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Rams : Stewart Always Dreamed of Playing Baseball

December 11, 1987|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

If life were perfect and wishes came true, Michael Stewart would have been playing center field in Dodger Stadium this year, not strong safety for the Rams in Anaheim Stadium.

Shed no tears, please, but baseball always came first. Growing up in Bakersfield, Stewart appeared daily in front of the mirror as Dusty Baker, the former Dodger.

"I wore his number and tried to mimic him all the time," Stewart said. "I wore the sweatbands and all that. I tried to play just the way he played. I always said I was going to play in Dodger Stadium. I still kid around with my buddies, saying stuff like, 'I'm not supposed to be hitting people, I'm supposed to be hitting home runs.' "

Football was secondary, an afterthought. You know what Bo Jackson called it.

It didn't help that Stewart's high school coach pictured him all along as a pulling guard. Oh, the glamour.

Twice during college, Stewart was drafted by major league teams. First, by the Milwaukee Brewers, then by the Toronto Blue Jays.

And twice, strangely, Stewart turned baseball down.

Stewart, as is said of Bo, had some problems with a curveball. Ultimately, he figured he couldn't feed his wife and child with his 1991 potential.

Stewart gave up the sport he loved most for the one he played better--football.

At Fresno State, he was an all-conference strong safety.

Stewart had told so many people he wasn't going to play football that he didn't figure to be drafted by any team in the National Football League.

The Rams took a chance, though, picking him in the eighth round.

"We played Russian roulette," secondary coach Steve Shafer said. "I had to go up there twice just to work him out. He was so busy with baseball, those guys played a game every other day. And Mike was honest. He told us he really didn't know what he was going to do."

When Stewart finally chose football, the Rams felt almost criminal.

"He's a steal in the eighth round," Shafer said.

Sunday, Stewart will start in center field for the Rams, at strong safety in place of the injured Vince Newsome.

"He's very much like Vince," Shafer said of Stewart. "He's a bigger Vince."

Stewart initially struggled with the baseball-football decision, but decided to take the quicker route to the top.

"In football, it's not so much you control your own destiny, but you can do things that make you stand out a little more," Stewart said. "In baseball, there are so many good players, even in the minors. A lot of good players never make it."

Stewart, at least, was going to give football a chance. Had he been cut in training camp, he would have returned to Fresno State, where he still has another year of baseball eligibility remaining.

There were times in July when Stewart wondered why he had come.

"Sometimes you just don't have a good day of practice," he said of training camp. "You know, at this level, you don't make mistakes. You've got to make plays. When you have a bad day, you look around and say, 'Maybe I'm not supposed to be here.' Things like that always enter your mind."

Besides, the Rams already had three starters at safety in Newsome, Johnnie Johnson and Nolan Cromwell.

Stewart made the team because of his tenacious play on special teams. Fate and injuries took care of the rest.

"I was disappointed the way things happened, with Vince being hurt and moving up like that," Stewart said. "I hope while I'm in there I can do the job."

Still, Stewart and others will always wonder what might have been in baseball.

"I always compared him to Bo Jackson," baseball Coach Bob Bennett said at Fresno State. "He's not absolutely as fast or not absolutely as powerful, but he's not too far behind in both areas. He had difficulty with the breaking ball but, heck, Bo has difficulty with the breaking ball too."

Bennett said Stewart's main problem was trying to split time between sports.

"He's an excellent prospect in baseball," Bennett said. "I have no doubt that if Michael put in a solid year, he'd be a good hitter. He's got all the other things. He's an excellent defensive outfielder."

How good is he?

"Tell those guys down there that if they want to cut him, it's all right with me," Bennett said.

Stewart hit .290 in 1985 and led the team in runs scored with 35, but slipped last year to .246, though he did have 20 stolen bases and 6 triples.

Stewart said he has at least thought of playing both sports, as Jackson is attempting to do. But then, Stewart admits, he's no Bo Jackson.

"It takes an extreme individual, mentally and physically, to do it," Stewart said. "And you have to be the caliber of Bo Jackson to go out and say, 'I want to play football.' I could say I think I'm going to play baseball, but it probably wouldn't be next year if I did. You have to have stature like Bo Jackson to do something like that."

Stewart is learning to love football. And although he has found there's a lot to love, there's even more to learn.

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