Amid legal, drug troubles, ex-MLB pitcher Sammy Stewart 'had a really big heart'

Jennifer Bowman
Asheville Citizen Times

HENDERSONVILLE — He was a professional baseball player known for both his victories and legal troubles, but to his family and those coached by him, Sammy Stewart was a humble man with a big heart.

Stewart, the Western North Carolina native who was a clutch player for the Baltimore Orioles' 1983 World Series win, died Friday in Hendersonville. He was 63.

The Owen High School graduate had been dubbed "The Throwin' Swannanoan" and set an MLB record when he struck out seven straight batters in his league debut against the White Sox.

Stewart was a favorite among his teammates, according to an article on the Orioles website, which described the 6-foot-3 player as having "flowing brown hair and a bushy moustache."

But his older sister, Linda Banks, has always been struck by his blue eyes.

"If you could look into his eyes, they just sparkled and they just drew you in," she told the Citizen Times. "When you were talking to him, you felt like he was really listening to you."

Banks said Stewart was always their parents' "golden boy." With their younger sister, Judy Terra, the family of five was tight-knit. Banks, the oldest, was called "sister" by both her younger siblings — Stewart even introduced her as such to Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, she said.

She said remained close with her brother even through his drug addiction and prison stint, seeing firsthand his desire to work with kids and charging as low as $25 per pitching lesson.

"He had a really big heart," Banks said. "Even through all of the troubles and things he had been through, he was still very alive."

In WNC, Stewart was a coach known for his honesty about addiction and legal issues. He previously coached at UNC Asheville and as recently as last year was an instructor at D-Bat on Hendersonville Road.

General Manager Samuel Mason said Stewart was humble and passionate. His students "always walked out a better ball player."

"He didn't flaunt his name, he didn't flaunt his success," Mason said. "He came in here every week to help pass the game on. And you wouldn't have had any idea the successes or troubles he's had in his past when you walked through those doors."

Following his trade from the Orioles to the Boston Red Sox, and then a brief stint with the Cleveland Indians, Stewart's career ended. His 11-year-old son, Colin, would die in his arms from cystic fibrosis. A daughter, Alicia, also died from the disease in 2016.

His life after the MLB descended into crime and drug possession. He pawned his World Series ring and his father's gun collection and fell into homelessness, the Baltimore Sun reported.

At the time Stewart wrote a public apology letter to Orioles fans in 2011, he had been charged with more than 60 offenses and sent to prison six times since 1988.

Stewart had been arrested for trespassing and other charges in recent months, the Hendersonville Times-News reported Saturday.

Maj. Frank Stout, public information officer for the sheriff's office, said deputies found Stewart at a home on Mountain Road after he had not been seen for a couple days. He said he did not know if the residence was Stewart's home; the former pitcher had moved to Hendersonville after he was released from prison in early 2013.

"The medical examiner has requested an autopsy to be done," Stout said. "We will know more once we get the results from that. It doesn't appear to be suspicious but we will not make a call on anything until we've got confirmation from the medical examiner what may have truly happened."

Stewart had four children, two of whom — Ryan and Christian — are still living. Funeral details were being arranged Monday.

Banks, who lives in Arkansas, said she'll cherish a beach trip they took together after serving his prison sentence. And while she always talked about moving to Florida, her brother loved the mountains and was "what we call a valley boy."

"There was no place but where he was living," she said.