For years after he took his last hit, Sammy Stewart dreamed the same dream.
He'd climb a set of stairs under a dogwood tree, and at the top, a man would hand him some rocks of crack cocaine. Stewart would take them home and place them by his bedside as he prepared his tinfoil for smoking, a ritual he'd performed thousands of times. Just as he was ready to fire up, the prison loudspeaker would interject, blaring, "Chow time! Chow time!"
He'd wake and spend the whole day angry.
"When those dreams quit, it was a glorious time," says Stewart, a workhorse reliever for the great Orioles teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I don't dream about it anymore. I'm not around it."
Thirty years ago this October, Stewart pitched five scoreless innings in the World Series as the Orioles won the franchise's last championship. That 1983 club has suffered its share of heartache. Mike Flanagan, beloved as the sharpest wit on the team, committed suicide in 2011. The following year, Hall of Famer Eddie Murray paid a fine to settle federal insider trading charges.
But no one fell as fast as Stewart, the affable "Throwin' Swannanoan" from western North Carolina. He started using crack cocaine shortly after he left baseball in 1987, and the drug dominated his life for the better part of 20 years. Stewart pawned his most cherished belongings, ruined his relationships with his children and, finally, landed in a North Carolina prison for six years and eight months.
"He lost everything," says his older sister, Linda Banks.
But Stewart did not let bitterness consume him. He embraced incarceration for what it was — his last, best chance.
He took cooking classes. He learned 26 songs on the guitar. He reconnected with a woman from his past who wanted to share a future. Most importantly, he learned to refuse those rocks that haunted his dreams.
Stewart, who will turn 59 on Monday, was released in January from the Buncombe County Correctional Center. He's living with his girlfriend, Cherie Linquist, in a tidy duplex in Hendersonville, N.C., a peaceful town full of apple trees. Several local families have hired him to teach pitching to their boys.
"Everybody makes mistakes; it's how you recover that makes you the person you are," says Marty Davis, whose son works with Stewart. "It is touching for me to see him have this opportunity and be so warm and genuine with my son. I think a lot of the man."
Old teammates couldn't believe how good Stewart looked when they saw him in Baltimore for a September autograph show celebrating the 1983 club. "They expected me to be shriveled up like a prune," he says.
But there he was at a vigorous 250 pounds, his blue eyes clear and his jokes crackling in that familiar country twang.
"I thought he looked wonderful," says former teammate Mike Boddicker. "He looked so good, and he sounded like himself, funny as ever. We were all family, and I'm excited to have him back with the group."
Says catcher Rick Dempsey, who caught Stewart for the 1983 champions: "It was good to see that little spark in him again. Obviously, prison made an impression on him. He needed that."
'A place to play ball'
Stewart says there were no hints of his future troubles during his childhood in Swannanoa, N.C., about 9 miles outside Asheville. Perhaps that's because he always found a game to play.
When he was a kid, that meant taking a plastic ball to the backyard and pretending he was Johnny Bench or Joe Morgan, leading the Cincinnati Reds against the Oakland A's. Later, he would unlock a window in the gym at Owen High School, so he could slip back in at night and shoot baskets. Stewart even sneaked through a hole in the fence at the juvenile detention center near his house so he could play against those boys.
Stewart became an all-around star for the Owen Warhorses. He made all-county in baseball, set the school record with 38 points in a single basketball game and earned scholarship offers in football, where he says he could take one step and fire the pigskin more than 70 yards.
"I was all athlete," he recalls. "That's all I did. I never drank no beer. I never smoked no pot until my second year in college. I didn't get into any trouble. What I did was try to find a place to play ball."
He says he never missed a day of school from the first grade to the 12th. He had to live up to the standard set by his father, Sam, who kept working after losing an arm at the textile mill, and his mother, Faye, who worked at the same blanket manufacturer where she'd lost her leg in a train accident when she was 12.
Faye Stewart would dump water on her son if he lingered in bed too long on a school day.