Competitor. Grinder. That’s how former teammates and coaches alike all describe former St. Pius X pitcher Kohl Stewart, who has recently joined Los Angeles Angels reliever Justin Anderson as former Panthers stars putting the school on the map on baseball’s biggest stage, one pitch at a time.
The Minnesota Twins selected the former St. Pius X standout 4th overall in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, culminating a whirlwind life that, while it came at him like a blur, is more of the same for a kid driven by an intense competitive fire. Stewart made his MLB debut Aug. 12 against the Detroit Tigers.
After trying his hand at seemingly every sport with a ball growing up, Stewart joined the football team as a freshman at St. Pius X – despite not having played a down of competitive football in almost a decade – at St. Pius X Athletic Director Jason Kimball’s urging. He would go on to star as a quarterback at the perennial powerhouse, drawing interest from Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M, who offered him a scholarship immediately following a nationally-televised game his sophomore season in 2011. All the while, however, he was also starring on the mound for the Panthers, and was a two-sport All-American in football and baseball.
Baseball scouts began to fill the seats at Stewart’s games during his junior year, and by his senior year, more than a dozen scouts attended each start. During Stewart’s senior year in 2013, the right-hander sported a 0.18 ERA in 40 innings. He punched out 59 batters while walking just 16 and allowing opponents a paltry .099 batting average against him.
“It was chaotic and exciting the same time,” his mom Lisa Stewart said. “Every team was making home visits, and all the while he’s trying to finish high school, do homework, go to practice and play football games. There was a lot of chaos, but it was good chaos.”
But seeing as Kohl is the third of the seven kids in his busy family that always seemed to be be bustling with the next big thing, it was simply a way of life – what with a sister (Kelly) soon to commit to play volleyball at Auburn, a brother (Kade) with golf aspirations, and athletes all around the family at the time. On marched a member of St. Pius X’s de facto first family of athletes, unfazed.
“I’m trying not to pay too much attention to the atmosphere. All of the scouts present doesn’t change how I play,” Stewart told The Leader in 2013. “I just go out and have fun.”
“The discipline he has to be successful is really above and beyond, but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t know him off the field,” said Kenneth Danna, Stewart’s former teammate at St. Pius X. “A lot of the guys in our same class didn’t really have the same idea and confidence about where we wanted to be. He knew what his goal was the whole time, and he set his mind to it early.”
Following the standout senior campaign on the diamond, Stewart was all poised to hear his name called – but the baseball gods apparently decided to have a little fun on draft night.
That night in 2013, a massive storm swept through the family’s home in Tomball, knocking out the family’s satellite. More than 150 people were sent scrambling after the picture went out – immediately before the 4th selection was to be announced – to capture a potentially monumental moment. Not a single T.V. in the house was working. Everyone had to pull out their phones and open the MLB At-Bat app.
So, throngs of friends and family wound up watching then-commissioner Bud Selig announce Minnesota’s selection of the St. Pius X standout huddled like sardines around inches-wide screens. Then by the time the 5th pick was announced, picture had returned – though the family barely noticed in the aftermath of a dream come true as they popped bottles and cheered for their hometown star.
“It’s a fun story to tell, even though at the time we were in total chaos trying to figure out how we’d get the T.V. back on,” Lisa remembered with a laugh. “While he was on the phone with them and they were telling him what was about to happen, we watched it happen.”
Steady grind rewarded
From the outset, Kimball said there was this competitive fire ingrained in Stewart, an undying thirst to better himself – a quality that has served him well since that fateful selection. For a high-school senior stepping away from a sure-fire scholarship to Texas A&M (as Stewart did when Minnesota selected him in 2013), the grind of minor leagues could easily wear on even the most even-keeled prospect. But those who have followed Stewart’s ascent remain unsurprised by the results.
“He’s a competitive person by nature, and always wants to challenge himself against the best. The minor leagues are a process – but throughout that process he was pushing himself to always reach that next level attainable,” Kimball said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a struggle, because he loves to play the game, but he was definitely hoping to put it some work and see it pay off, and he’s been a huge benficiary of that right now.”
“I think his maturity helped keep his eyes fixed on goal despite those long bus rides and the grind that the minor league system can have [on a player], kept him in balance and kept him in tune with the task at hand,” Danna added. “[In his mind], it was just another step along the way, another aspect of reaching his ultimate goal to be where he is right now.”
Lisa says the Stewarts have always been a close-knit family, supporting each of their siblings and children in their endeavors, sharing blood, sweat and tears in some cases – a bond which made the moment of Kohl’s MLB call-up that much sweeter.
“My husband and I were actually with him when that happened, when he got that call from the manager,” she said, noting the couple had flown up to Rochester, N.Y. (home of the Twins’ Triple-A team) to watch Kohl pitch in his scheduled start that night. “We were at breakast when the call came, and it was just so amazing.”
Lisa said Kohl then took the time to FaceTime each individual sibling about the call-up, while she and her husband scrambled to make arrangements for family and friends to fly in for his MLB debut in Detroit Aug. 12.
A few weeks later, as a series loomed Sept. 3-5 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, less than 10 miles from St. Pius X, everyone wondered if Kohl would get the chance to pitch in his hometown – and the night of Sept. 4, it came to fruition.
As he meandered down the tunnel in the visitors’ clubhouse before the game, Lisa said her son spoke of security guards giving him fist bumps and “welcome home” greetings. Then, as he jogged in from the Twins’ bullpen, blonde locks flowing out from beneath his cap, Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World,” blared out through Minute Maid Park’s speakers – a special moment directed at Stewart’s homecoming.
“Everybody was just so thrilled and happy for him,” she said. “It was so full of joy that night. The Astros were just so incredible in welcoming a hometown kid, home. They recognized how special that was for him.”
Stewart then hurled five shutout innings against the vaunted lineup featuring 2017 MVP Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman. He scattered three hits and one walk while striking out three.
“My wife and I have watched every pitch he’s thrown in a game at least twice, so we thought we’d be used to it,” Kimball remembers. “But it was like having a mini heart attack every single inning – every inning it was a fresh ‘oh my god’ moment. Every eye in that stadium was staring at Kohl, and he was showing that he belongs.”
And to Danna that’s just Kohl – unfazed by the moment, armed with a maturity, poise, and drive that belie his years.
“[Kohl] was one of those guys who, when you played with him in high school, you just know he’s going to make it – it was just a matter of time. It’s not at all surprising,” he said.