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Stewart Homes In on His Second Chance

October 10, 1988|MIKE DOWNEY

OAKLAND — Padding down stairwells in gold-stockinged feet, deep inside the baseball stadium that sits 7 blocks from his childhood home, Dave Stewart of the American League champion Oakland Athletics could not keep from dwelling on the old days, the cold-shoulder days, the pre-A's days when nobody else would give him the second chance he so desperately needed. Not Philadelphia. Not Baltimore. Not anybody but his homeboys from Oakland.

"Sometimes, when people evaluate you," Stewart said, pausing on the descent to the Oakland clubhouse, just to drive home his point, "you don't get the benefit of the doubt. People probably heard things about me, and, well, I guess you could say I got short-changed in the deal."

There have been two Dave Stewarts, some will say. Good Dave, bad Dave.

The good Dave--fine pitcher, fine fellow--finally had his day Sunday, when he was the winning pitcher against Boston in Game 4 of the straight-A's series that gave his hometown the pennant. In a 4-1 victory, Stewart went 7 strong innings, gave up 4 hits, and moved Red Sox Manager Joe Morgan to say: "I don't think I've ever seen Stewart throw the ball any harder. He didn't look like he was throwing it hard, but the ball just exploded."

Among those overjoyed for this Dave, the good Dave, were his manager, Tony La Russa, who says in 20 years of baseball he has "never met a player or person of higher quality," and his teammate, Dave Parker, whose opinion of the man is even higher. "Dave Stewart is one of the few people you meet in this game-- in this world --who really cares about people," Parker says.

Hooray for this Dave, then. The Dave with a kind word for all. The Dave who reserves an hour for Oakland's fans, every day except the ones when he's pitching, to sign their scorecards and pose for photos. The Dave who personally sponsors 8 teams in the city's youth leagues, who founded a local "Just Say No" anti-drug chapter, who serves on the board of directors of the Oakland Boys Clubs, who organized a group dedicated to restoring neighborhood slums, who belongs to Volunteers for America and runs a nonprofit foundation called Kids Corps, which solicits corporate support for children's causes.

And the bad Dave?

Gone forever, Stewart hopes. Seen the last of that guy, man. Good riddance to the Dave who got into mischief as a kid, who picked up a reputation as a hard case in the majors when he punched out one of his managers, Pat Corrales, and vented his rage at another, Doug Rader. This same Dave gained infamy as a bad influence by covering for Steve Howe during cocaine-snorting benders in the Dodger bullpen, and became an object of ridicule in 1985 after L.A. police busted him for associating with a prostitute named Lucille, who turned out to be a guy in drag.

"Even good guys make mistakes," Stewart apologized 2 nights later to a ballroom full of Texans, who had come to pay tribute to the Ranger pitcher with something called a Good Guy Award, voted to him before the arrest. Stewart said he was ashamed. He promised to do better. They gave him a standing ovation.

Everything went down-mound for Stewart after that, though. Texas, a bad team, gave up on him. Philadelphia, a bad team, gave him a cup of coffee and then sent him on his way. Baltimore, a bad team, refused to even give him a tryout. He became a baseball hobo. Only Oakland, good old Oakland, was willing to take him back, for which Stewart has thanked the A's by winning 50 games in 2 1/2 seasons, plus Sunday's.

He hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.

"Four years ago, it looked like the door was about to close for me," Stewart said. "All I can say is, there are a lot of good things going on inside me right now."

The descent of Dave Stewart has ended. He is, as they say in baseball, safe at home.

That hardscrabble old neighborhood of his, full of cracked-plaster tenements and crack-peddling dope pushers, remains nearby, but Stewart, 31, has put some spiritual distance between himself and all that. He once was a brawling little punk from a nice Baptist family whose mother was unsure what else would work with him, so she put him in a Catholic school. "I got in just as much trouble there," Stewart recalled. "I just had to be more sneaky about it."

Trouble became his middle name. The Dodgers were fond of the good Dave who was part of their 1981 championship club, but leery of the bad Dave who set screens for Howe at times when the latter was powdering his nose. They packed Stewart off to Texas in exchange for Rick Honeycutt, the man who relieved him in Sunday's pennant-clinching game, and by the time he and the Rangers had parted company, Stewart had fought with two managers and flipped an obscene gesture to a home crowd.

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