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From Willie Mays to Reggie Jackson: Why Dave Stewart wants to bring MLB team to Nashville

Eyes wide and his father David Stewart by his side, a 5-year-old boy from Oakland, California, stood outside Candlestick Park near the San Francisco Giants players' parking lot.

That day in 1962, long before a 16-year MLB playing career, that kid from the other side of the bay, Dave Stewart, held a baseball bat in one hand and hopes of meeting Willie Mays in the other.

After signing autographs for two hours, Mays finally found his way to Stewart, signed his bat and peppered him with some questions.

"He asked me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' " Stewart said.

Easy. A baseball player.

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"Do you know what it takes to be a major league baseball player?" Mays asked.

Stewart shook his head.

"You have to love the game."

"My dad was determined on that day that I was going to meet Willie Mays," Stewart said. "Having an opportunity to meet Willie Mays was what opened the door for me to love baseball.

"It was almost like it was yesterday."

Stewart long ago lost track of that bat, but never of his love for the game.

Meeting Mays that day led Stewart to today, to Nashville, where he is spearheading an effort to bring an MLB expansion team with a diverse ownership group to town after parting ways with Music City Baseball in November.

Why Nashville? Why now for MLB, Dave Stewart?

When Stewart played for his hometown team in Oakland, he often would break bread with then-owner Walter Haas — who, like his father of the same name, was president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. The two would talk about life, the team, Stewart's after-baseball aspirations.

Stewart, who has a no-hitter to his name and his No. 34 retired by the A's, eventually became the team's assistant to the general manager under Sandy Alderson. He held the same role with the Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres.

But Stewart's tipping-point moment occurred in 2001, when the Blue Jays elected not to hire him as their GM, instead opting for J. P. Ricciardi.

"I thought after 5½ years with Toronto, it was inevitable I would become the general manager," Stewart said. "It didn't happen. In the strangest of ways . . . the guy who ended up getting the job was a guy that had no office management experience. He was an advanced scout. He just didn't have the same résumé, who happened to be white."

Former pitcher Dave Stewart, left, poses for a photo with Kelly Kruse at Innings Festival 2022 in Tempe Beach Park.
Former pitcher Dave Stewart, left, poses for a photo with Kelly Kruse at Innings Festival 2022 in Tempe Beach Park.

The Blue Jays, he said, asked if he'd be willing to stick around to help Ricciardi. Stewart called it an "insult," resigned and started a sports management company he ran for 17 years. After that he joined his former manager, Tony La Russa, in Arizona as general manager of the Diamondbacks.

He was fired after two seasons. The Diamondbacks made the playoffs the next year.

"What I started to see was a terrible imbalance in how things were done," Stewart said. "I didn't see a ground for minorities. Minorities weren't being hired in decision-making positions. Very few minorities had managers jobs — on-field or coaching jobs or training positions, any of that."

That's when he decided he wanted to be in a position to change that, to direct diversity in an ownership role. Thus his next move, to try to buy the Miami Marlins in 2017.

That didn't come to be. That didn't stop Stewart from continuing his pursuit. He inherited that gene from his parents.

Like father and mother, like son

In search of better work opportunities and a better life, David Stewart moved from Louisiana to East Oakland in the 1940s with his wife, Nathalie. There, they raised their two boys and five girls. There, David worked as a longshoreman, loading and unloading ships, and Nathalie worked at a food factory.

There, their son Dave became a high school All-American at St. Elizabeth High School in both baseball as a catcher and football as a linebacker and tight end.

"My father loved baseball," Stewart said of his dad, who died 10 years after his son met Mays. "He put a glove on my hand and a bat in my hand at an early age."

His mother, who died in 2020, also planted a seed, one that had to do with perseverance.

"My mom used to say, 'You can sit there and suck your thumb, but nobody is going to sit there and suck your thumb with you,' " Stewart said.

Dave Stewart: From Willie Mays to Rickey Henderson to Reggie Jackson

Dave Stewart, the kid who once used to wash Reggie Jackson's car in exchange for tickets to A's games, the kid who played ball as a kid with Rickey Henderson and Lloyd Moseby, the kid who waited forever for Willie Mays, turned his love into a career.

He was picked by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 16th round of the 1975 MLB Draft, even though he had 30 football scholarship offers. From there, he went to the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland A's, Toronto Blue Jays, then back to the A's. He won 168 games, three World Series titles, a World Series MVP, a Roberto Clemente Award and at least 20 games four seasons in a row.

Stewart thought more than once his playing career was over. By the time it was, in 1995, he knew he wanted to stay in the game.

Olivia Saldana, 7, left, meets former pitcher Dave Stewart, right, at Innings Festival 2022 in Tempe Beach Park.
Olivia Saldana, 7, left, meets former pitcher Dave Stewart, right, at Innings Festival 2022 in Tempe Beach Park.

He's heartbroken about Oakland losing his A's, who will move to Las Vegas in the coming years.

He remains intent on bringing Major League Baseball somewhere it has never been — Nashville.

Willie Mays, in many ways, is the reason for that.

"I can't even imagine the amount of kids he shook hands with, asked the same question he asked me," Stewart said. " 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' "

Paul Skrbina is a sports enterprise reporter covering the Predators, Titans, Nashville SC, local colleges and local sports for The Tennessean. Reach him at pskrbina@tennessean.com and on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) @paulskrbina. Follow his work here.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: From Mays to Jackson: Why Dave Stewart wants MLB in Nashville