Dave Stewart received a text a text from a friend one April evening: “Turn on ESPN. Game 1 is on.”
Even 32 years later, the mere mention of that 1988 World Series opener triggers Stewart’s instant, seething rage. Stewart, that game’s starter for the powerhouse Oakland A’s, flipped on the TV and let those squashed memories unfurl. Even through burial attempts, his internal monologue is fresh.
“Mickey, he should have never hit home run off me here.”
“Shoot, I held the hill before Canseco comes up. It’s a Grand Slam and now we’re up for two.”
“Here we are now, Eck for the ninth inning, up a run. And if you’re going to have anybody on the mound, other than me…”
Then the unpleasant part. A walk. Tension. Then, Kirk Gibson’s famed walk-off swing, the hobbled strut and mimed chainsaw. Dennis Eckersley’s slow, stunned turn. Stewart was steaming, but his fuse had already blown following a heated disagreement with then-A’s manager Tony La Russa.
Stewart had gone eight innings, allowed three, struck out five. Eck was the man, of course. But, 32 years later, the steam is rising again. What-ifs abound.
“You know, I think what pisses me off about it… I had 14 complete games,” Stewart said over the phone from his home in San Diego. “A lot of complete games are close games. I probably had something like 110 pitches going. But we were in an era where I had complete games where I’d have 121, 130, or 140 to finish the game. So what if he…what if he leaves me in the game? You know?”
Three decades later, Stewart can come to terms with his role in history.
“Shoot, I mean, it was a good game if I take myself out of it,” Stewart said. “But it’s almost like it happened yesterday, you know. So, it just doesn’t go away and it’s there. Just there.”
Stewart wouldn’t normally subject himself to this kind of emotional torture, but shelter-in-place restrictions afforded him the time. And, frankly, any distraction is welcome. The man with the impenetrable stare was nearly punctured by the worst this pandemic can bring, but is riding out the wave just like the rest of the nation. Other than indulging in painful baseball memories, what’s been on his mind? Let’s sit down with Smoke and talk modern baseball, his COVID-19 scare, and more.
— You were tested for COVID-19 just a few days after spring training was shut down. What was that experience like for you and your family?
— It was crazy, that whole experience. It had been months since I was home with my 102-year-old father and 93-year-old mother. When I was on the plane coming home from Phoenix, I started to feel sick. I couldn’t even remember the last time I got sick. I took another 14 days away from my parents while I waited for the coronavirus test results. I was coughing, had a temperature, and I have asthma and have had pneumonia. I didn’t want to bring anything to my parents that they could possibly catch. I was not in a very good mood.
I was jumping for joy when I tested negative. But now, I’ve made it a goal — for however long we’re in this — to take a walk with my mother every day. Other days I’ll take both parents for long drives along the Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego, my mom will get her toes tapping to some Aretha Franklin, BB King and James Brown.
— Are you ready to see baseball come back without fans in the stands?
— I’m ready to see baseball. I’m ready for the game to be played. I’ll always remember the ’89 earthquake, when the A’s, San Francisco Giants World Series was shut down — although for a short period of time. When the game started again, how good it was for the country. How good it was for San Francisco. How good it was for Oakland.
Once games start to air again, whenever that may be, I think people are going to start to feel a healing process. It’s easy to downplay the importance of sports in the collective healing process, because people can sort of label it as, ‘OK well, sports aren’t the most important thing.’ But it really does have both an economic and a holistic healing element.
— What do you miss about baseball played in your era that’s gone from today’s game? And how do you think you’d adjust to today’s game?
— I wouldn’t adjust to today’s times, time would have to adjust to me.
With today’s approach to hitting and how I pitched, I would get a ton of strikeouts. With guys using one side of the infield, I guarantee I would have more than one no-hitter. Some guys don’t have a good approach and aren’t having good at-bats. The good hitters, The Mike Trouts, the Mookie Betts, are great because they know how to hit to all fields. You’re not seeing guys shift on those guys. The average to mediocre hitters are guys you can shift on, who are going to have .260 seasons, high strikeouts, lots of home runs. The game has become more about the .260, .250 guys, who are more the rule than the exception.
I would feast on those guys today.
— Manager Bob Melvin has you talk to the team early in spring training. How do you adjust your experience pitching in the game to theirs?
— I don’t. What’s good about Bob Melvin, (pitching coach) Scott Emerson, the minor leagues, Gil Patterson and all the coaches there, is that they understand the mentality of teaching these kids to want to finish the game. And I try to teach that; you want to go out there and finish what you started. Though the game is played differently, you still have to keep that mentality in players. You don’t want guys saying, in the fifth or sixth inning, ‘I’m done.’ Once you do that, you’re not breeding champions.
— I’ve heard some people compare you to Frankie Montas, especially with the splitter. Do you see some comparison?
— He throws harder than me. But his split finger is an awesome pitch. I watched him in spring training, and he knows how to slow it down or speed it up. But when you throw 98, 99 mph and you have that thing, it’s a very strong weapon. I don’t like use the term horse, but he’s a guy that can eat up innings deep into the game.
I was a mid-90s guy, but I think Frankie and I both have a great off-speed pitch. His breaking ball is better than my breaking ball was, but I knew when to use it when not to. And I would probably say that my fastball command, both sides of the plate, is probably better than his. But, he’s young, and he’s going to learn.
— You’ve said you can see Jesus Luzardo as a potential Cy Young dark horse contender. Do you see him becoming a frontrunner soon?
— Oh, yeah. It’s not going to be a surprise to anybody. He’s got great presence about himself, there’s a confidence that he carries. I mean, not cocky, but you feel his presence when he shows up. He’s not A.J. Puk height. He’s 6-feet, but he’s got 6-foot-10 confidence, and he believes that he can win. He takes the mound and attacks hitters. And that only breeds success. That’s not rare in great pitchers.
— Do you see yourself at all in Luzardo?
— Oh, no. He is beyond where I was. His confidence at his age is what I had after I had won 20 games a couple of times. I was a confident kid, but shoot. Jesus, comparatively, for his age is playing at the big league ballpark, and other kids his age are still probably at the sandlot.
— You run the agency Sports Management Partners with your wife, Lonnie, in San Diego. You represented longtime third baseman Eric Chavez when the A’s signed him to their ‘biggest’ contract extension in team history in 2004 (six years, $66 million, a record that still holds.) How did you get the team to go out of their comfort zone and take the leap?
— Everything is timing. At that time, Eric was beaming with potential. He’d won five or six Gold Gloves. He was a mainstay in the middle of their lineup. He was the No. 1 pick for them. He was young, involved and the face of the A’s.
Having a great relationship with the organization, and with Billy Beane, helped move that deal through.
— Do you hope to see the A’s make more deals like that in the future? The A’s have another Eric Chavez playing third right now.
— They have another Chavy in Matt Chapman, and they have another Mark McGwire with Matt Olson. I can’t speak for the organization, but I do know that the organization has approached both players about doing something long term and keeping them in Oakland.
©2020 East Bay Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
Visit the East Bay Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) at www.eastbaytimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.