Former Orioles relief pitcher Sammy Stewart, who helped lead the team to its most recent World Series title in 1983 before personal tragedy and drug addiction derailed his life, was found dead Friday in Hendersonville, N.C. He was 63.
The circumstances of his passing have not been fully determined. Major Frank T. Stout, of the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed that Stewart’s body was found Friday afternoon at a local residence.
“There will be an autopsy to determine the cause of death,” Stout said. “He could have had a heart attack or a related issue. We knew he had struggled with addiction. But we don’t know at this point.”
Police said there were no signs of foul play.
Stewart was a hard-throwing Orioles prospect who set a major league record by striking out seven straight batters in his first big league game. He was the club’s go-to long reliever in an era when the Orioles were loaded with great pitching and he did not give up a run in five appearances during the 1983 postseason.
“He was tremendous,” Orioles teammate Mike Boddicker said. “He had great stuff. He was very powerful. Great breaking ball. Electric fastball. Our bullpen was small but very strong. We had a lot of guys going deep into games – the starters – and when our guys came in from the bullpen, there was no concern. We knew business was going to get taken care of.”
If only his life off the field could have mirrored his baseball career, but Stewart never recovered from the death of his 11-year-old son, Colin, in 1991 from cystic fibrosis. His personal life spun out of control and he fell into a life of drug addiction, homelessness and habitual crime that led to a long prison sentence, but not before he pawned his World Series ring and his father’s gun collection.
When he reached rock bottom after dozens of criminal charges, he made no excuse for his behavior. He declined a plea bargain and told the judge that he needed to be locked up, ultimately spending six years and eight months behind bars. He came out determined to turn his life around, only to lose his 34-year-old daughter Alicia – also to cystic fibrosis — in 2016.
“I think when she died, that really set him off again,” teammate and current Orioles coach Scott McGregor said. “I don’t know if he ever got back in a groove after that.”
News of his death traveled quickly through the Orioles’ alumni community. Teammates exchanged sad phone calls after a team official confirmed Stewart’s passing with his estranged wife, Cherie. Each of those contacted by The Baltimore Sun acknowledged Stewart’s personal shortcomings, but not one felt any need to be judgmental.
“He had personal demons because of what went on with his children and the demons of drug addiction,” Hall of Famer and former teammate Jim Palmer said. “All the stuff going on in his life, I can’t imagine how tormented he must have been.”
It’s just a sad, sad situation. Sammy had a lot of trials and tribulations in his life and Sammy had a really great heart.
Former Orioles pitcher Mike Boddicker
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Stewart was brutally honest in his self-appraisal in an interview with The Sun after his release from prison in 2013.
"The lowest moment was just to know that you're completely alone on a dirt-dark highway," he said. "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."
It was a long, long way from the night in Milwaukee in September 1983 when Stewart was caught in a famous Associated Press photo holding an umbrella during the champagne shower that followed the Orioles’ American League East-clinching victory over the Brewers.
That was right in the middle of a 10-year major league career that also included a World Series appearance in 1979. He did not give up a run in six career postseason appearances spanning 12 innings, and posted a 59-48 career record and 3.59 ERA.
His teammates remember him for more than that electric fastball, however. Stewart also was a lovable clubhouse character who kept them loose and helped create the close family-like unit that Rick Dempsey said Saturday was like no other he experienced during his long major league career.
“I haven’t seen one like that in baseball since we had it and I haven’t seen one that was that even close since our days came to an end,” Dempsey said. “It was a special time. It really was. Man, Sammy was a big, big part of that. Everybody’s going to get hurt by this. Everybody is going to feel bad, because there wasn’t anybody who didn’t love the guy.”
When Stewart returned from prison, he was embraced by his old teammates and joined them for autograph appearances at Camden Yards. He also took part in Orioles Dream Week several times.
Dempsey, who was something of a clubhouse clown himself, remembers Stewart as a young man with talents far beyond just the ability to throw a baseball.
“He was a baseball player first,” Dempsey said. “He was also an actor. He was a comedian. He could have gone right into television if he wanted to. They should make a movie about this guy. What a character he was. The game will never see another one like him.”
“It’s just a sad, sad situation,” Boddicker said. “Sammy had a lot of trials and tribulations in his life and Sammy had a really great heart. He was a fun person. With the situation with his kids and everything he went through, it’s not an easy thing. I can’t imagine going through what he went through as a parent. It’s just tragic, is what it is, because he did have a great heart.”