Talk about starting at the bottom and rising to the top. Right-handed pitcher Brock Stewart was once a batboy for the team his dad, Jeff Stewart, coached. That team was the Illinois State University Redbirds. Long after his dad’s tenure was complete, Stewart himself became a Redbird eventually playing his way to the top of the professional ranks.
“Illinois State had a big-time influence on me,” said Stewart, who played for coach Mark Kingston. “It’s pretty much all I knew, and the place allowed me to develop as a player and as a man.”
Stewart spent a lot of time as a little guy hanging around Redbird baseball practice. And to make the connection even deeper, the house in Normal where he grew up—and where his parents still live—is less than a mile from home plate at Duffy Bass Field.
At Illinois State, Stewart, a Normal West grad, began as a position player playing mostly in the outfield but also at third base and second base. After some convincing, he took the advice of Billy Mohl, an assistant coach, who thought Stewart’s arm could take him places. After an injury and a rough year at the plate, Mohl worked with his young protégé and encouraged him to give pitching a try. Stewart was ready to listen.
“I always knew that my arm was my best tool, especially after my last year of hitting,” Stewart said. “At first I didn’t like to pitch, but I had a couple of good outings and got drafted.”
In the 2014 amateur draft, as a redshirt junior, he was selected in the sixth-round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was with the Dodgers from 2016-19, before being picked up on waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays last July. In December the Cubs grabbed him as a Rule 5 minor league pick.
“Dad called because he’d seen it in his email,” Stewart said of learning the news from his father, a longtime Major League Baseball (MLB) scout.
Stewart has racked up nearly two years of MLB service and has pitched 105 2/3 innings in the majors. He made his major-league debut in 2016 jumping incredibly from Single-A ball to the big leagues all in the same season. His best season in the majors came in 2017 when he posted a 3.41 ERA in 34 1/3 innings. He finished last year at Triple A, and unfortunately, with the minor league system devastated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he was one of hundreds of players released in May.
“I was excited for this season with the Cubs and felt great in spring training,” he said. “It’s never a good time for a pandemic to hit. I feel bad for myself, then I realize there are people in far worse situations than my own.”
Stewart, who can mix in four to five pitches and has a fastball in the low- to mid-90s, sees himself as a starting pitcher who “attacks the zone and fills it up.” His goal as a pitcher is to eat up as many innings as possible to give his team a chance to win. He appreciates the Major League lifestyle and misses it, but it’s the game that really matters to him.
“The feeling of running out to the mound from the dugout or from the bullpen is something that I can’t really describe,” he said. “Your fight or flight mode kicks in, and it’s just time to go whether you’re ready or not.”
He misses competing but knows the world has to be safe before sports can really come all the way back. In the meantime he’s staying in shape near home in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he and his wife, the former Chrissy Little, a Bloomington native, recently bought a home after marrying last November. He works out with about 10 other pro ballplayers and hopes to get picked up by a club, but his agent is also looking for opportunities for him to play in Asia. Later this month he plans to play in a new free agent league in Nashville.
Like most people, Stewart has gained some perspective in recent months, especially given how important his wife’s career is. Chrissy is a travel nurse currently on her second COVID-19 crisis assignment.
“She’s the hero,” Stewart said. “I just throw a baseball.”
With much of the country on hold, one bonus is that he and Chrissy have gotten to spend more time together. Plus, he likes to fish and play golf, so he’s had more time for those passions. He feels grateful and blessed for all he’s accomplished in a short span of time, but he’s not done. For the moment, all he can do is stay ready and watch for his opportunity to pitch again.
“I’ve succeeded in the big leagues, and I’ve also failed in the big leagues,” Stewart said. “Because of that I have learned a whole lot about myself and about how life goes. I’ll be OK if I never make it back, but that doesn’t mean I am content now and not trying my hardest to get back up there.”