I recently received a letter from former Orioles right-hander Sammy Stewart, one of the club’s best relievers during the late 1970s/early 1980s.
A free spirit back in those days – he’ll be remembered for his wavy black hair, thick mustache, off-kilter sense of humor and an ability to pitch in any situation: starting, long relief, short relief. He won the American League ERA title with a 2.32 mark in 1981, a strike-shortened season in which he threw 112 1/3 innings in 29 games (just three starts).
He’ll also be remembered for Sept. 1, 1978, when he struck out seven consecutive Chicago White Sox, a record for a major league debut. Like most old Orioles, the North Carolinian made his home in Baltimore for a while and had three children, including two with cystic fibrosis. His son, Colin, died in 1991.
Most Orioles fans know the dark side of Stewart’s story, too. He became addicted to crack cocaine following his playing career, and was charged 46 times with more than 60 offenses over a decade-plus, primarily stemming from his drug use. At one point he was homeless and penniless.
In 2006, he began serving a sentence of at least six years for a felony drug charge and is currently incarcerated at the Buncombe Correctional Center in Asheville, N.C. He hopes to be out by January 2013.
He wrote to me so he could write to you, the fans of the Orioles and his former fans. He also is writing with a heavy heart, after he learned of the Aug. 24 suicide of Mike Flanagan. They were teammates and friends, and when Stewart ran into trouble, Flanagan tried to help.
Flanagan gave him money and wrote a letter to the federal judge in support years ago. Now, Flanagan is gone and Stewart wants to tell you how much Flanny meant to him. And he wants to apologize for his own actions, as a drug addict and con man. He also included his address in case people wanted to write to him: Samuel Stewart, 0390745. PO Box 18089. Asheville, NC 28814.
Here is the letter in its entirety:
Hello to Baltimore, friends, fans and family from Buncombe Correctional Center in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ve been thinking more lately, and it seems all the old times are really dwindling away. These last five years have definitely altered my reality; prison is not the place to be. I’m glad I have learned humility, and I work hard to stay teachable. We all must.
The reason I want to claim my mistakes, atone for them, and voice them to the Baltimore area is because you have given me strength and desire to keep trying no matter what obstacles are ahead. Baltimore was always more than a home while I was in Perry Hall. The glory of our championship era, when I was in the prime of my life, on the most talented pitching staff in baseball, my children being taken care of by Johns Hopkins, being introduced to food and culture while surrounded by friends and family; all of that I turned loose with my reckless actions, not them letting me down. That runs deeply inside my veins, burning and scarring.
I always feel the pain of loss when I enter into memories and recollections of my team and teammates that I spent 11 years with that were all thrilling and full of magic. We had the most wonderful pitching crew in baseball that was “stingy” in multiple, 90-plus winning seasons. Mike Flanagan once said we were “more than nasty.”
You see, everyone wants to come of age and everyone wants to be real. I don’t want any more or less. I would like to say I’m sincerely sorry for hurting anyone in any way. Sometimes we aren’t given a chance to tell people that we care; I’m glad, fortunate, that you are a part of my life. So many opportunities vanish.
I will never again get the opportunity to tell Mike Flanagan thanks for helping me through my troubled mission. Never again will I hear his New Hampshire accent and quick wit except in memories. I still see him as he was, sweat-covered, during his Cy Young season of 1979 when he led us to my first World Series. Good memories.
Flanny was a leader who was looked up to and “cooler than a fan on a hot day.” I often simply sat next to him while we were right beside each other in the Orioles’ locker room. I smile at his pranks. He once nailed my shower shoes to the floor. He switched pictures of me with ones of him. He cut the pants legs off my dress pants in Texas; and we laughed in good times and shared seriously about my son’s (cystic fibrosis) and the very serious possibilities of “test tube” babies.
I wanted more of him and am now left with life’s regrets, changes and vast amounts of unfairness. I can yet reminisce about Flanny, Mark (Belanger), Cal (Ripken) Sr., Ellie (Hendricks), Pat (Kelly), and Todd (Cruz) and hopefully not many more that I missed paying respects to as they head to Memorial Heights Stadium. I was friends to all of them and I must keep “Rolling in the Deep,” as sung by Adele, until I surface.
Thank you guys for all the good times and wonderful memories. I am a richer man for them. Hopefully, when I get out of prison on the 10th of January, 2013, there will be a 30th anniversary reunion for the ’83 champs of this world; I will be there with clear and focused – and potentially dampening – eyes.