Those late 1980s Oakland Athletics teams were the reason I became a baseball fan.
Wait, that's not entirely true. I became an A's fan in 1981 -- as nonsensically explained here -- and Rickey Henderson was my first "favorite" player. But, from 1981-1985, I lived in North Carolina. Back then, being a fan of a west coast MLB team meant you might see them play on television once or twice a year (Los Angeles Dodgers, excepted) and see one-third of their boxscores in the next day's newspaper.
By the time we moved back to California, Rickey had been traded to the Yankees. In 1986-87, the A's ushered in a new era of still unexplained power behind the bats of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. In 1988, Oakland began a run of four division titles in five years along with three American League pennants and one world championship. Rickey rejoined the A's in 1989, but Oakland's not-quite-dynasty was as much about their pitching as they were about their hitting.
Dave Stewart was Oakland's ace starting pitcher during this time, posting four consecutive 20-win seasons from 1987-90 and winning the World Series MVP award for the 1989 championship team -- he gave me autograph before a game that year and later, he threw me a ball during batting practice. Acknowledging my obvious bias, he remains the best big game arm I've ever seen and is my second-favorite Oakland A's player ever.
These days, Stewart lives in Poway -- a small town about 10 minutes east of Stately Bootleg Manor -- and works as a player agent (the Dodgers' newly-minted 200-million dollar man Matt Kemp is his most famous client). He also manages a local youth travel ball squad...which is how my eight-year-old son Jalen first met him. Stewart's team regularly trains at the same baseball skills facility where Mrs. Bootleg and I send Jalen during his surprisingly frequent, week-long "breaks" and "vacations" during the school year.
Several months ago, J casually mentioned that one of the instructors was going to introduce him to Stewart. It was said with the same tone he uses to offhandedly announce that he farted -- an event which, for some reason, he feels the need to keep my wife and I apprised of in real time, whether he's in the same room or not.
Jalen's knowledge and affection for Oakland A's baseball is well-known over at the baseball facility. Despite his age, he can cite names and numbers for the squads that played in the 1970s and 1980s just as well as he can for today's teams. (And, no, I don't know where he gets it from. Why do you ask?) But, when he told me that he'd be meeting Dave Stewart, I pooh-poohed it. "Oh, yeah?" I remember mumbling. "Well, if you do, tell him he's my all-time favorite pitcher."
At the end of the day, Mrs. Bootleg sent me a cell phone picture of Jalen holding an autographed baseball card. Jalen had met Dave Stewart. My son -- born almost 10 years after Stewart retired -- had met Dave Stewart. Before me. When I got home, I peppered J with questions. It turns out Jalen DID tell Stewart that he was my all-time favorite pitcher. HEE!
A few weeks later, it was Mrs. Bootleg's turn. My wife -- who NEVER saw Stewart pitch and only married into the six months of Oakland Athletics baseball she enjoys every year -- saw Stewart at a popular local bar/restaurant. I had just started practice for J's fall baseball team that afternoon, so Mrs. Bootleg texted me with the news. She introduced herself as Jalen's mom and -- according to my wife -- Stewart went on and on about J. He complimented Jalen's game, his enthusiasm and his freak-show encyclopedic knowledge of the A's.
Afterwards, my wife and son periodically ran into Stewart during baseball camps, at the supermarket and similar places that I frequent just as much as they do. Finally, during a Thanksgiving week camp, I left work early to pick J up. As I walked in, Jalen was literally dragging another boy by the arm and in the direction of...ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod...DAVE STEWART.
The other boy seemed skeptical that he was in the presence of late 1980s/early 1990s greatness. "Jalen says you're somebody famous", the ignorant little sh*t sniffed in Mr. Stewart's direction. "Well, I used to be", Stewart graciously responded. At the sight of me, Stewart turned, extended a hand and asked, "Are you Jalen's dad?" I suppressed my ear-piercing squeal. We talked for a good 10 minutes.
Charmin Soft -- I was genuinely surprised at how soft Stewart's right hand was. I know it sounds silly, but this is a guy who threw more than 2,600 innings during a 16-year big league career. When I mentioned this to Mrs. Bootleg she condescendingly responded, "You KNOW he probably gets regular pedicures, right?" I covered my ears, ran upstairs and slammed the bedroom door behind me.
What J Has to Say... -- The other boy was still standing there, sizing Stewart up. "What was your best year in the Major Leagues?", he asked. Stewart responded with his 1990 campaign and rattled off some stats (which we'll get to in a moment). Whenever Stewart paused, Jalen helpfully jumped in with something else from that season ("And, you threw a no-hitter against Toronto!" "And, you pitched in the World Series against Cincinnati" "And, you beat Roger Clemens a lot!") Stewart wrapped J up in a bear hug and exclaimed, "I love this boy! How do you know all that?" Here, I jumped in and said, "Hey, I raised him well!" Oh, shut up. I'd like to see how YOU'D respond to meeting your all-time favorite pitcher.
Fact Check -- Stewart was a little fast and loose with his résumé. He told the boy he went 24-5 with 200-something strikeouts in 1990. I'll let it slide.
Fact Check II -- Stewart was listed at 6'2" during his playing career. I'm 6'0" and appeared to have at least an inch on him. When I mentioned this to Mrs. Bootleg, she acted like I'd insulted her future boo. "Oh, he's DEFINITELY taller than you. Every time I've met him, I couldn't get over how tall he was." My wife is 4'8". Make your own judgments about her Lilliputian viewpoint.
Inside Information -- One of Stewart's other clients is current A's 1B/DH Chris Carter. Carter had something of a breakthrough season in Oakland this year (.350 OBP, .514 SLG, 16 home runs). Stewart mentioned him as a player to watch for next season and then offered what I'll treat as a few, uh... "off the record" opinions on how the A's have treated Carter during his brief MLB career. Suffice to say, Stewart thinks Carter will hit 40 home runs with regular playing time.
"Can We Have Your Phone Number?" -- I mentioned that I take Jalen up to Oakland to see an A's game once a year. Stewart lit up at this and insisted that the next time we go, I should let him know and he'll arrange for us to sit in his diamond level seats and watch batting practice from the field.
Damn it, Stew. You and I both know that this will never happen. Besides, how would I reach you? I don't even have your phone... "Can we have your phone number, Dave Stewart?!", Jalen blurted out.
I don't know WHY he asked (or why he called Stewart by his full name, as if he were cutting a promo on a WWE wrestler), but Stewart gave me his cell phone number and asked that I call him right there, so he'd have mine. Again, I would NEVER call him to selfishly collect on such a generous offer. Sharing those ten minutes with Stewart and my baseball-obsessed son was worth more than free seats at the Oakland Coliseum.
Unless we're talking about the 2013 Labor Day weekend series against the Rays. Hypothetically.
You know how to reach me, Stew.