our fate lay in the hands of Bob Stanley. And once the tying run actually did cross the plate, forget it. I knew there was no way things could possibly end well. Not with that crowd roaring like 50,000 Roman spectators greeting the arrival into the arena of hunger-enraged lions. Not with the ghost of Enos Slaughter leading off first, the ghost of Bucky Dent in the batter’s box. Not with our only hope resting on Bob Stanley, Steve Crawford, Joe Sambito, and . . . Sammy Stewart? Since when did we have Sammy Stewart?

The Red Sox had used Crawford and Sambito sparingly in the playoffs, and both had still found ways to hemorrhage runs. The fact that the Red Sox hadn’t used Stewart at all suggested to me that he must have been an even worse option than his fellow last resorts. I remembered him in previous years as part of the effective army of relievers the Orioles deployed in their quietly ass-kicking manner, but I figured that he must have lost it, that he was washed up, a has-been. To use a metaphor that at that very moment was yet in its embryonic stage, I just assumed Stewart must have already taken that slow malodorous Greyhound to Schiraldiville.

Sammy Stewart claims that this is not so. He had hurt his arm earlier in the season, but by the World Series he was feeling strong. He believes Red Sox manager John McNamara had it in for him and so avoided using him. There’s no telling what would have happened if he had come in with the game still in question, but it’s probably safe to say that the man who had not allowed a run in 7 2/3 innings of World Series work with the Orioles would not be overwhelmed by the spotlight.

As the above quote from Sammy Stewart suggests, being away from the spotlight was another story. He lasted one more year in the majors and then, according to "Rock Bottom," a harrowing October 25, 2006, Boston Globe story by Stan Grossfeld, he began compiling a different set of stats: 26 arrests, 43 criminal charges, 6 prison stints. Stewart is currently incarcerated at the Piedmont Correctional Institution in North Carolina for being a habitual felon, felony drug possession, and failure to appear in court on a felony charge.

The baseball card above is from 1980, just after Sammy Stewart’s first full season in the majors, during which he helped the Orioles win the 1979 pennant. He led the strong Oriole bullpen in innings pitched, won 8 games, and posted a 3.56 ERA, then added 2 2/3 scoreless innings of work in the World Series. The Orioles lost in seven games to the Pirates that year, but Stewart’s expression seems to show that he’s not too worried about the defeat. Why should he be? He’s got years and years of baseball still to play.

The Orioles returned to the World Series in 1983, and Stewart again took the ball in key spots and again pitched flawlessly, and this time the Orioles won. The following season Stewart received his World Champion ring, which he subsequently relinquished while suffering the absence of baseball.

40 Comments:

Blogger Jon said...

I remember Stewart most probably from Dan Okrent's book Nine Innings, which was about an early summer 1982 tilt between Milwaukee and Baltimore.

PS - I thought that you might get a kick out of my contribution to the literature on 1970's baseball:

http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=1331&pid=15300

12:13 PM  
Blogger Josh Wilker said...

Thanks for that link to your Jim Willoughby essay, Jon--you were right, I did get a kick out of it (except for having to relive Darrel Johnson's boneheaded removal of Willoughby in game 7 of the '75 series).

And for anybody who hasn't checked out the site that the Jim Willoughby essay is on, it's called The Baseball Biography Project and it's a baseball junkie's dream (http://bioproj.sabr.org/).

1:17 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Amen to both of the above.

Loved the essay, as always.

Reminds me of playing the 1985 Red Sox using Strat O Matic during the 1986 season , and shoehorning the 1985 Seaver and Stewart onto the Boston team...well....just because.

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Blogger Ian said...

26 arrests. I read that days ago here, but just had to come back and ponder that a bit.

I haven't [knock, knock] endured quite that kind of descent to rock bottom... it's hard to picture how you get arrested 26 times. Yeesh.

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