SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Early during a long-ago Spring Training, a young pitcher named Dave Stewart scaled the Vero Beach mound on shaky legs to pitch batting practice against the marquee Dodgers.
Stewart had been preceded by his reputation for not knowing where his hard pitches were going. In his first two seasons in the Minors, he'd walked 123 in 109 innings. He quickly lived up to it.
First guy up, Davey Lopes, took a fastball in his side.
Then, Ron Cey had to dive out of the way of a heater behind his head.
Next, Steve Garvey took one on his shoulder.
By then, Stewart had the full attention of manager Tom Lasorda, who had been holding typical court behind the batting cage until he was alerted by the wails of his star players.
"Who the heck is that, and what the heck is he doing?!" Lasorda exclaimed.
Reggie Smith stepped in. Stewart drilled him in the knee.
"Hey! Get off the mound before you take out my entire lineup!" Lasorda ordered.
Stewart descended the mound, his eyes on the potholes his cleats were leaving in the dirt.
Later that night, as Stewart dragged his way past the row of units that constituted players' living quarters at Dodgertown, he heard a shout through an open door:
"Hey, Stewart! Get in here!"
"It was Smith," Stewart recalled. "So I stop, turn and enter -- and see him sitting by this little table with his roommate, Lopes, sitting on the bed. 'I'm really gonna hear it now,' I'm thinking."
Stewart did hear it, but not what he expected.
"The only thing you did wrong out there today," Smith told him, "was come off the field with your head down. You don't ever leave the field hanging your head. If you did the best you could, you hold it high."
"I never forgot that," Stewart said, nearly 40 years later. "And it is something I've always told my teammates, my partners, my players -- anyone I've ever worked with."
That's a lot of people -- 16 seasons of pitching with five teams, pitching coach with the Padres, the Blue Jays and the Brewers, assistant general manager in Oakland, San Diego and Toronto and player agent.
And they were all merely breadcrumbs dropped on the way to what he wanted to be all along: a GM in charge of building a Major League winner. Stewart was determined to reach that goal from the day he delivered his last pitch, in 1995.
He was handed the job in Arizona by the same man who used to hand him the ball in Oakland. When Tony La Russa moved in as Arizona's charter chief baseball officer, the reunion with Stewart appeared to be only a matter of time.
Stewart did not think long about whether to accept the job. Over the years, he'd interviewed for GM jobs that went to others in Toronto, Oakland and Florida, but this wasn't the same. And he didn't mind having an inside track to this one.
"What I've always looked for is something to challenge me, something to keep the fire burning," Stewart said.
Is rolling open the blueprint of the team with the Majors' worst record a big enough challenge? Enough kindling for the fire?
"Our goal is to win a championship," Stewart said, then glanced at club president Derrick Hall sitting to his right. "Maybe not this season, it may take two, but we'll get there."
"See how Stew bought himself some time?" Hall said, grinning. "He's smart and has good survival instincts."
All his instincts, survival and otherwise, are keen. They served him well during the 12 years he ran Stewart Management Partners -- prior to formally jumping to the management side, he transferred the agency to associate Dave Henderson, also a former teammate. Stewart was less an agent than a genuine mentor, passing on to his select clients everything he knew, which, in his case, was plenty.
"Our goal isn't to sign a multitude of players," read his mission statement, "but to use my experiences on the field from the Minor Leagues to the World Series, from pitching coach to front office executive, as tools to help individual players make informed decisions that truly affect the rest of their lives."
Watching from afar last week as former lead client Matt Kemp was dealt by the Dodgers had to be strange for Stewart. Three years ago, he'd negotiated Kemp's eight-year, $160 million deal that at the time was the most lucrative in National League history. In mid-2014, he lobbied for Kemp's trade out of the Dodgers' overcrowded outfield.
Having been on the other side of the table prepared Stewart well to move into management. His ambition for the reins of a club had been fueled by one simple objective: To get right the wrongs he had seen, both as a player and as an agent.
He now will do that, as only the fourth ex-player currently in a GM seat. Yet, Oakland's Billy Beane (301 at-bats), the Angels' Jerry Dipoto (495 innings) and Philadelphia's Ruben Amaro (218 hits) were mere Major League blips compared to Stewart.
Of Stewart's 168 wins, 119 came with La Russa, who most recalls his competitiveness.
"When you gave him the ball," La Russa said, "he didn't want to give it back until the game was over."
Now Stewart has a bigger ball with which to work. He figures to finish this job, too. With head held high.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.