CINCINNATI -- Dave Stewart blinked. That was the first news bulletin from a World Series in which the question was being posed: If the Reds win Game 1, are they a dynasty?
Stewart is the centerpiece of the Oakland pitching staff, the man they run out there as often as possible, the pitcher who owns most of the A's postseason success. Of their last 12 postseason wins, Stewart has won only six.
He's pretty much a sure thing -- as sure as the nasty stare for which he has become famous.
The Reds didn't knock the snarl off Stewart's face last night, but they did deepen it significantly. And it was all so uncharacteristic. Stewart was wild -- walking four in four innings and always behind the count. He's never wild. Or so the thinking went.
Four innings. And he didn't scare anyone. He sure didn't scare Eric Davis, he of the sore shoulder, who launched a first-ining, two-run homer that landed 400-odd feet from home into the center-field seats.
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 runs, and out.
It doesn't take much to get Dave Stewart angry. Just point him toward a pitcher's mound. In fact, the closer he gets to the mound, the more profound the rage. By the time he has one foot placed on the rubber, he's so deeply into his I-hate-the-world-and-especially-you mode that he looks as if he'd spit bullets. Actually, he just throws them.
Pity the poor batter that steps in against him. 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.
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 Bob Welch wins 27 games, as he did this season, 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.
How did he get to be such a dominant force?
"I'm dominant?" Stewart asked before the game. "Me? Really? I didn't know that.
And then he smiled -- a bright, warm, embracing smile that was the last thing you ever expected to see on this man's face. You figured he might smirk. He might grin, the way the villain does in the melodrama when he ties the girl to the railroad tracks. You figure if he shows teeth, he's going to bite off your arm.
Then there was that voice springing from the face that sunk a thousand batters. It was high-pitched, not scary at all, but almost funny in a comic-book way. He's got a voice that squeaks. This is Dave Stewart?
Well, yes. The oddest thing about Stewart is that he's one of the world's nicest humans. He's the kind of guy who always calls his mother. When the earth shook last year in Oakland, he was on the scene of the disaster lending a hand. He offered money, yes, but also his time. You see, he cares.
Until he steps onto the mound, whereupon he turns into a monster, just like in the story. It's a real transformation, one that didn't come naturally. He worked at it.
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. The A's have power, speed, defense, a bullpen and a fine starting rotation. But in a short series, where it really counts, mostly they have Stewart.
He was the problem facing the Reds last night. Although he has yet to win a Cy Young award, he has established himself as the most consistently terrific pitcher in the game. If you're going to beat the A's, who took a 10-game, postseason winning streak into last night's game, you pretty much have to beat Stewart, who would start three times if the Series goes seven.
And the Reds took him out, giving the clear message that, if nothing else, the National League champions are in this World Series for more than the appearance money.