By Shayna Rubin
OAKLAND, CA — The scoreboard at the Oakland Coliseum displayed Dave Stewart’s accomplishments on a crawl.
All-Star, No-Hitter, World Series MVP. 119 wins, .604 winning percentage, 1,152 strikeouts, 49 complete games. All numbers that summed up Stewart’s impact in eight seasons with his hometown team. Former A’s that spoke at Stewart’s official No. 34 jersey retirement told the story behind those numbers.
Stewart’s No. 34 was revealed atop Mt. Davis at the Coliseum between Catfish Hunter’s No. 27 and Rollie Fingers’ No. 34 — yes, the A’s will retire that number twice — in the right field side of the structure opposite Reggie Jackson’s No. 9, Rickey Henderson’s 24 and Dennis Eckersley’s No. 43.
“All those names are memorialized in the national baseball hall of fame,” Stewart said in his speech. “To the Oakland A’s, Dave Kaval, Mr. Fisher, Billy Beane, David Forst, thank you very much for putting me in a place I never thought I would be. Thank you very much because up until today, I didn’t think I belonged. Thank you.”
What made Stewart great? Perseverance and fearlessness, which is not what Tony La Russa felt when he’d go to the mound to take Stewart out of a game.
“I understood the concept of fear,” La Russa said at the podium on the Coliseum diamond, “because I feared Dave Stewart.”
It was most important for Stewart to have La Russa in attendance. Stewart requested that the ceremony be held when the Chicago White Sox — where La Russa is manager — were in town to play the A’s. It was a visit that nearly didn’t happen. Doctors had ordered La Russa, who had a pacemaker inserted into his heart, to stay clear of managing duties for the Chicago White Sox since Aug. 30.
Once cleared to travel, La Russa made sure to be here for Stewart’s big day. He believed in him when others didn’t.
“His wonderful mother, Mama Stew, would always say we were brothers with different mothers,” La Russa said. “So I’m as close to him as anybody on any team I’ve ever been on.”
Stewart had hundreds of family and friends among the 11,701 fans who were given replica A’s jerseys with Stewart’s No. 34 on the back. Sitting alongside La Russa were teammates Carney Langsford, Jackson, Todd Stottlemyre and Wally Haas, the son of the former team owner.
Also on hand were Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Terry Steinbach, Mark McGwire and Reggie Smith, a teammate when Stewart made his major league debut in 1978 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It was La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan who helped resurrect Stewart’s career when he came to the A’s on the back of two lost seasons with the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies.
Stewart said he was on the brink of giving up baseball after the Baltimore Orioles told him he in 1986.
Looking for a job, Stewart said he hit an all-time low when he couldn’t even land a minor league job with the Baltimore Orioles. A free agency opportunity with the A’s in May 1986 put Stewart further down the bench, unused by then-manager Jackie Moore and pitching coach Wes Stock. He credited another old Dodgers teammate, Dusty Baker, with keeping him from quitting.
“Stew, whatever you do, make them take the uniform off your back,” Baker told him in 1986. “Don’t give it away.”
La Russa, hired to manage Oakland in mid-season 1986, was all too familiar with Stewart from his view in the Chicago White Sox dugout in years prior. How could he forget that deadly stare smoldering under the brim of his hat?
Duncan told Stewart to resurrect his forkball, a pitch he’d retired at the behest of another manager. La Russa put the ball in Stewart’s hands. An ace and champion was born. Those numbers a culmination of Stewart coming into his own as a leader not just because of his wicked arsenal, but his complete lack of fear.
“Never fun to see those beady eyes when we faced the A’s,” Marlins manager and former Stewart opponent Don Mattingly said in the videoboard message.
Stewart wanted to beat the best, often playing out in a rivalry with Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens. Stewart went 9-0 from 1986-1990 in head-to-head matchups with the star pitcher. But La Russa recounted some stories from behind the scenes.
Stewart, still a community leader in his hometown Oakland, led the team to aid rescue workers after the 1989 earthquake that delayed the Bay Bridge World Series by 10 days. He also led the charge in the clubhouse.
In the 1992 ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, the A’s were down 3-1 heading into Game 5 in Oakland. La Russa recalled an internal debate: Should the team pack its bags for a return trip to Toronto?
Stewart decided for them.
He called a meeting in the clubhouse and told the team to pack for Game 6. He would make sure a trip to Toronto was in order.
Sure enough, Stewart threw nine innings and gave up two runs in an A’s win, out-dueling David Cone. The A’s would lose the series in Game 6, snapping the A’s World Series appearance streak at three. They don’t get to the doorstep without him.
“You’re not a championship contender unless you have a top-of-the-rotation stud,” La Russa said. “Dave was every bit of that. He wanted to pitch the biggest games and have the toughest opponents.”