Sammy was born on August 28, 1954 in Asheville, North Carolina. He shares a birthday with Mets catcher Josh Thole, Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth, A's manager Bob Melvin, pinch-hitter extraordinaire Lenny Harris, Bob Veale and Braden Looper. Other MLB Asheville natives include Padres CF Cameron Maybin, Royals reliever Greg Holland and longtime reliever Darren Holmes.
He was drafted in the 28th round of the 1974 draft by the Royals. He didn't sign but ended up catching on with the Orioles a little more than a year later.
Stewart was chosen by KC four picks after the Cardinals selected high school shortstop Paul Molitor. Molitor didn't sign and went to the University of Minnesota, which paid off when he was the third overall pick three years later and started his Hall of Fame career with the Brewers.
Sammy began his professional career with Bluefield in the summer of 1975. He made four starts and 14 relief appearances. He was roughed up as a Baby Bird, posting a 6.09 ERA with a WHIP over two.
He improved the following year in A-ball and debuted in the major leagues with Baltimore on September 1, 1978. At Memorial Stadium against the visiting White Sox, he struck out the side in the second and third innings. The six consecutive strikeouts tied the major league record for a pitcher's debut, which he recalls in this 2006 Boston Globe profile:
"Rick Dempsey [Orioles catcher] said, 'Turn around. Look at the scoreboard,"' says Stewart, his eyes lighting up. "So I turned around and it said, 'Sammy Stewart has just tied a record by striking out six consecutive batters in his first major league appearance. The record was set by Karl Spooner of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954.'
"Well, I turned around and threw three of the hardest sliders I've ever thrown and I got the record..."
The only other player to do it is Stephen Strasburg, who struck out the last seven batters he faced (to finish with 14 K's) in his scintillating debut in 2010.
Stewart got regular work out of the pen in 1979. In his first full season, he posted a 115 ERA+ and his 117.2 innings ranked tenth among relievers. It was his second-best season by bWAR (1.6).
His postseason debut came in Game Four of that year's World Series in Pittsburgh. Dennis Martinez was knocked out in the second inning and Stewart came in with the O's trailing 3-0. He allowed an inherited runner to score, but he held it down for two and two-thirds innings as Baltimore crept back in the game. They won it 9-6 with a six-run eighth inning to take a 3-1 series lead. Pittsburgh won three straight to stun the O's and win the title.
Stewart put up nearly identical numbers in 1980 before a huge '81 campaign. He worked 112.1 innings over 29 games and registered a 2.32 ERA. His 2.8 bWAR was third amongst all relievers and the best of his career.
The strike-shortened season featured a dispute over the American League ERA title. As explained in this SABR article, Stewart's was 2.32356 while Oakland's Steve McCatty's was 2.32670. However, the rules at the time did not count partial innings, so Stewart’s 112.1 inning total was rounded down to 112 and McCatty’s 185.2 innings were rounded up to 186. That bumped McCatty down and Stewart up for no reason and McCatty took the title*.
* McCatty has been the pitching coach for the Washington Nationals since 2009, tutoring their bright young rotation.
The rule was changed the following year. It could have all been moot if Yankee rookie Dave Righetti recorded five more outs. "Rags" was way better than both Stewart and McCatty with a 2.05 mark, but he only pitched 105.1 innings. The Yankees played 107 games and the title qualifier dictates that a pitcher must have as many innings as total team games so the lefty came up just short. Righetti did receive the Rookie of the Year award for his trouble.
As great as Stewart's '81 season was, he had a meager 4-8 record. Here are the best ERA+ seasons by qualifying pitchers who had twice as many losses as wins:
The quirky strike-shortened season allowed Stewart to qualify despite being a reliever. But that's still an impressive inning total for a 105-game season. Look at that 1987 from Nolan Ryan. He led the NL in ERA and the majors in strikeouts, but had pathetic run support (0-2 runs in 16 of 34 starts).
1982 saw Stewart move to the rotation for 12 games, nearly half of his career total of 25 starts. He was still solid in 26 relief outings, but he struggled in his dozen starts:
He was back in the pen full time in '83 and he tossed a career-high 144.1 innings, only Bob Stanley of the Red Sox threw more in relief that year. He went 9-4 with a 3.62 ERA and with only seven home runs allowed, it was the lowest rate of his career.
Baltimore returned to the postseason that year and he pitched twice in the ALCS against the White Sox. He retired two of the three batters he faced in a scoreless Game One outing and he pitched four shutout innings to close out a Game Three win and pick up a save. The O's clinched the pennant the next night and it was on to the World Series against the Phillies.
He played a huge part in two critical games. In the third game, with the series tied at one, Stewart protected a one-run lead by striking out three without allowing a hit in the seventh and eighth innings. That included a strikeout of the great Mike Schmidt with the tying run at second base to end the seventh. Baltimore won 3-2 to take the series lead.
The next night, it was up to Stewart once again to protect a one-run lead. Entering to begin the sixth inning, he recorded seven big outs and kept Philly off the board. He handed the lead to Tippy Martinez, who slammed the door and put the Orioles up three games to one.
The Orioles won Game Five to clinch the championship and Stewart earned his ring.
In six postseason games, Stewart pitched 12 shutout innings, striking out eight while allowing eight hits and walking four.
As defending champs in 1984, the O's split the closer duties between Martinez and Stewart. Sammy totaled career highs in games (60) and saves (13), missing the AL's top ten in both categories by one.
1985 would be his last season in Baltimore. He led all relievers in innings again (129.2) and posted a 112 ERA+. After the season, he was traded to the Red Sox for second baseman Jackie Gutierrez, who hit .185 in 64 games as an Oriole.
1986 was an injury-riddled year in Boston for Stewart, who put up average numbers in only 63.2 innings. He did not pitch in the postseason, which he blames on his relationship with manager John McNamara. He told the Boston Globe that he blames the skipper for losing the series:
"[McNamara] did not want me at all," he says. "He laid down on me and it cost us the World Series. I hated to see Al Nipper come out of the bullpen when I've never been scored on in the postseason and my arm was feeling good."
Stewart signed with the Indians in 1987, but was roughed up (5.67 ERA) and only pitched 27 innings before being released.
His career was over after that '87 season, but sadly, his troubles were just beginning.
The Boston Globe article I've linked to already details how his life spiraled out of control once his playing days were over.
He started using crack. His 11-year-old son died of cystic fibrosis in 1991. He pawned his championship ring for drugs. He was homeless and sleeping under bridges. He was arrested 26 times between 1988 and 2006 and had been to prison six times.
Stewart is currently imprisoned at the Buncombe Correctional Center in his hometown of Asheville. Here is a prison letter he wrote to the fans and his former teammates that was published in the Baltimore Sun last October. He hopes to get out of jail next January, 30 years after that 1983 World Series title.
Stewart has pitched in the 15th-most games in Baltimore Orioles history (St. Louis Browns Elam Vanglider, Jack Powell and George Blaeholder are 13th, 18th and 22nd, respectively on the franchise list):
|1||Jim Palmer HOF||S||C||F||19||1965||1984||6||268||152||.638||2.86||558||521||15||4||3948.0||125|
This is where Stewart ranks among relievers during his full seasons with the Orioles (1979-85), who pitched at least 400 innings and didn't finish 60% of their games (to eliminate closers).
Sammy Stewart is a great fit in a very strong Bluefield-to-the-Bigs Team bullpen. The fact that he will soon rank fifth behind Sparky Lyle, Arthur Rhodes and two other hurlers (one active) who have yet to be profiled here speaks to the strength of this relief corps.
Stewart had a solid career and was part of a championship club. It was sad to learn about his post-baseball life.
Here's hoping he can turn his life around once his sentence is complete.
|SP 1||Dean Chance|
|SP 3||Bill Monbouquette|