Swapping Stories: The Dave Stewart Trade of 1985

September 13, 1985: Texas trades righthander Dave Stewart to Philadelphia for righthander Rick Surhoff.

Dave Stewart’s legacy as a Major League pitcher was firmly established from 1987 through 1990, when the righthander won between 20 and 22 games each year, lost between nine and 13, annually logged more than 250 innings, and posted a four-year ERA of 3.20. He also went 7-3, 2.23 in the playoffs in that stretch. There was no more consistent pitcher in baseball.

Stewart’s time in Texas, however, couldn’t have been marked by more inconsistency.

The Oakland native jumped onto everyone’s radar screen when, in 1977, he went 17-4, 2.15 for Low A Clinton in the Dodgers system and, a year later, made his big league debut at age 21. Stewart pitched in AAA in 1979 and 1980, and was in the Los Angeles bullpen for the duration of the strike-shortened 1981 season that ended with the Dodgers winning the World Series. He swung between the club’s rotation and bullpen in 1982, a massively disappointing season in which the Dodgers lost nine of their final 12 games to blow a three-game division lead and finish one game behind Atlanta in the NL West.

The catcher on that 1982 club was 23-year-old Mike Scioscia, who had taken over for Steve Yeager the year before but hit just .219 with no power. General Manager Al Campanis called Texas that winter to see if he could get 31-year-old Jim Sundberg to come in and assume duties behind the plate. Rangers General Manager Joe Klein wasn’t inclined to trade the six-time Gold Glove winner but agreed to do so if Los Angeles would send back a package including veteran righthander Burt Hooton, AAA reliever Orel Hershiser, AAA outfielder Mark Bradley, and the 25-year-old Stewart. Campanis and Klein shook hands on the deal at the Winter Meetings.

At first, Sundberg wasn’t inclined to exercise the no-trade clause in his contract – until the Dodgers asked him to take a 30 percent paycut for the balance of the four years remaining on his deal. Sundberg vetoed the trade. One year later he was shipped to Milwaukee for Ned Yost. Hershiser went on to win 204 games, and he wouldn’t join the Rangers until his playing days were over. The fortunes of the Rangers franchise might have been different had the deal with the Dodgers deal through.

And that’s to say nothing of how things might have played out if Texas still had lefthander Rick Honeycutt in 1984, 1985, and 1986, when he posted a 3.17 ERA as a member of the Dodgers’ rotation. Thwarted in 1982 but still determined to bring Stewart to Texas, Klein agreed in August of 1983 to trade Honeycutt – at a time when he was leading the American League in ERA – for Stewart and local product Ricky Wright, who had split the summer between AAA and the big leagues.

The way Stewart’s roller coaster ride with Texas started off, it looked as if the Rangers had stolen the 26-year-old. After he’d pitched almost exclusively in relief for Los Angeles that season, Texas inserted him into the rotation and gave him the ball eight times down the stretch. He never gave up more than three runs. Only once did he fail to go six innings, and on that occasion he fell just one out short. His penultimate start was a complete-game, 2-1 win over Seattle. All told, he went 5-2, 2.14 as a Ranger in 1983, and the franchise thought it had a potential ace in the fold.

But Stewart lacked an effective offspeed pitch, and the league caught up to him in 1984, when he started the season with an 0-6, 7.42 April and finished at 7-14, 4.73, losing his permanent hold on a rotation spot in August.

Stewart’s ups and downs while with Texas weren’t confined to the mound. A few months after the 1984 season ended, he was arrested in downtown Los Angeles for the solicitation of a prostitute. When the media reports that the prostitute was actually a male masquerading as a female made Stewart a target of the tabloids, the Rangers gave him the opportunity to stay away from a fan banquet that was scheduled weeks later, an event at which he was to receive the organization’s annual Harold McKinney Good Guy Award. Stewart refused to hide.

Tom Grieve, who had just been promoted to replace Klein as Rangers General Manager, wasn’t surprised – but he was anxious. “Stew was a high quality guy,” Grieve recalls, “very well respected among his teammates. The incident was unquestionably out of character, but we were all concerned about the reaction he would get from the fan base.”

When Stewart was presented with the award in front of 1000 fans, he stepped to the podium and paused for several seconds before beginning to speak (“which made us all 10 times more nervous,” says Grieve). He then turned and looked owner Eddie Chiles in the eye and apologized to him and his wife. He looked across the stage at all of his teammates and did the same. And then he apologized to the fans in the room.

Grieve will never forget that moment. “There was complete silence until Stew sat back down, and then an incredible ovation. It was the most powerful two minutes I ever experienced at an event like that.”

If Stewart managed to win back his reputation with the Rangers’ most loyal fans, he failed to do the same between the lines. Tom House had joined the organization as a scout in January of 1985 and then became the team’s pitching coach that May, and among his first projects was to teach Stewart a third pitch to offset the mid-90s fastball and power slider that American League hitters had zoned in on in 1984. House started to work with Stewart on a split-finger fastball.

But Stewart, who was working in late relief for Texas in 1985, wasn’t getting the job done. The low point came at home on May 22, when he was entrusted with a 4-2 lead in the eighth and promptly gave up a three-run home run to Royals DH Jorge Orta. The Texas fans unleashed a chorus of boos on the righthander when the inning ended, and after the game Stewart unleashed his frustration, telling the press what he thought about the fans: “I’d like to pick any of them out of the stands, particularly the big mouths. I would give any one of them my salary if they could go out there and do my job for one game.” He reportedly punctuated his remarks by calling Rangers fans “idiots.”

Grieve fined Stewart $500, and within a week got a memorable phone call in Boston from Chiles, who simply asked, “Tom, is Stewart still on the team?” Grieve got the message.

“In my 10 years as General Manager,” Grieve said, “it was the only time an owner ever made a comment to me that I knew was an implicit order to trade a player. It had nothing to do with the off-season incident in L.A. It was about Stew’s performance on the mound, and his demeaning comments about our fans.

“I still thought he had the potential to develop into a frontline pitcher when Eddie called me in Boston. But at the same time, I didn’t try to fight for Stew, either.”

The Rangers shopped Stewart around but weren’t getting the kind of offers they’d hoped for. Finally, on September 13, 1985, Texas traded him to Philadelphia for 22-year-old righthander Rick Surhoff, whose brother B.J. had been the first overall pick in the amateur draft three months earlier. Rick had debuted for the Phillies with two relief appearances in the week leading up to the trade, surely in a showcase effort, and Texas gave him the ball seven times out of the bullpen in the season’s final three weeks. He posted a 7.56 ERA in 8.1 innings of work. It would be the only 8.1 innings of his big league career.

The Phillies couldn’t exactly claim the trade as the finest in franchise history, however. Stewart made four relief appearances down the stretch for his new club, giving up four runs (three earned) in 4.1 innings. He pitched eight times over the first month of the 1986 season, yielding nine runs in 12.1 innings, and there were rumors that he was pitching hurt. In early May, Philadelphia simply released him.

Oakland picked Stewart up, and under Dave Duncan’s tutelage he not only perfected the elusive splitter but developed it into the perhaps the finest in the league, and a year later he would begin his run of four straight 20-win seasons.

Wearing the green and gold, Stewart used his new out pitch to bring his results in line with the power arsenal and the demeanor that had always made him a scout’s favorite. The Rangers thought they had made a franchise-altering trade when they were the team that was able to get the Dodgers to part with him, but instead what they got was two years of peaks and valleys, on and off the field, that ultimately cut short his time in Texas before he’d matured into one of the most dependable pitchers of his generation.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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