When Stewart has game face on, A's have to smile

Ken Rosenthal

October 13, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

OAKLAND, Calif. -- He entered the Oakland Coliseum an hour and 20 minutes before gametime, strolling from the outfield to the dugout, a hundred or so A's fans hailing his arrival. Dave Stewart looked casual in a long-sleeve shirt, shorts and sneakers. But his famous Death Stare already was in place.

If ever a day was meant for Stewart, this was it. A loss would end the season, and possibly his career in Oakland. It was the ultimate back-to-the-wall experience, and any fool could predict the outcome. When it's Stewart against the world, the world's in trouble.

In fact, the great warrior practically guaranteed yesterday's 6-2 victory, if not his seven-hit complete game. "The sun's going to shine tomorrow," he announced to his teammates moments after Sunday's shocking 7-6 loss in 11 innings. "And if it doesn't, I'm going to shine."

It wasn't a formal pep talk, but Stewart didn't like the mood in the clubhouse, so he had his say. Mark McGwire heard him tell reporters, "I'm going to win." How could the A's doubt him? Stewart is now 6-0 lifetime in the American League Championship Series.

"He didn't want us to get down," Rickey Henderson said. "It was a tragic loss for us. It was something we wouldn't have believed in 100 years. It was like a shock to us. But he came in and said he didn't want us to drop our heads. He wanted us to stay positive."

And so the die was cast. Stewart is a free agent after this season, and the A's might not want him back at age 36. But driving to the park yesterday, all he could think of was winning. None of this last hurrah stuff. Not with the season on the line. Not with a job to be done.

The pocket of fans behind the dugout clapped as he walked in from the outfield -- politely, quietly, almost ruefully, knowing this might be the end. Upon entering the clubhouse, Stewart began taking care of business. He sought out Eric Fox and Dennis Eckersley. He wanted to console the goats of Game 4.

It's impossible not to root for such a man. The Orioles were one of several teams that wouldn't give him a second look after he was released by Philadelphia in 1986. Stewart signed with Oakland, produced four straight 20-win seasons and became every bit as nasty in October as Jack Morris.

"I'm not afraid, I'm just not afraid," Stewart explained, and once Ruben Sierra hit a two-run homer in the first inning yesterday, it was over. The crowd bellowed, "Stewww, Stewww," growing louder in the late innings. It took 137 pitches, but Stewart made sure the beleaguered A's bullpen got a rest.

After allowing the second Toronto run in the seventh, he reached back one last time, retiring his last seven hitters. Manager Tony La Russa never came close to removing him.

"Stew had the eye of the tiger," La Russa said. "And when he's got the eye of the tiger, I don't think you can think limitations."

Or, as Oakland's injured Dave Henderson put it, "The setting was right. Give him a few million people watching, and he likes to get everything straight. . . . Give him a couple of runs to work with early, and he can rock and roll."

Make no mistake, the A's are in deep trouble, needing to sweep both games in Toronto behind Mike Moore and Ron Darling. But what a sight it would be seeing Stewart take the mound for Game 1 of the A's fourth World Series in five years.

It's October, so to most of America, he looks like the same old FTC Stew. But this is a pitcher who has spent time on the disabled list in each of the past two seasons, first with a strained muscle in his side, then with a bad elbow. His record over that stretch was only 23-21.

Now he is healthy, and free agency awaits. Stewart wants to remain in his hometown, but he also wants a two-year contract. The A's, trying to sort out 14 free agents, are non-committal.

"Loyalty has already gone out the window," Stewart said this week. "If there was any loyalty, I'd be signed by now."

Other players wilt under such uncertainty, Stewart just rolls on. Eckersley is amazed that he's so amicable on the days he pitches.

Someone asked Stewart yesterday if he worried about his extra burden. "Heck no," Stewart replied. "I was having fun."

This was his day, his element, his moment.

Stewart against the world.

The world was in trouble.

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