Oakland Athletics right-hander Dave Stewart, the first pitcher to string together four straight 20-victory seasons since Hall of Famer Jim Palmer accomplished the feat for the Baltimore Orioles (1975-1978), was in town last night to receive the Jack Dunn Memorial Award for service to baseball at the Tops In Sports banquet.
But Stewart, who has led the A's to two straight American League titles, recalled several incidents involving the Orioles that he would prefer to forget.
Only 4 1/2 years ago, his baseball career was on the rocks. He had been released by the Philadelphia Phillies in May, 1986, after appearing in 12 games over two seasons as a mop-up man with a 6.00 ERA.
"The Phillies lied to me," he said. "They had signed me for two years and told me that if I kept my nose clean, I'd get someplace."
All Stewart got were his walking papers. Several teams, including the Orioles and A's, showed interest, and Hank Peters, then Baltimore's general manager, invited him to a tryout in May 1986.
"They had me throwing under the right-field stands," Stewart said. "When it was over, they told me they didn't even think they could find room for me on a Double-A roster.
"Hey, that was the same year the Orioles finished last. I knew I could pitch better than a lot of the guys they had throwing for them. I hadn't turned 30, and I was still throwing good, but it turned out for the best. The A's signed me, assigned me to Tacoma and called me up later that year. Things just took off from there."
The Orioles only figured incidentally in another turning point in Stewart's evolution as one of the game's premier pitchers.
"It was 1983 and I was in spring training with Texas," Stewart said. "We were playing the Orioles and I was experimenting with a forkball. I needed a change of speed to go with my fastball and curve.
"The Oriole hitters jumped on a couple of my forkballs, and Doug Rader [then Rangers manager] came flying out to the mound telling me to stop experimenting, and that he had lost faith in me. We argued all the way into the clubhouse.
"To my mind, Rader had broken one of baseball's sacred rules, showing up a player in public. I stuck with that forkball, and it became my big 'out' pitch."
Stewart, who has had little success pitching against Baltimore, was asked to assess the Orioles' batting lineup after making former Houston Astros slugger Glenn Davis their cleanup hitter.
"On paper, the Orioles can now compete offensively with any team in our league," he said. "The only thing is that they're top-heavy with right-handed hitters.
"Their starting pitching will be a question mark, but Dave Johnson, Bob Milacki and Ben McDonald give them a nucleus, plus they have a real good set-up man in Mark Williamson and a stopper in Gregg Olson."
Asked if Cal Ripken will get better pitches to hit with Davis backing him up, Stewart laughed and said: "I certainly hope not. Cal owns me already."
And how will baseball critics now judge Dave Stewart, one-time Orioles reject? "When they talk about the game's top pitchers, they usually start with Doc Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Roger Clemens and Frank Viola," he said. "Maybe now they'll finally get around to me."