From a hero to felon

Addiction threw Sammy Stewart a curveball, and the former O's pitcher has yet to recover

December 17, 2006|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Sun Reporter

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Sammy Stewart used to have it all. A hulking, fun-loving pitcher from the Blue Ridge Mountains, he played on pennant-winning teams, set major league records and signed six-figure contracts. Married to his high school sweetheart, he had a large house, two young children and 4,000 albums in his collection.

But an addiction to crack cocaine sent his life spiraling in the wrong direction after his baseball career ended.

"It took me down a bad road. I've thrown everything away for it," said Stewart, 52, during a recent interview at the Buncombe County Detention Facility, near his hometown of Swannanoa, N.C.

Today, he bears little resemblance to the "Throwin' Swannanoan" who compiled a 59-48 record in 359 major league appearances for the Orioles, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians from 1978 to 1987. His head is bald, his Fu Manchu mustache is gray. His eyes, which shone mischievously in his playing days, are empty and sad.

FOR THE RECORD - A Dec. 17 article about former Orioles pitcher Sammy Stewart incorrectly stated the number of drug charges Stewart has faced. According to the Buncombe County (N.C.) City-County Bureau of Identification, 10 of the 75 criminal charges Stewart has faced were drug charges.
The Sun regrets the error.

The man who once had everything was sentenced recently on charges stemming from his addiction. He shares a dorm with 34 inmates and is reduced to what he called "a cot and three hots" -- his version of room and board.

Stewart is hoping that, this time, he can really turn his life around. But those who know him best -- and have been hurt most by his addiction -- have their doubts.

For what it's worth, he said he is a celebrity behind the walls; his fellow prisoners constantly ask him to regale them with stories about the major leagues.

"We watched the World Series, and they asked, `Did you play with those guys?' I had to tell them, `Man, I played with their daddies,' " Stewart said with a smile.

Pitching mostly out of the bullpen, he was a dependable, charismatic Oriole for most of his playing career. But since 1988, he has been charged 46 times with more than 60 drug offenses, according to local police records.

He has spent 25 months in the county jail over six separate stays, and in October was sentenced to 80 to 105 months in North Carolina's state correctional system after accepting a plea bargain as a habitual felon.

"Basically, [the county authorities] felt they had done as much as they could and weren't willing to give him another break. They just threw in the towel," said Roger Smith, an Asheville attorney who recently represented Stewart. "He's a drug addict. He's not a dealer. He hasn't done anything illegal to try to feed his habit. He just wants to get his hands on a [cocaine] rock or two."

Stewart said he has spent all of the $3 million he earned in baseball on drugs, and also unloaded his 1983 Orioles World Series ring. He estimated he has smoked crack "tens of thousands of times."

"Everything I had has been pawned for it," he said. "All my stuff is gone. All my material things. I don't have a driver's license. I don't have a house. I don't have clothes or memorabilia. I have nothing."

Those 4,000 record albums?

"They're all gone," he said sadly, slowly shaking his head.

Stewart has also experienced profound personal tragedy. His son, Colin, who was born with cystic fibrosis in 1979, died at age 12. Stewart's daughter, Alicia, also has cystic fibrosis and underwent a successful double lung transplant last year. She is 24.

Long separated but not divorced from his wife, Stewart has two young sons with another woman; they're healthy, but Stewart hasn't seen them in more than a year.

Hitting the bottom

In a lengthy interview conducted behind plate glass, Stewart related the horrors he has experienced scrounging for drugs.

"I've slept under bridges, on park benches, out in the woods," he said. "I've been homeless, friendless, shot at. I've been hit with hammers. I've been stabbed in the back over $55. I've run over people with a car. I've robbed people myself, as far as running off with dope, grabbing it out of their hands. I've had every fight there is to have."

The low point? Stewart thought for a moment and said: "When I sold my daddy's gun collection for drug money when he was dying."

Stewart's daughter, Alicia, suggested another low point: "He used my illness to bum things off people," she said. "He would tell them he needed help because of me and use the money for drugs. He even told someone I was dead."

Stewart's wife, Peggy, said: "He isn't the person I knew in high school, the person I fell in love with. He's a con artist. "

Stewart doesn't deny it. "I take full responsibility for everything. There were times when I was just pathetic," he said.

It is hard to believe he grew up hating drugs as a three-sport star at nearby Owen High School in the 1970s.

"I was Mr. Athlete," he said. " I had more scholarship offers in football than baseball. I didn't understand people who wanted to get high. I thought you couldn't do anything if you were on drugs."

He said he drank his first beer as a freshman at nearby Montreat College and smoked his first marijuana joint a year later. His first drug possession arrest came in 1975; it was thrown out of court.

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