He says he never missed a day of school from the first grade to the 12th. He had to live up to the standard set by his father, Sam, who kept working after losing an arm at the textile mill, and his mother, Faye, who worked at the same blanket manufacturer where she'd lost her leg in a train accident when she was 12.
Faye Stewart would dump water on her son if he lingered in bed too long on a school day.
Stewart brought the same work ethic to the major leagues, where he joined the Orioles in 1978 at age 23. He produced some glamour moments, striking out seven straight Chicago White Sox in his major league debut and beating Nolan Ryan in front of 51,000 people. But Stewart was really a grunt, the rare guy who could pitch day after day without shredding his arm. Manager Earl Weaver loved him for it, using Stewart in every situation imaginable.
"With Sammy, it was always, 'I want the ball,'" Boddicker says. "As a starting pitcher, you really appreciate that, because you don't always have it. And here's this guy who's always willing to take the ball to get you through."
Stewart was no angel. He was charged with drunken driving during the All-Star break of that 1983 season. But he says that was just fun with the boys, not a sign of the more serious trouble ahead. He pitched brilliantly in the postseason that year, working 91/3 scoreless innings over five appearances.
He cherished life in Baltimore, where he shared a little rowhouse in Perry Hall with his childhood sweetheart, Peggy, and their kids, Colin and Alicia. Both children had cystic fibrosis, but they received excellent medical care.
Stewart remembers the combination of intensity and easy camaraderie that defined those Orioles, the way Ken Singleton sang, "Come on, Little Boomer" every time Al Bumbry stood for the game's first at-bat.
In many ways, Stewart's life went off course when the Orioles traded him to Boston after the 1985 season.
He spent one unhappy season with the Red Sox. He thought he was headed for free-agent riches, so he bought a big house in the Boston suburbs. But that was one of the years of owner collusion, and Stewart was one of the victims. He sat without a contract until midway through the 1987 season before catching on for a brief stint with the Cleveland Indians. He walked away from baseball after the season.
"It was just a mistake," he says of throwing his last pitch at age 32.
Without the daily pull of the game, Stewart's life lost its shape. He watched his children suffer as cystic fibrosis wrecked their lungs (Colin died in his arms at age 11). He was stuck in Boston without any of his old buddies. "I met the wrong people," he says.
He smoked crack for the first time.
'Just a drug walking around'
Asked to describe the lowest point of his near-20-year battle with addiction, Stewart doesn't reach for a specific incident. Sure, he pawned his World Series ring and his daddy's gun collection. Sure, he was homeless, sleeping outside or on the ratty couches of fellow junkies. Sure, he says someone stabbed him within 2 inches of his spinal cord.
But he opts instead to describe a general feeling.
"The lowest moment was just to know that you're completely alone on a dirt-dark highway," he says. "You're the only one up at 2:30 in the morning. You're walking, and the pit of your stomach is just bored out with a hole in it, something that you just can't fill up. The thing about any kind of dope is one is too many and 1,000 isn't enough. There's never enough for you."
Stewart drifted back to Asheville. He never thought about dying, only of how he'd scrounge up his next hit of dope when he awoke. His addiction led to dozens of criminal charges and several brief prison stints. He broke so many promises to Alicia and Peggy, from whom he separated in 1994, that they buried any love for him beneath layers of mistrust.
"He lost himself," Banks, Stewart's sister, says. "It was just a drug walking around as far as I'm concerned."
Stewart remembers staring at the bare walls around him after he was arrested and jailed for the final time in 2006. "I dropped to my knees," he says. "I reached both of my hands up toward the Lord and I said, 'Well, I ain't been the best person, but I hope you can help me make it through this.'"
He opted not to take a plea bargain on the possession charge, telling the judge that perhaps he needed to be locked up. "It was two rocks, $12 worth of cocaine, that sent me to prison for six years and eight months of my life," he says.