ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Sammy Stewart is throwing in UNC-Asheville's gym, alone except for his catcher. The "thwack" of baseball into glove echoes across the varnished wood floor.
"Curveball" he says, and the ball breaks and drops. "Slider" he says, and the ball slips sideways. Then he says nothing, and a fastball -- too high but certainly fast -- stings the hand through the glove.
The image remains of Stewart in 1977, a strong young pitcher for the Charlotte O's with a nasty slider, a thick Southern drawl and thicker brown hair spilling out from under his cap. Bound for the major leagues.
But 1977 was a baseball lifetime ago.
Stewart led the Southern League in ERA that year, then quickly made his big-league dreams come true, spending almost a decade in the majors as one of the game's top middle relievers.
And then he blew it.
Stewart last pitched in the majors in 1987, struggling with Cleveland at the end of a career spent mostly with Baltimore that saw him never allow a run in two World Series. In 1988, although he was just 33, no one invited him to spring training. And in 1988, he began doing crack cocaine.
Now he's trying to come back.
Stewart, 36, would like to make a comeback; he thinks he can still pitch in the majors. But his toughest comeback -- recovering his damaged life -- is well under way.
Stewart is broke now, but says he is drug-free. He is living with his parents in Asheville and working as a volunteer assistant coach with the UNC-Asheville baseball team. In early March, he buried his only son. Colin Stewart had cystic fibrosis, a progressive disease that chokes the lungs with fluid. He was 11 years old.
"My son was an inspiration to me," Stewart said. "On his worst day of breathing, he never complained. Sometimes during the night I still wake up hearing him cough and he's not even there."
Colin's death only strengthened Stewart's determination to continue rebuilding a life that had crumbled.
The drugs had taken hold quickly.
"I never used any cocaine when I was in the major leagues, not even in the winter," Stewart said recently. "I liked to smoke marijuana from time to time, and I was caught drunk driving in '83. But between the lines I played as hard as I could and produced."
But in 1988, Stewart was not between the lines anymore. He had been a free agent after the '86 season, but collusion was ongoing and the owners weren't signing free agents. Stewart wasn't invited to spring training by anyone, and finally joined Cleveland in June. Out of shape, he pushed too hard and hurt himself but kept pitching.
His ERA jumped, and no team offered him a job the next year. Stewart was left at home in Boston with nothing to do. He found crack.
"It was at a friend's house, a little get-together party," he said. "They were cooking it up with baking soda, and it was unbelievable. I had done a line [of cocaine] socially at parties before, but nothing got to your head this quick. It gets to your brain in two seconds."
Stewart found himself doing crack more and more often. He began dipping into his investments to support his habit.
"It wasn't like an everyday thing. I'd do it and get off it. I did it for like two days without going to sleep. It was like once you got started -- well, if you didn't get started, you were all right."
It was expensive. Stewart said enough crack for 45 minutes was $70.
The drugs led to other problems. His house in Boston was foreclosed on, and the checks from some deferred salary have been withheld toward that debt.
Eventually, Stewart decided to move back to Asheville. He had grown up nearby, a mountain boy hunting squirrels with rocks.
But he and wife Peggy were still doing drugs, and fighting. He was taken to jail for assaulting her one time, for driving under a revoked license another.
"We'd be doing drugs together and coming down [from the high] and fighting with each other, becoming irritated about little things," Stewart said.
Finally, Stewart decided that it had to end. He remembers the day -- last July 14 -- clearly. He had been on another two-day binge, and he asked his father to go get him some breakfast from Hardee's. His father got the food, then sat him down and talked to him.
As Samuel Stewart Sr. spoke, shame swept over his son.
"The house reeked of odors, all our clothes were dirty and there was drug paraphernalia all over," Stewart said. "And my dad was telling me it was no way for a man to live.
"I finally saw he was right."
In August, Stewart checked himself into a drug recovery unit. He was there 42 days.
That same month, he learned Colin had perhaps six months to live. He dropped baseball comeback plans to be with his son, who died March 4.
Soon afterward, Stewart returned to the game, volunteering to coach UNC-Asheville's pitchers just to get back in baseball.
"I'd heard all about his drug and alcohol problems, but the guy just made a mistake," said UNC-Asheville coach Jim Bretz. "You could see in his face that he wanted to make a commitment.
He's been a real inspiration to my kids."
Stewart is separated from his wife now, but they are rebuilding their relationship. His daughter, Alicia Lynn, 8, has cystic fibrosis as well, but a more moderate case. She serves as the Bulldogs' bat girl.
Her father's fortune may improve dramatically within a year. He has a collusion claim against the owners for the 1986-88 seasons in arbitration, and he's asking for $1.4 million.
"I don't know if I'll get $400,000 or $700,000 or what," Stewarsaid. "Maybe I'll get the whole thing."
Stewart, 6-2 1/2 , is bigger, maybe 230 pounds instead of the 208 he weighed in Baltimore. The hair is shorter, the mustache is trimmed. But his arm is sound. He threw better than 90 mph in his prime, and says he's "around 86" now.
Some say that a successful comeback is unlikely.
"It's doubtful that he could after being away for a couple of years," said Cleveland president Hank Peters, who was Baltimore's general manager when Stewart was there. "I don't think we'd be interested. It's doubtful a player could come back when he's been removed from that level of competition for so long."
But Stewart believes he can.
"I know the talent that I have and now I know what I have to do to make this talent happen is be in full 100 percent shape," said Stewart, who pitched a bit in the Senior League last winter before being slowed by injuries. "I wasn't ready then, I wasn't in shape."
In any event, his most important comeback is progressing.
"Crack was hard for me to let go of, but it was time to clean myself up," Stewart said. ". . . I'll be recovering for the rest of my life."