SALISBURY, N.C. -- His life gone up in smoke, his eyes vacant, former major league pitcher Sammy Stewart remembers the beginning of the end.
"The first time I ever smoked crack was in Framingham, Mass.," says Stewart, serving at least six years at the Piedmont Correctional Institution for being a habitual felon, felony drug possession, and failure to appear in court on a felony charge.
"I never started smoking cocaine till I was 33 years old, till after I got out of baseball. I couldn't stop once I started. I'd go on a binge for three or four days or 35 days. I'd go till all the money was gone."
It was 1988, the year Stewart retired after pitching 10 seasons with the Orioles, Red Sox (1986), and Indians. Stewart, a big ol' country boy from North Carolina who in 1981 led the American League in ERA, decided to make the Boston area his home. He loved the fans, Legal Seafoods, and his big beautiful house in Framingham with a jacuzzi and a deck, from which he could see all the way to the Prudential building, 20 miles away.
"I went to a party and there were some girls moving around a little funny after going into the bathroom. I said, 'What are they doing?' and they said they were smoking crack. And I said, 'Won't that bust your heart?' They said, 'No, no, try it.' The high was euphoric, super. It took away the absence of baseball. It made me the big dog again, I guess. It made me the center of attention. It was a new toy."
Stewart who always wore No.53, and compiled a 59-48 record, 3.59 ERA, and 45 saves, now has a new number: 0390745. His records now are kept by the North Carolina Department of Corrections.
"It's a long way from 53 isn't it?" he mused.
He's been arrested 26 times since 1989 and charged with 43 crimes. He has been to prison six times. Saturday he turns 52. He's amazed he's still alive after smoking crack "tens of thousands of times."
"There's a lot of times I wished I would have died because I was pathetic," he says matter of factly. "I guess I started digging a hole for myself and it got so bad I got homeless, moneyless, friendless. I just started covering myself up instead of climbing out of the hole."
He estimates he made $3 million playing major league baseball. What's left? "Nothing. Not a penny," he says.
Stewart's diamond-studded 1983 World Series championship ring?
Pawned, for drugs, he says, and he adds, "As far as demons, I take responsibility for everything I've done."
His eyes are sunken, he's bald now, his trademark Fu Manchu is gray, and he wears extra large prison-issue pants.
But when he talks baseball, his mind escapes the prison bars, the miles of barbed wire, and the occasional taunts of other inmates.
It was Sept. 1, 1978, and a young Sammy Stewart got to pitch in the show for the Orioles, against the White Sox.
"Rick Dempsey [Orioles catcher] said, 'Turn around. Look at the scoreboard,"' says Stewart, his eyes lighting up. "So I turned around and it said, 'Sammy Stewart has just tied a record by striking out six consecutive batters in his first major league appearance. The record was set by Karl Spooner of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954.'
"Well, I turned around and threw three of the hardest sliders I've ever thrown and I got the record, and that's 28 years ago, and I still got the record."
Hall of Fame Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer was surprised at Stewart's demise.
"He had two kids with cystic fibrosis," says Palmer (Stewart's son, Colin, died in 1991 at age 11; his daughter Alicia, 24, had a double lung transplant last year). "He had a lot of demons, but he was a very, very likable guy.
"When he came in I always felt he was under control with the job at hand. He could pitch with either hand. Once he was going to switch hands during a game against the Yankees. [Pitching coach] Stu Miller had to run out there and stop him."
"His future was unlimited," adds Palmer. "Maybe he'll learn, but he gets out and he's near 60 and he doesn't have a job; it's just a tragedy."
Another former Orioles teammate, pitcher Mike Flanagan, even wrote a letter to the judge in support of Stewart.
"I guess I wrote it because I remembered back when -- all the hope and promise that he had," says Flanagan. "He's had a horrible journey.
"Boy, he was abundantly talented. He could do just about anything. He could pitch every day. Pitch long, pitch short. He was talented in other ways, too. He could amuse the whole team with comedy routines we had. There were so many avenues that he could've gone into after baseball, certainly. Broadcasting, certainly. Great storyteller ... that's what we all remember.
"He came back for an old-timers game and he said he just got out of jail, but he was still that Sammy we knew in the clubhouse -- but obviously there was that whole other side."
"When Colin died he was broke and I steered him to B.A.T. [Baseball Assistance Team]. There probably wasn't a guy around that he wasn't into for some money. There was always a great story why he needed the money. He seemed sincere, but you knew you never were going to see it again."
Peggy Stewart, his wife whom he is separated from, says she now works two jobs and is stone sober after dealing with substance abuse issues. "I look at his picture and I don't know who he is. He was once so funny and so giving and so athletic. In high school he hated drugs. He'd say, 'Why are they smoking marijuana? Why are they doing that to their bodies?"'
Peggy Stewart says the death of their son was not the reason Sammy turned to drugs. "That's an excuse, not a reason," she says.
"Oh yes, he's a con artist. Oh, goodness. His career should have been as a con artist. He could con me out of anything."
When he burned all his bridges with his major league pals, he started living under bridges in his native Asheville, N.C. "I would panhandle," he says. "I was one of the best at that. I'd tell 'em I was traveling from Murphy to Columbia, S.C., and my brakes went out. That I helped a lot of people and I believe it comes back to you. Can you spare a little gas money? Sometimes I'd get a couple hundred dollars a day and it'd go right up the pipe."
Alicia Stewart says her dad used her illness to con people out of money she never saw. "I was at a gas station and this guy stared me down, was looking right through me," she says. "He said, 'Your dad told me you died."'
Last November she was driving home with her mother from her surgery in Chapel Hill, when she saw her dad walking along the road.
"He looked awful," she says. "Grass and dirt all over him. His face was yellowy and all wrinkled. His hair looked like Bozo the Clown and he smelled like he'd been living in a ditch. It was really bad; I was scared to hug him. I offered to get him some food and he said, 'No, no, no.'
"He offered me a smoke. He said, 'Now that you got new lungs you can have a cigarette.' He called me three days later and said, 'How bout giving daddy the $30 you promised me."'
Alicia says, "I love him and I always will," but she says she's tired of people saying, "Poor old Sammy."
"I fought real hard for my life for my Mom's sake, so she wouldn't have both of her children dead," she says. "And here he is just killing himself.
"That's the hardest thing to understand, because I'm not that kind of person. I'm a giving person. You don't care about other people, or your family ... you'll steal from family ... yeah.
Says Stewart, "I've been hit with hammers after ripping some people off. Sometimes they'd rob me and I'd rob them back." He's been shot at several times.
Stewart says he is writing a book. He wants to call it, "Life Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be."
Especially when he was trying to cop drugs.
"A young guy told me, 'I got what you want,' and he got in the car and he showed me a big bag. I had $160 and I tasted it. I said that ain't [expletive]. That's cornmeal. He said, 'Man, give me your money.' So I backhanded him ... knocked him out of the car, and drove away.
"All of a sudden I heard something. 'Pop, pop,' and my back window was already busted out; I had plastic on it. The first bullet went through that plastic window and down into the back seat. Then as I was going, the second bullet went through the trunk, through the back seat, and landed in the back of my driver [seat]. I found a little .38 bullet and I kept it."
Several stints in rehab have failed.
"I never really wanted to stop, I guess," he says. "It's pathetic when you go to a rehab and you've got the most cocaine in your system that they've ever had. Everybody's talking about turning their lives around, and I'm out there pretending I'm jogging and getting cocaine delivered. Fourteen days later I'm kicked out with a suitcase in my hand walking down the road wondering, 'where am I gonna go?"'
"I wound up sleeping under the bridges and passing a 40 [ounce bottle of beer] around with people that just got off the bus."
What demons possessed him?
"Well, I don't know, they talk about a hole in the heart, about something that needs to be filled up," he says. But temptation always follows him.
"There's drugs in [prison]," he says. "I've already seen them and I've turned 'em down."
"I'm gonna watch every game if I can," he says. "I love that it's Detroit-St. Louis, like in 1968. I used to pretend I was Mickey Lolich in my backyard."
"A lot of 'em [inmates] don't know who I am, they think it's a lot of [expletive], but I was second behind Rick Dempsey as the MVP in the 1983 World Series. It was like being in a goldfish bowl, but I loved the pressure. I pitched 12 scoreless innings in the postseason, never gave up a run."
The Orioles traded him to the Red Sox for Jackie Gutierrez Dec. 17, 1985, and he posted a 4-1 record in 27 appearances in 1986. "I loved Boston. When I started out in spring training, Ted Williams said, 'Hey country boy, you got a slider? I said, 'Yes sir, Mr. Williams.' He said, 'If they didn't come up with that pitch, I'd have hit .500."'
Stewart blames manager John McNamara for losing the 1986 World Series. Stewart says he had arm problems earlier in the season but was healed for the Series and throwing in the 90s. He says McNamara held a grudge. "If they let me pitch, we would've won that Series," he says.
He claims the problem with McNamara developed because the team bus once left him behind at Fenway Park.
Stewart says he was visiting his son in the hospital, got to the ballpark, and threw his bag on the bus. He was parking his car when the bus left without him.
Later, he got in traveling secretary Jack Rogers's face. "I said, 'Why'd you leave, when we waited on Roger Clemens and Jim Rice all year?"'
According to Stewart, Rogers told him to "Get off your rear and get to the ballpark on time." Stewart spat at him. "It was despicable, it was wrong," he says. Rogers died in 2003.
Stewart later had words with McNamara. "He said, 'If I was 15 years younger, I'd kick your ass,"' Stewart says. "I said, 'If you were 15 years younger, you and your Marine son couldn't kick my ass."'
He sat during the whole Series. "[McNamara] did not want me at all," he says. "He laid down on me and it cost us the World Series. I hated to see Al Nipper come out of the bullpen when I've never been scored on in the postseason and my arm was feeling good."
Stewart also absolved Bill Buckner for his famous error.
"I don't care if he had to ice seven parts of his body, I'd want him out there," he says. "We wouldn't have gotten there without him. He was the leader of that team. Him and [Don] Baylor."
Stewart says he's not worried about doing time. "I have the Lord with me now, His will be done."
"I'm gonna be OK," he says. "I had my fun. I partied; I knew I couldn't take nothing with me. But I'm gonna get to be where I'm gonna be an older man that's respected.
"I'd love to be a pitching coach. I'd do it for free. I'd love to teach kids. Be your own person and be proud about not doing drugs. I believe it's really cool to say no. I would tell any youngster to listen to the people you love. It's something I couldn't do at an older age."
"I want to give something to my children where they say, 'Daddy we're proud of you,' and whenever I die they'll say, 'My Daddy, he beat it. It took him a long time, but he beat it.'
"You know what? I'm gonna beat it. I will. I know I will."