Drug addiction doesn’t discriminate. Many roads lead to its bitter destination.
Sammy Stewart, former pitcher for the 1983 World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles, provides a tragic recent example. Though he had the nerve to pitch 12 scoreless innings that postseason, life after baseball created real pressure. Stewart turned to drugs to cope. Thirty years after the Orioles’ last championship and months after being released from prison, Sammy described his former life of drug addiction:
The lowest moment was just to know that you’re completely alone on a dirt-dark highway . . . You’re the only one up at 2:30 in the morning. You’re walking, and the pit of your stomach is just bored out with a hole in it, something that you just can’t fill up. The thing about any kind of dope is one is too many and 1,000 isn’t enough. There’s never enough for you.
During those dark nights, drug addiction and the former champion pitcher were in league with one another, hand in glove. But it wasn’t always so.
A natural athlete out of North Carolina, Sammy Stewart could pitch with either hand. He had a single-minded determination to play ball. In his sports-mad youth, Stewart had no time for drugs. His first wife quoted the high school-aged Sammy as wondering, “Why do people do that to their bodies?” Stewart didn’t even smoke a joint until college.
Stewart’s major league career began with astonishing promise. In his 1978 debut game with the Orioles versus the Chicago White Sox, Stewart struck out seven consecutive batters, a league record for a first-time hurler. In the glory days which followed, Sammy became known as an iron-armed wonder, a player who could pitch whenever he was needed, as a starter or in relief situations, on minimal rest. “I want the ball” was his confident refrain.
Like his pal and fellow pitcher Mike Flanagan, Sammy possessed the kind of folksy personal charm which made the Orioles’ clubhouse fun and made fans fall in love. But the years following the championship season brought a spectacular fall from grace for Stewart, including that stint in prison. Drug addiction was the primary cause of the pro ballplayer’s change in fortune.
The Center of Attention
As has been documented, many factors contribute to – and converge in – drug addiction. For Stewart, one factor was being traded by his beloved Orioles in 1985 (after 11 years with the club), to the Boston Red Sox. Within two seasons, a lonely and disillusioned Sammy retired from baseball, at just 32 years old. (“It was a mistake,” he later admitted about his premature retirement.) Without the focus of the game to give him purpose, he felt adrift, and fell into the wrong crowd. It was while living in Boston that Stewart smoked crack for the first time:
“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 Sea Foods, 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.”
Perhaps the biggest catalyst to his continued decline was the 1991 death of his 11-year-old son Colin from cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease. Reportedly Sammy never fully recovered from the wound that never heals, the pain of burying one’s child. (However, his then-estranged first wife, Peggy, told the Boston Globe in 2005 that Colin’s death was just “an excuse” for Sammy to keep using, “not a reason.”)
A life of crime stemming from his drug addiction put both Stewart’s freedom, and his own life, in peril. Sammy routinely lived in squalor or on the street, was nearly paralyzed in a stabbing and “shot at several times” in various drug deals and rip-offs.
The Habitual Felon
After dozens of arrests, Stewart faced a judge regarding a potential plea deal for a drug possession and other charges. He turned the deal down, telling the judge he felt he needed the jail time to straighten out and escape his drug addiction. Sammy was sentenced to six years, minimum, and ultimately did six years and eight months. In 2006, Stewart told the Boston Globe he was convicted, in part, for being a “habitual felon”:
[Stewart]’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.”
Before his lengthy prison stay, Sammy attempted drug addiction rehab several times, but failed to get with the recovery program:
“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.”
An Open Letter to Baltimore
When his old friend, the legendary Oriole Mike Flanagan, committed suicide in 2011, Stewart had to express his sorrow and regret. From his Asheville prison cell, Sammy wrote a moving open letter to his friends and fans back in Baltimore:
These last five years have definitely altered my reality; prison is not the place to be. I’m glad I have learned humility, and I work hard to stay teachable. We all must.
The reason I want to claim my mistakes, atone for them, and voice them to the Baltimore area is because you have given me strength and desire to keep trying no matter what obstacles are ahead.
Sammy knew he had to get sincere about turning his own life around, that he could no longer walk the hard, dark road of drug addiction. He hoped his 2013 release from prison would allow him to reunite with his surviving 1983 teammates, and his wish was happily fulfilled.
Early reports of Sammy’s post-prison life described a changed man. His fellow champs were pleasantly surprised by how healthy Stewart looked, clean and sober. Sammy spoke of gently easing back into the game with a budding sideline as a local pitching coach for would-be Little League phenoms. As a coach Stewart was a big hit with the kids, and an even bigger hit with their thrilled parents, who mostly remembered the local hero’s championship days of yore, and forgave Sammy’s criminal record.
Media coverage suggested that enforced solitude provided the healthy perspective and wisdom Stewart had sought, that what could be called ‘prison-as-rehab’ had helped him overcome drug addiction. (Though Sammy told reporters he turned down the drugs offered to him while in prison.) He was happily remarried and trying to repair his relationships with his surviving children. He let the light back into his life:
“I like for it to stay bright,” he says. “When you’re in drug addiction, you close your curtains, you duct-tape your windows because you’re paranoid about people seeing you. I’m away from all that. My windows are open. People can knock on my door, call me on the phone and I’ll get back with you. I’m not dying now.”
Just as his hope in the future had seemingly been renewed, Sammy was thrown for a loop by another catastrophe. In 2016, Stewart’s 34-year-old daughter, Alicia, also died of cystic fibrosis, despite receiving a double lung transplant in 2005.
The loss of his daughter reportedly hit Sammy hard, opening the old wounds from Colin’s death from the same disease over two decades before. Now he could never make up for all the rotten things he’d done over the years of his drug addiction. Things like telling people Alicia had died when she was still alive to get their sympathy – and their money, to fill his crack pipe. Like offering her a cigarette after her double lung transplant (“You can smoke now”). It was too late to make amends.
And all too soon, the once-mighty pitcher was pulled out of the game. On March 2, 2018, Stewart, 63, was found dead in his modest North Carolina home. Though the cause of death is undetermined, Stewart’s life was replete with the self-destructiveness and self-medication of drug addiction. The hard walk in the darkness takes its toll on a body.
Sammy Stewart took his recovery upon himself, using the drastic step of a potentially avoidable prison term to punish himself, perhaps, but also to sequester himself from temptation. Just as during his pitching days, he was gutting it out, alone. Sammy insisted that judge give him a stiff sentence like he insisted his baseball managers keep him on the mound. Like Stewart lamented about quitting baseball too soon, this choice may have been an unforced error. Perhaps he remained too susceptible to the relapse into drug addiction he had fought to fend off.
A Winning Team
If you or someone you love is struggling and slipping into addictive behavior, don’t keep digging that hole. Don’t cover yourself in your sorrow.
You don’t have to bear the burden alone.
It’s not too late for you. You just need a game plan to rally behind.
At Serenity Acres Treatment Center, we understand people who are struggling with addiction and their families need a support system. Addicts require a healthy “hand in glove” partnership to replace the unhealthy one. We provide a treatment program with the resources you need for sustainable recovery from drug addiction.
If you’re out of the zone, we can help you start winning again.