Being a lifelong baseball fan, and a baseball hobbyist for several decades, there’s not much that makes me happier than talking baseball with a former baseball great.
And for several seasons in Oakland and Toronto, Dave Stewart was exactly that.
I had the opportunity to chat with the fire-balling right-hander once known as “Smoke” in the American League. We met at Isotopes Park, close to an hour before he was to be inducted, along with former third baseman Ron “The Penguin” Cey and Rio Rancho graphic artist Dick Moots, the man who designed the famous Albuquerque Dukes logo in 1972, into the Albuquerque Professional Baseball Hall of Fame..
People who remember Stewart on the mound probably remember his menacing glare at the batter. Talking to him in 2022, you’d never guess he once had that demeanor – unless you were in the batter’s box, 60 feet, 6 inches away.
It wasn’t my first interview with Stewart, and I told him I’d been visiting family in Michigan in the summer of 1984, got media credentials for two Detroit Tigers ballgames, and interviewed him near the bullpen when he was with the Texas Rangers. Naturally, he didn’t remember that; I later found I hadn’t taken my cassette recorder on that trip.
Baseball has also changed, and that’s something we talked about: To wit, his 11 complete games for the 1980 Pacific Coast League champion Albuquerque Dukes, a season in which he started 29 games and compiled a 15-10 record with a respectable – for the PCL – ERA of 3.70.
Through close to 800 PCL games to that point of the 2022 season, there had been seven complete games. And that’s not by any single pitcher or staff, that’s for the whole league.
To put Stewart’s feat of 42 seasons ago into perspective, the Isotopes have a total of 11 complete games going back to the 2013 season – and no more than three by the entire staff in any season.
The Isotopes’ best season for CGs was in 2009, when they dazzled opponents with eight complete games. The Dukes, PCL champions three years running (’80-82), and pitchers had, respectively, 30, 31 and 33 complete games in that span.
Back “in the day,” starting pitchers took pride in their jobs, wanting/expecting to complete every game they started. Today, a starting pitcher giving up three of fewer earned runs through six innings has turned in a “quality start.”
Did Stewart ever have a pitch count, something managers become concerned about when a starter gets close to 100 pitches.
“Not that I remember. Tony LaRussa may have – but didn’t tell me,” he said, referring back to his days with the Oakland A’s, a high-powered team that won the American League pennants from 1988-90, winning the World Series in ’89.
“I think I pitched two 11-inning games for him, a couple of 10-inning games, so if there was a pitch count, I don’t know anything about it.
“Today’s game is a different game,” Stewart said. He said he’d been watching the Houston-Seattle ballgame earlier that day, and the broadcasters were talking about the Seattle pitcher who threw 90 innings in 2021 and “was on track to throw 190 innings this year, and they were saying he shouldn’t throw 190 innings, based on the amount of innings he threw last year.
“The thing that was in my mind was, you’re supposed to be preparing your players and pitchers in the minor leagues to be major-leaguer, that’s a different factor,” he said, recalling his 1980 season with the Dukes, when he threw a league-high 202 innings.
“The next year, I’m ready to pitch in the big leagues,” he said – and he was, a member of the 1981 champion Dodgers.
“The Dodger way – to pitch in the big leagues, and to be ready – you need 800 minor-league innings,” he recalled. “And so the game has changed greatly, when it comes to innings pitched, complete games, third time through the lineup – you name it, it’s a different game now, but my belief is the game will have to revert to back to where it was.
“I based everything on how many innings I was going to pitch. My goal was set on innings pitched,” he said.
Now, with launch angle, WAR, velocity of the ball off the bat, OPS, pitch clocks, settling extra-inning games by starting a runner at second base and defensive shifts, to name a few recent “innovations,” Stewart longs for the olden days, namely the late 20th century.
Of course, for him, the 70s and 80-s weren’t too bad either. He fondly remembers his MLB debut, when he came to the mound from the bullpen in a game at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and retired the Padres1-2-3.
Stewart spent 16 illustrious years in the Major Leagues with the Dodgers, Rangers, Phillies, Athletics and Blue Jays, winning 168 games and being part of three World Series champions (Dodgers in 1981, A’s in 1989 and Blue Jays in 1993); he was named 1989 World Series MVP and took home ALCS Most Valuable Player honors twice (’90 and ’93).
“I just think the old way of playing baseball was the best way to play baseball,” he said. “I wish I was pitching today. I think I maybe had two seasons where I struck out 200 or more; I might have a ton more strikeouts. I think instead of one no-hitter, I’d probably have a couple no-hitters.”
Thanks for your time, Smoke.
SPEAKING OF HALLS OF FAME
In light of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., holding its induction ceremonies on July 24, did you realize one of the late inductees once played in New Mexico?
That would be Bud Fowler (1858-1913), tabbed the first Black to play professional baseball. He died 34 years before Jackie Robinson’s Major Leagues debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He played for many teams, and spent much of the 1888 season in the New Mexico Baseball League, playing second base for the Santa Fe Ancients. The NMBL lasted just that season.
According to the HOF, Fowler’s earliest pro years were during the “barehanded era,” before gloves were used in the field. During his three decades as a player, he played for more Minor League clubs and in more Minor League games than any Black player before Jackie Robinson broke the professional baseball color barrier by signing with the Dodgers in the mid-1940s. In all, it’s believed that Fowler took more than 2,000 professional at-bats and hit .308.
According to the late Jeffrey Laing’s 2013 book “Bud Fowler: Baseball’s First Professional” (McFarland Books), Fowler was basically a free agent after the team he’d been playing for in the Indiana Central Interstate League disbanded, and he came to Las Vegas, N.M., to join the Ancients in a game vs. the Las Vegas club.
Not long after joining the Ancients, Fowler said in a newspaper interview, “I was aware of the fact that a prejudice existed among the players. We are as a color and represented in all national sports throughout the United States, and why should we be objected to baseball?”
Fowler, who also pitched for Santa Fe, and in one forgettable outing, not only threw nine wild pitches but the Ancients committed 16 errors. Before the season ended, Las Vegas and Albuquerque teams disbanded, but Fowler wasn’t through with the City Different.
According to Laing, he found a business partner and bought out Johnny Alire’s Capitol City barber shop on the Plaza. Fowler, it was said, was “as handy with the blade, clippers and shears as he is with the ball and bat.”
Apparently, Fowler was gone in 1889, a baseball vagabond, resuming his diamond career in California, Michigan and elsewhere. He died of pernicious anemia in Frankfort, N.Y., on Feb. 26, 1913.
His four-month presence in Santa Fe left a mark: The Santa Fe Mechanics team in 1909 was about one-third Black.