For years after he took his last hit, Sammy Stewart dreamed the same dream.
He'd climb a set of stairs under a dogwood tree, and at the top, a man would hand him some rocks of crack cocaine. Stewart would take them home and place them by his bedside as he prepared his tinfoil for smoking, a ritual he'd performed thousands of times. Just as he was ready to fire up, the prison loudspeaker would interject, blaring, "Chow time! Chow time!"
He'd wake and spend the whole day angry.
"When those dreams quit, it was a glorious time," says Stewart, a workhorse reliever for the great Orioles teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I don't dream about it anymore. I'm not around it."
Thirty years ago this October, Stewart pitched five scoreless innings in the World Series as the Orioles won the franchise's last championship. That 1983 club has suffered its share of heartache. Mike Flanagan, beloved as the sharpest wit on the team, committed suicide in 2011. The following year, Hall of Famer Eddie Murray paid a fine to settle federal insider trading charges.
But no one fell as fast as Stewart, the affable "Throwin' Swannanoan" from western North Carolina. He started using crack cocaine shortly after he left baseball in 1987, and the drug dominated his life for the better part of 20 years. Stewart pawned his most cherished belongings, ruined his relationships with his children and, finally, landed in a North Carolina prison for six years and eight months.
"He lost everything," says his older sister, Linda Banks.
But Stewart did not let bitterness consume him. He embraced incarceration for what it was — his last, best chance.
He took cooking classes. He learned 26 songs on the guitar. He reconnected with a woman from his past who wanted to share a future. Most importantly, he learned to refuse those rocks that haunted his dreams.
Stewart, who will turn 59 on Monday, was released in January from the Buncombe County Correctional Center. He's living with his girlfriend, Cherie Linquist, in a tidy duplex in Hendersonville, N.C., a peaceful town full of apple trees. Several local families have hired him to teach pitching to their boys.
"Everybody makes mistakes; it's how you recover that makes you the person you are," says Marty Davis, whose son works with Stewart. "It is touching for me to see him have this opportunity and be so warm and genuine with my son. I think a lot of the man."
Old teammates couldn't believe how good Stewart looked when they saw him in Baltimore for a September autograph show celebrating the 1983 club. "They expected me to be shriveled up like a prune," he says.
But there he was at a vigorous 250 pounds, his blue eyes clear and his jokes crackling in that familiar country twang.
"I thought he looked wonderful," says former teammate Mike Boddicker. "He looked so good, and he sounded like himself, funny as ever. We were all family, and I'm excited to have him back with the group."
Says catcher Rick Dempsey, who caught Stewart for the 1983 champions: "It was good to see that little spark in him again. Obviously, prison made an impression on him. He needed that."
'A place to play ball'
Stewart says there were no hints of his future troubles during his childhood in Swannanoa, N.C., about 9 miles outside Asheville. Perhaps that's because he always found a game to play.
When he was a kid, that meant taking a plastic ball to the backyard and pretending he was Johnny Bench or Joe Morgan, leading the Cincinnati Reds against the Oakland A's. Later, he would unlock a window in the gym at Owen High School, so he could slip back in at night and shoot baskets. Stewart even sneaked through a hole in the fence at the juvenile detention center near his house so he could play against those boys.
Stewart became an all-around star for the Owen Warhorses. He made all-county in baseball, set the school record with 38 points in a single basketball game and earned scholarship offers in football, where he says he could take one step and fire the pigskin more than 70 yards.
"I was all athlete," he recalls. "That's all I did. I never drank no beer. I never smoked no pot until my second year in college. I didn't get into any trouble. What I did was try to find a place to play ball."
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.
Stewart had two goals: stay clean and better himself. He says fellow inmates offered him drugs plenty of times, but he learned to say, "Nah, I've already tried it. Can't handle it." He had learned to make buttermilk biscuits and roast from his mother. So he embraced cooking as a prison vocation. He beamed with pride when his chef instructor sampled his barbecue short ribs with paprika potatoes and told the other inmates, "This is the way it's supposed to look."
"My food would taste good on the bottom of a shoe," Stewart boasts.
In 2007, he received an out-of-the-blue letter from Linquist. They had shared friendly conversation back in 1984, when her Seattle Mariners season tickets put her right behind the Orioles bullpen. Stewart asked her where he could find some Washington state apples. That fall, she mailed a whole basket of golden delicious to his parents' house in North Carolina.
She had been through a divorce when she looked him up 23 years later and found that he'd fallen on hard times. Her letter touched Stewart deeply. "I could feel her inner heart," he says.
She came to visit along with his sister, bringing Stewart breakfast from Cracker Barrel and lunch from his favorite barbecue joint. She returned every six months, finally announcing her intention to move to North Carolina. "That would be fantastic," Stewart told her.
"It was just like we completed each other," Linquist says. "I know it sounds crazy. Believe me, if my daughter told me she was moving across the country to be with a man in prison, I'd say, 'Uh uh.'"
On the day Stewart was released, his parole officer drove him to the little duplex Linquist had bought. She had decorated the wall with a photo of Stewart pitching from behind his big leg kick and had filled the refrigerator with his favorite foods.
Just like that, Sammy Stewart had a home again.
'My windows are open'
Shortly after his release, the local newspaper ran a feature on Stewart that mentioned his interest in teaching baseball. In short order, he received several calls of interest from parents.
"God gives me second chances every day, and I believe everyone deserves that," says Jerry Warren, whose son, Turner, works with Stewart. "Why shouldn't Sammy get a chance? He needs that outlet."
Warren says Stewart developed an immediate rapport with Turner, a high school senior. He describes him as an upbeat teacher who's unafraid to say when there's a better way to do something. Warren says Stewart often gives his son more than the allotted hour without asking for anything beyond his standard fee of $25.
"He always offers some new little thing every week," says Davis, whose 12-year-old son, Joey, is another pupil of Stewart's. "We're talking about somebody who's been through a lot and who's spending a lot of time with my son. That's not an easy choice to make for a parent. But I have no reservations about Sammy."
Stewart returns home from the lessons with his arm sore and his voice hoarse. But he says coaching is his calling, one he'd like to pursue in professional baseball if someone would give him a chance.
For now, he leads a simple life.
After earning and squandering $3 million from the major leagues, he subsides on his baseball pension ($1,800 a month after child support for his boys is taken out) and modest teaching fees.
You can hear the joy in his voice as he talks of tending his pepper plants or driving to see the autumn leaves with Linquist or fishing for largemouth bass with lifelong pal Steve Davidson.
He has worked hard to mend relations with his children. Alicia, still fighting cystic fibrosis at age 31, loves to swap stories at his house while he cooks her dinner.
"I think it's a thing in progress," says Peggy. "He's getting there. I think he thinks he's done so wrong by her. But I tell him, 'Just get on the phone and call her. She wants to talk to you.'"
Stewart also has two sons from another relationship, 14-year-old Ryan and 13-year-old Christian. He doesn't see them as often as he'd like but proudly recalls a recent football game in which Christian, playing nose guard, ran down the opposing quarterback for a game-saving tackle.
"They've got the Stewart face," he says of his sons. "They're gonna be big boys, and they love to play ball."
Stewart knows life is no fairy tale. He can't cry "happily after ever" and call that the end of his story. The addict lurks within him, looking for any sliver of room to escape. Stewart works daily to make sure there's no such opportunity. Sometimes, he'll get a call from a prison acquaintance: "I'm out, and we're going to be partying tonight at the South Rock Grill."
"You hear that word partying, and you have to back away," he says. "You just say, 'Fellas, I got something else to do.' You have to take that trigger right out of your hand."
Stewart prefers not even to watch a film with dark scenes related to drugs.
"I like for it to stay bright," he says. "When you're in drug addiction, you close your curtains, you duct-tape your windows because you're paranoid about people seeing you. I'm away from all that. My windows are open. People can knock on my door, call me on the phone and I'll get back with you. I'm not dying now."
Samuel Lee Stewart
Born: Oct. 28, 1954 in Asheville, N.C.
Signed: By Orioles as an amateur free agent in 1975
Major League Debut: Sept. 1, 1978 vs. Chicago White Sox
Career Highlights: Struck out 7 straight batters in debut, pitched 5 scoreless innings in 1983 World Series
Traded: To Boston Red Sox after 1985 season
Retired: After 1987 season
Incarcerated: In North Carolina for 6 years, 8 months on drug possession charges
Released: Jan. 11; lives in Hendersonville, N.C