#CardCorner: 1986 Topps Dave Stewart
And Dave Stewart never blinked. For a slice of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Oakland A’s ace was baseball's most celebrated big game pitcher.
But to reach that pinnacle, Stewart endured a decade of challenges.
Stewart was born Feb. 19, 1957, in Oakland, Calif. A three-sport star in high school, Stewart turned down numerous college scholarship offers to sign with the Dodgers after Los Angeles took him in the 16th round of the 1975 MLB Draft.
A catcher as an amateur player, Stewart was converted to a pitcher by the Dodgers and sent to Bellingham of the Class A Northwest League, where he was 0-5 with a 5.51 ERA in 22 games in 1975. But the Dodgers loved his live arm and promoted Stewart to Danville of the Midwest League in 1976 despite going 1-1 with a 5.04 ERA with Bellingham in the first half of the 1976 season. He was 0-2 with a 16.20 ERA in four games with Danville, but returned to the Midwest League in 1977 with Clinton – where he was 17-4 with a 2.15 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 176 innings.
The Dodgers gave Stewart a start for Triple-A Albuquerque at the end of the 1977 season, then sent him to Double-A San Antonio in 1978 – where Stewart was 14-12 with a 3.68 ERA. He made his big league debut for the Dodgers on Sept. 22, 1978, pitching two innings of scoreless relief against the Padres.
Stewart spent the next two seasons in the high-scoring Pacific Coast League with Albuquerque, winning a combined 26 games. But the Los Angeles front office was not yet sold on Stewart, and in the spring of 1981 – with Stewart out of minor league options – the Dodgers faced a decision.
Following the 1979 season, Los Angeles signed relief pitcher Don Stanhouse to a five-year, $2.1 million contract. But Stanhouse struggled in 1980 and was hobbled in Spring Training of 1981 by a chronic back problem. With one spot left in the bullpen, the Dodgers – on the last day of Spring Training – told Stewart that he would not make the club. But they immediately asked Stewart to stay in the clubhouse for the time being.
“A dream was being taken away from me,” said Stewart, who broke down in tears after being told he was headed back to the minors.
Faced with the real possibility that Stewart would be claimed by another team on waivers, the Dodgers backtracked – and decided to release Stanhouse and pay him the $1.36 million they still owed him. And Stewart made the team.
Aside from one appearance with Triple-A Tacoma in 1986, Stewart would never again pitch in the minors.
“It was really, really, really bad,” Stewart told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1984. “Every time I’d go into a game, I’d be booed in L.A.”
The Dodgers returned Stewart to the bullpen the next season, where he was 5-2 with eight saves and a 2.96 ERA in 46 games. But on Aug. 19, the Dodgers sent Stewart, Ricky Wright and $200,000 to the Rangers in exchange for Rick Honeycutt, who would win the AL ERA title that year and was one of the most coveted players available that summer.
After his one appearance in Triple-A, Stewart was summoned home to Oakland. And by the beginning of August, he had claimed a spot in the A’s rotation and won nine of his first 10 decisions before tiring down the stretch to finish 9-5 with a 3.74 ERA.
Ten months later, Stewart was the talk of baseball en route to an MLB-leading 20 victories.
“I’m not surprised at my success,” Stewart told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The only difference was that Oakland gave me an opportunity to pitch.”
Using a darting forkball to compliment a fastball that earned him the nickname “Smoke,” Stewart finished the 1987 season 20-13 with a 3.68 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 261.1 innings. He finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting, the first of four straight seasons where Stewart finished in the Top 4.
In 1989, Stewart and the A’s made it all the way to the top. Stewart was 21-9 and finished second in the Cy Young Award race, while the A’s defeated the Blue Jays in the ALCS and the Giants in the World Series. Stewart was named the MVP of the Fall Classic after going 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in the Athletics’ four-game sweep. He was named to his first and only All-Star Game that season.
In 1990, the 33-year-old Stewart posted his fourth straight 20-win campaign, the most since Jim Palmer posted four such seasons from 1975-78. He threw a no-hitter against the Blue Jays on June 29, then started Game 1 of the ALCS (later winning series MVP honors) and Game 1 of the World Series. But the Reds denied the Athletics their repeat by sweeping Oakland.
The innings workload – an average of 265 from 1987-90 – began to take its toll in 1991 as Stewart went 11-11 with a 5.18 ERA. He bounced back to go 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA in 1992 as the A’s won their fourth AL West title in five years, but Toronto won the ALCS despite Stewart’s 1-0 record and 2.70 ERA in the series.
Stewart’s second season in Toronto was less successful, as he went 7-8 with a 5.87 ERA. He returned to Oakland in 1995, going 3-7 in 16 starts before ending his career when he announced his retirement on July 24.
Stewart quickly began work with big league front offices and coaching staffs, serving as a pitching coach for the Padres, Blue Jays and Brewers while interviewing for administrative jobs. He then started his own sports agency where he represented players like Matt Kemp before becoming the Diamondbacks general manager in 2014.
Renowned for his work with charities and community organizations, Stewart won the Roberto Clemente Award in 1990.
For a player whose talent seemed to be dwarfed only by his work ethic, Stewart’s greatest legacy may have been his unflagging belief in himself.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum