When the starting pitcher for the day comes to the ballpark, it's tradition that he finds two new baseballs waiting for him in his shoes to use when he warms up. Finding those new balls in your shoes is the symbol that you've made the big time, the big bucks and the big fame.
Sammy Stewart comes to the park every day, and his shoes are always empty. "I got to admit it would be more exciting if the balls were in there," says the 26-year-old Throwin' Swannanoan with a grin, "but I still love this kind of work."
Stewart's work is the drudgery of long relief. Because he did it so spectacularly tonight, shutting out the Detroit Tigers for 8 1/3 innings as Baltimore rallied for a 7-3, come-from-behind win, the Orioles are still in the American League East race.
A homer and double good for four RBI by Eddie Murray, now the league leader, and a two-run game-winning homer by Benny Ayala helped Baltimore drop the Tigers from first place.
Milwaukee took over first by defeating Boston, 1-0, and leads the Tigers by one-half game. Boston is 1 1/2 games out and the Orioles trail by two games.
It was Stewart who saved the Orioles tonight, and may have locked up the American League earned run average championship to boot by lowering his mark to 1.95 in 111 innings.
The Orioles, who in Stewart's words "have been playin' some real bad ball this second half," trailed, 3-0, when Jim Palmer was knocked out in the first inning, betrayed by his lack of control and his mates' lack of defense.
Stewart entered on this chilling night in gorgeous blue-and-orange Tiger Stadium and blanked Detroit the rest of the way on seven singles and a walk.
While the rambunctious, infectiously gregarious Stewart, the team's No. 1 live wire and character, was holding off the Tigers, Baltimore rallied for four runs in the third to knock out George Cappuzzello, the undistinguished southpaw who symbolizes the Tigers' lack of starting pitching depth.
A two-run double by Murray, sent off the 365-foot sign in left, followed immediately by Ayala's powerful two-run shot into the seats behind the same sign through a brutal knockdown crosswind, changed this game entirely. As soon as Stewart got in charge, the Tigers were in big trouble.
For icing, Terry Crowley got a checked-swing, bloop RBI single in the fifth, and in the seventh, after Ken Singleton's third walk, Murray hit his 20th homer, a 420-foot liner off Aurelio Lopez that scattered fans in the right field upper deck. That game-clinching home run exited the premises as fast as any ball that the 26,991 fans here are likely to see.
Murray leads Oakland's Tony Armas, 72-71, in RBI, and is only one home run behind Armas and Milwaukee's Gorman Thomas in that race. Murray now has 46 second-half RBI in 46 games.
"Maybe I'm a better long-middle-and-short reliever -- kind of an 'anything pitcher' -- than I would be a starter. Who knows?" said Stewart after the longest long-man stint of his life. "I call myself the Hold Man, 'cause I've got to hold the other team right where they are when I come in.
"Pete Rose said a long time ago that he wanted to be the first $100,000 singles hitter," said Stewart. "Well, maybe I'll be the first Hold Man to get into the nice income brackets. You know, we need money down in North Carolina, too," added Stewart, who grew up and lives in Swannanoa, N.C.
However, Stewart must face long hours of boredom in the bullpen. For the past two years, he has worked on a left-handed curve ball. Earlier this season, he was on the verge of throwing it for the final strike of a victory over the Yankees when the batter spotted his ploy and dived out of the batter's box.
"You gotta do somethin' out there in the bullpen all those hours," said Stewart. "I'm waitin' for the right time to stand on the mound with a big lead and go into my act."
"Oh," mused Stewart, "like the World Series."