CINCINNATI -- Dave Stewart blinked. That's how the story begns.
Stewart is the centerpiece of the Oakland A's pitching staff, the man they call on as often as possible, the pitcher who owns most of the A's postseason success. Of their past 12 postseason victories, Stewart has won only six.
If the Reds didn't knock the snarl off Stewart's face last night, they did deepen it significantly. They knocked him out in four innings on the way to burying the A's in Game 1 of the World Series, ending a remarkable 10-game postseason winning streak.
So we can put away the brooms and remind ourselves that prophecies are not necessarily self-fulfilling. We should remember this, too: You should always bat Eric Davis wherever he wishes.
What's less clear is where the story leads from here. Are we watching a dynasty in the unmaking?
Veteran Orioles watchers may have the eerie feeling they've seen this before. The 1969-70-71 Orioles went to the World Series three years in a row, having won over 100 games each season. They were the dominant team of their time. Heck, they were one of the dominant teams of modern times -- and they won a single World Series.
It is nowhere written that the better team must win. The A's, no matter how powerful they might be, must actually do the winning on the field.
Now, suddenly, they're in a tough spot. Bob Welch, though he won 27 games this season, is a shaky 3-3 lifetime in the postseason. And for years, he was considered a pitcher who could be rattled. He goes tonight for the A's against Danny Jackson, who, when throwing well, is a terrific pitcher.
So, of course, is Stewart. He's pretty much a sure thing -- as sure as the nasty stare for which he has become famous.
That's what made this Series opener so surprising. Stewart, who throws strikes, was all over the place. In the first inning, after walking Billy Hatcher, he delivered a waist-high fastball to Davis, who delivered it to the center-field seats, a distance of more than 400 feet. It was a monstrous shot -- and a message.
Stewart asked his catcher where the pitch was. Even he was surprised to see a pitch over the plate. And that's how it went. Four innings, four walks, four runs and out.
Davis (shades of Kirk Gibson?) is playing hurt, nursing a sore shoulder, so sore that Reds manager Lou Piniella asked Davis if he'd move from fourth in the lineup to first. Davis said no. With NTC the home run, he underlined that feeling.
"I think Eric was a little upset when Lou wanted him to bat leadoff," said teammates Bily Hatcher, who had three hits. "I think when he hit that homer, he was saying he wanted to bat fourth."
When he hit the home run, he dropped the bat and launched immediately into his trot. There were all kinds of messages here.
Usually, you pity the poor batter that steps in against Stewart. He doesn't simply face the fastball and forkball. He faces the face. The face. You've seen it on TV. You've seen it in the papers. Try to imagine how it looks close up, say from the batter's box. It's the Ali-except-he-means-it glare. Ali was basically kidding around; Stewart wants your dog to die. The mustache pulls down hard around his mouth, and the eyes -- My God -- did you see "The Shining"?
The Reds, however, were unimpressed. Maybe that was the key to the game. The Reds were not intimidated. Neither was Jose Rijo, their young pitcher, who combined with the Nasty Boys for a shutout.
They didn't care about the attitude -- and the attendant look -- that have made Stewart what he is today, a glorious comeback story for whom life began at nearly 30. A washed-up pitcher reduced to calling teams for a tryout, Stewart is the best pitcher on the best team in recent memory. Even when teammate Welch wins 27 games, Stewart gets the call to open the playoffs and the World Series. For four years in a row, he has won 20 or more games. For four years in a row, he has stared batters to death with a glare that would melt the enamel off your teeth.
You saw the look as he took on the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs. He beat Roger Clemens twice and walked away with the MVP award, just as he had last fall in the World Series against the Giants. If you want to beat the A's, you pretty much have to beat Stewart, who will start three times if the Series goes seven.
"Stew is great just about every time out," A's manager Tony LaRussa said. "And today he just wasn't quite right.'
Neither was the Oakland offense, which left 11 runners on base. Of course, it was only one game. The A's might well come back to win the next four, or at least four of the next six. I think the A's still should be favored.
But the Reds took Stewart out, won a game convincingly and made clear that, if nothing else, they are in this World Series for more than the appearance money.