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From a hero to felon

The Baltimore Sun

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Sammy Stewart used to have it all. A hulking, fun-loving pitcher from the Blue Ridge Mountains, he played on pennant-winning teams, set major league records and signed six-figure contracts. Married to his high school sweetheart, he had a large house, two young children and 4,000 albums in his collection.

But an addiction to crack cocaine sent his life spiraling in the wrong direction after his baseball career ended.

"It took me down a bad road. I've thrown everything away for it," said Stewart, 52, during a recent interview at the Buncombe County Detention Facility, near his hometown of Swannanoa, N.C.

Today, he bears little resemblance to the "Throwin' Swannanoan" who compiled a 59-48 record in 359 major league appearances for the Orioles, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians from 1978 to 1987. His head is bald, his Fu Manchu mustache is gray. His eyes, which shone mischievously in his playing days, are empty and sad.

The man who once had everything was sentenced recently on charges stemming from his addiction. He shares a dorm with 34 inmates and is reduced to what he called "a cot and three hots" -- his version of room and board.

Stewart is hoping that, this time, he can really turn his life around. But those who know him best -- and have been hurt most by his addiction -- have their doubts.

For what it's worth, he said he is a celebrity behind the walls; his fellow prisoners constantly ask him to regale them with stories about the major leagues.

"We watched the World Series, and they asked, 'Did you play with those guys?' I had to tell them, 'Man, I played with their daddies,' " Stewart said with a smile.

Pitching mostly out of the bullpen, he was a dependable, charismatic Oriole for most of his playing career. But since 1988, he has been charged 46 times with more than 60 drug offenses, according to local police records.

He has spent 25 months in the county jail over six separate stays, and in October was sentenced to 80 to 105 months in North Carolina's state correctional system after accepting a plea bargain as a habitual felon.

"Basically, [the county authorities] felt they had done as much as they could and weren't willing to give him another break. They just threw in the towel," said Roger Smith, an Asheville attorney who recently represented Stewart. "He's a drug addict. He's not a dealer. He hasn't done anything illegal to try to feed his habit. He just wants to get his hands on a [cocaine] rock or two."

Stewart said he has spent all of the $3 million he earned in baseball on drugs, and also unloaded his 1983 Orioles World Series ring. He estimated he has smoked crack "tens of thousands of times."

"Everything I had has been pawned for it," he said. "All my stuff is gone. All my material things. I don't have a driver's license. I don't have a house. I don't have clothes or memorabilia. I have nothing."

Those 4,000 record albums?

"They're all gone," he said sadly, slowly shaking his head.

Stewart has also experienced profound personal tragedy. His son, Colin, who was born with cystic fibrosis in 1979, died at age 12. Stewart's daughter, Alicia, also has cystic fibrosis and underwent a successful double lung transplant last year. She is 24.

Long separated but not divorced from his wife, Stewart has two young sons with another woman; they're healthy, but Stewart hasn't seen them in more than a year.

Hitting the bottom

In a lengthy interview conducted behind plate glass, Stewart related the horrors he has experienced scrounging for drugs.

"I've slept under bridges, on park benches, out in the woods," he said. "I've been homeless, friendless, shot at. I've been hit with hammers. I've been stabbed in the back over $55. I've run over people with a car. I've robbed people myself, as far as running off with dope, grabbing it out of their hands. I've had every fight there is to have."

The low point? Stewart thought for a moment and said: "When I sold my daddy's gun collection for drug money when he was dying."

Stewart's daughter, Alicia, suggested another low point: "He used my illness to bum things off people," she said. "He would tell them he needed help because of me and use the money for drugs. He even told someone I was dead."

Stewart's wife, Peggy, said: "He isn't the person I knew in high school, the person I fell in love with. He's a con artist. "

Stewart doesn't deny it. "I take full responsibility for everything. There were times when I was just pathetic," he said.

It is hard to believe he grew up hating drugs as a three-sport star at nearby Owen High School in the 1970s.

"I was Mr. Athlete," he said. " I had more scholarship offers in football than baseball. I didn't understand people who wanted to get high. I thought you couldn't do anything if you were on drugs."

He said he drank his first beer as a freshman at nearby Montreat College and smoked his first marijuana joint a year later. His first drug possession arrest came in 1975; it was thrown out of court.

The Orioles selected him in the 1975 draft, and he made the majors in September 1978. He set a record by striking out seven consecutive batters in his major league debut against the Indians at Memorial Stadium.

"I knew I was doing good. I heard the crowd buzzing, and Rick Dempsey was catching, and he came out to the mound and said, 'Sammy, turn around and look at the scoreboard.' It said I had just tied a record set by Karl Spooner of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954," Stewart recalled. "Well, I wanted that record real bad, so I turned back around and threw three hard sliders and got that seventh straight strikeout."

His record still stands, as does his Orioles record for innings pitched by a reliever (140 1/3 in 1983). He had the American League's lowest ERA (2.32) in 1981.

"That guy had some serious talent. We used him as starter, a long guy, a short guy," said Dempsey, now an Orioles coach. "He was so strong, just didn't care, just give him the ball. You had to love him. It didn't matter who he was up against. He had no fear. You wish you could teach people to take the mound like Sammy Stewart. The tougher the hitter, the better he liked it. He wanted to prove he could get anyone out."

In the era of four-man rotations, he never became a full-time starter for the pitching-rich Orioles. But he surely would be one today.

Stewart fondly recalled his years with the Orioles.

"The crowd was between 15 and 40 years old, seemed like," he said. "We had Wild Bill [Hagy] up there leading cheers. People came up through the organization learning Cal Ripken [Sr.]'s way and Ray Miller's way of pitching. I had a good arm. God gave me good talent."

Popular with teammates, he was known for telling jokes with a Southern twang and for pulling pranks in airports.

"There was never a better character. Sammy should have been a comedian, not a ballplayer," Dempsey said. "Everyone loved him."

Behind the jokes, there was ever-present anxiety as he and Peggy dealt with their children's health.

"We were in and out of hospitals all the time," Peggy said.

Beyond Baltimore

He was arrested on a drunken-driving charge and occasionally smoked marijuana in those days, he said, "but we were just young and having fun. It was strictly recreational. There wasn't a major drug problem on the Orioles."

The Orioles traded him to Boston in March 1986. He and Peggy sold their rowhouse in Perry Hall and bought a $300,000 home in suburban Framingham, Mass. But Stewart had arm problems, feuded with Red Sox manager John McNamara and pitched in just 27 games for the Sox, who won the 1986 American League pennant before losing the World Series to the New York Mets. Stewart didn't pitch in the postseason.

He became a free agent that winter and expected to receive offers, but none came until after the 1987 season was under way. He was later ruled to have been among the players victimized by the owners' collusion to limit salaries. He said he received a $322,000 settlement in 1994.

Baseball out, crack in

The Indians picked him up in 1987, but he made just 25 appearances and retired after that season at age 32.

"I laid down on the game. I just quit," Stewart said. "I shouldn't have done that. It was a big mistake. I wasn't finished."

He and Peggy retreated to Boston as Stewart's drug use increased. He was introduced to crack cocaine a year later.

"I think I had a hole in my heart. I missed the game and needed something," he said. "I had my kids with cystic fibrosis. I had that big house in Boston, where I was out of place. I should never have bought it. I was snorting cocaine, and went to a party and saw some people doing something funny. I said, 'What are they doing?' They said, 'Smoking cocaine.' I said, 'Won't that bust your heart?' They said, 'No, try it.' So I did. I was hooked right away."

Alicia recalled the first time she suspected drugs were in her father's life.

"We went to Florida because he was going to try to play again. It didn't work out, but we stayed down there and he would take me and my brother into bad neighborhoods. He was buying drugs, just seemed so desperate," she said. "I remember thinking, 'Something is wrong with my dad.' Because that was not the man I knew. When I was younger, he was such a sweet, funny guy."

Stewart eventually moved the family back to North Carolina, but his addiction worsened and then Colin died.

"They had told us he had six months to live, and they were right. He died in my arms," Stewart said. "He was in the fifth grade, real smart, and he looked up and said, 'Daddy, what's 9 and 4?' He knew the answer to that. He just wasn't getting oxygen to his brain. It's hurt me all these years, thinking about it. I cry a lot. But I don't blame any of my drug addiction on that."

Peggy Stewart, who battled an alcohol addiction, said she was glad to hear Stewart not relying on their son's death as an excuse.

"It was awful and still is, but I got myself back together. There's no reason why he couldn't, too," Peggy said.

For Stewart, the past decade has been a blur of arrests, trials, jail, rehab and failed pledges to do better.

"I've been to rehab four times. Rehab isn't going to help me," Stewart said. "I'd pretend to go out jogging and buy cocaine on the sly. One time they kicked me out after two weeks because they said no one had ever had more in their system.

"I've quit for as long as 18 months. I can do it. But you have to keep wanting to do it."

Several times over the years, Stewart has pointed himself in the right direction. He coached high school and college pitchers. He got a job at a factory. But he always lost the jobs.

"It would always come down to 'You're a felon,' " Stewart said. "The field at my high school was 'Sammy Stewart Field,' but then a new principal came in and took the sign down. No more 'Sammy Stewart Field.' "

His only steady income has been his major league pension of $3,600 a month. But he receives just $1,400 after taxes and child support.

Family is fed up

His relationship with Peggy and Alicia, who live together in Asheville, has deteriorated. Peggy works two jobs and Alicia is on disability. They have grown weary of him.

"He'd come up to my friends and panhandle them," Alicia said. "He finally moved back in with us in 2003 because he had nowhere to go. He'd start drinking and his foot would start shaking, and you could just see him itching for drugs. He needs more than alcohol to give him a high. So he'd finally leave and we wouldn't see him for a few days, and he'd come back all scraggly and dirty in the same clothes."

Stewart understands his daughter's frustrations.

"They're bitter at me because of some of the things I've done; not being there for them, I guess," Stewart said. "But I will say Peggy and Alicia, they're wonderful together. They're best friends now because they've been through so much together. That's one thing good that came out of it all."

After her successful transplant operation last year, Alicia offered to help Stewart.

"I saw him on the street. He was homeless. I said, 'Let me do something.' He said, 'I can take care of myself,' but then he called the next day and said, 'How about giving me that $30 you promised?' Well, I never promised him any amount," Alicia said. "When I saw him, I gave him $20, and he got mad. He went around to the other side of the car and asked my mom for some. She gave him $3.

"I don't look at him as a dad like everyone else's. He's not really in my life. I don't talk to him regularly, and at the end of the conversation I don't feel like saying, 'I love you.' I do love him and care about him, but our outlooks are so different. The way he lives, it looks like he doesn't care if he lives or dies. I want to live life to the fullest. I wish he would say, 'My daughter has fought so hard. Why can't I straighten myself up and help her enjoy her wonderful life?' "

Stewart said he has had those thoughts.

"There are a lot of times when I've thought about death -- not killing myself, but that I was killing myself," he said. "Here I've got a daughter trying everything she can to live, and here I am killing myself with drugs. But I want to live, because as long as I can, improvement is possible. Someone asked me if I thought I had thrown my life away. No way. I'm still here. I'm going to be happy. I'm going to pick someone up in prison when they're down. I'm going to try to work toward something.

"I've never had a violent crime. I think I'm a good person. I think the Lord is going to help me this time. I've never been a religious person, but at the same time, I've always believed. He's given me a lot of peace about it. When I did 9 1/2 months in 2004, I worried about my life being over. Now I'm looking at 6 1/2 years, and I'm more peaceful about it."

Peggy and Alicia seem ambivalent about Stewart's long stretch in prison.

"He hasn't harmed anyone but himself. Well, he tore up our family, but we survived it," Peggy said. "Six years seems like a long time. Will he come out better? I don't know. I just know I pray for him every night."

Alicia said: "I don't know if it is going to help him, I hope it does. I'm worried it might make him more bitter. But it's all up to him. People have this image of him being a great guy who just happened to go down the wrong path.

"Well, he is a great guy, but he has been in this [drug] life a long time. He wants this life. It disgusts me. He'll never understand what I went through. He'll never understand a lot of things. I mean, when I came home from my lung transplant and he saw me, you know what he did? He offered me a cigarette. He said, 'Here, you can smoke now.' Can you believe that?"

Stewart is looking forward. He plans to take culinary classes in prison and prepare himself for his release.

"I'll be 58 then. That's not that old. This might wrinkle my face, but it won't wrinkle my spirit," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do when I get out. I'd love to try Baltimore. I never should have left there. I'd like to come back to Maryland and help out in any way, whether it be with the baseball team at Towson State or speaking to Little Leagues or at hospitals. I'd like people to say, 'Sammy's done cleaned himself up.' I'd also like to write a book. I already got the title. It's going to be, Life Ain't All It's Cracked Up To Be."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

A Dec. 17 article about former Orioles pitcher Sammy Stewart incorrectly stated the number of drug charges Stewart has faced. According to the Buncombe County (N.C.) City-County Bureau of Identification, 10 of the 75 criminal charges Stewart has faced were drug charges.The Sun regrets the error.
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