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    Mudville: December 2, 2021 1:53 am PDT
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    Decade of Dominance

    There is a certain amount of symmetry to Dave Stieb’s career. The right-hander began his professional baseball journey in Dunedin, FL. as a confident, spirited 20-year-old in 1978. The last chapter of his exceptional career also began in Dunedin in 1998 in much the same fashion the first had ended though this time he was older, wiser and just a bit more tired when the season was through.

    It was during the chapters in between that he became the face of a franchise and of a country, winning more games in the decade of the 1980s than any other pitcher except Hall-of-Famer Jack Morris. Stieb was and remains an icon in Toronto and ultimately was enshrined in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame after he carried an expansion franchise through several very leans years all while laying the foundation for what would become the Blue Jays championship runs of the early 1990s.

    Though Stieb doesn’t always garner the same attention as Morris, Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden or some of the other high-profile pitchers that dominated the baseball landscape in the 80s, his contribution to the game and his performance on the mound qualify him as one of the era’s brightest stars.

    When he ultimately retired following the 1998 season he did so as the all-time winningest pitcher [175 victories] in Blue Jays history, a record he still holds. Stieb also holds the franchise mark for innings pitched [2,873], strikeouts [1,658], game started [408], complete games [103], shutouts [30] and batters faced [11,965].

    “I just did my thing,” Stieb, 63, said. “I just wanted people to know that when this guy was on the mound we had a chance to win. I got confidence from that and that gave me success and I just rolled with it.”

    Stieb rolled with it from the time he was a high school outfielder in southern California, to playing summer ball in Alaska to unexpectedly appearing on the mound for Southern Illinois University to his rookie pro season in Dunedin. He started his playing days as an outfielder and transitioned to the mound in college, ultimately earning a place on seven American League All-Star teams while finishing among the Cy Young vote leaders on four separate occasions.

    NEW YORK - CIRCA 1979: Dave Stieb #37 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches against the New York Yankees during a Major League Baseball game circa 1979 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Stieb played for the Blue Jays from 1979-92 and in 1998. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

    THE CALIFORNIA KID

    Playing baseball in Southern California was an integral part of Stieb’s childhood. His older brother, Steve, also played ball. Their father was their coach and their mom was very supportive of the game and the hopes for their future in it.

    “My parents were so into me and my brother playing baseball, my whole life from five years on,” Stieb said. “They were always behind us. I grew up in Yorba Linda and we were always playing.

    “I always considered myself an outfielder [growing up] and I was a very good defensive outfielder from my senior year in high school through my junior year at Southern Illinois University.”

    Stieb went to San Jose City College and had two strong seasons there, hitting .424 to break the school record as a sophomore. He didn’t get drafted, though, and wondered why no team had taken a flyer on him. Still, he remained undaunted and headed to Alaska with his brother – who was drafted by the Braves in 1979 [13th round] and played for three years in their system – to play and pad his baseball resume.

    Following his brother was a pattern that was established early in his baseball life, whether it was little league, high school ball, Alaska or Southern Illinois University. Heading to Alaska, though, with his brother would ultimately put him on a path to the Major Leagues.

    “He was in the College World Series the year before I went to SIU and it was the weirdest run when you think back on it,” Stieb said. “I followed my brother throughout my whole amateur career. I really came into my own my senior year of high school and did well in junior college and at Southern Illinois. I went to Alaska to play with him and we got invited to Wichita to play in the NBC [National Baseball Congress] Tournament and we wound up winning the whole thing.

    “That gave me a great deal of confidence. That’s why I thought I was such a great outfielder. Then I went to SIU and helped them.”

    Stieb’s arrival at SIU was due in large part to his playing Alaska. His manager in Alaska was Mark Newman, who was also the SIU pitching coach and would go on to work for the Yankees for 25 years in a variety of roles that included vice president of player development and scouting. Newman’s presence and the fact that his brother played at SIU made it logical for him to continue his collegiate career there.

    “I went and talked [to the scouts] and they said all the stuff they think you want to hear. I thought just thought it was a bunch of BS.”

    The hot-hitting Stieb led the team in batting [.394], homers [12] and RBI [48] in 1978. At one point early in the season, after a big road trip to Florida, Stieb was actually leading the nation in home runs. It was the six games in which he appeared on the mound, though, that made him a professional prospect.

    The Salukis were shy on pitching at one point that spring and teammate Bruce Hanson, who also played the outfield, knew how strong Stieb’s arm was. So, he volunteered his friend to pitch.

    “That was the last domino,” Stieb said. “The pitching staff had some problems and we needed some help. Gramps, that’s what we called him [Hanson], told the coaching staff ‘he throws gas’. If he didn’t say that, I’d probably be a flailing centerfielder, someone who didn’t get drafted or if I did it wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

    Stieb pitched to a 2.04 ERA over six appearances [one start], striking out 24 in 17 2/3 innings that spring. It was during a doubleheader with Eastern Illinois late in the season, however, during which he made his mark. Toronto scouts Bobby Mattick and Al LaMacchia were in attendance to check out Eastern’s third baseman Jeff Gossett. Stieb came on to pitch in some mop-up duty in the opener and was spectacular, wowing the Toronto twosome, who made a point to speak with Stieb in between games of the twin bill.

    The Jays were so impressed with Stieb that they forgot about Gossett, who was drafted by the Mets in the fifth round, one pick after Toronto took Stieb. Gossett lasted three seasons with New York and never played above A Ball. He did, however, go on to enjoy a 16-year NFL career as a punter, nine of which were spent with the Raiders, for whom he earned a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl team in 1991.

    “I’ve seen Jeff since and he tells me ‘Dude, if it weren’t for me, you would never be a baseball player in the big leagues’,” Stieb said. “I went and talked [to the scouts] and they said all the stuff they think you want to hear. I thought just thought it was a bunch of BS.

    “But they said they liked the way I pitched and that I should be a pitcher; the quickest way to the Major Leagues is as a pitcher. They said if we draft you, we’d consider you a pitcher. I said yeah but I never thought they would draft me. But there we were, at the end of the ’78 season, I broke school records and I had great success. I was in Hawaii when my mom called me and told me I was drafted by Toronto. If I didn’t do that [pitch], the scouts would have never seen me. All these crazy things happened and look where it ended.”

    Actually, it was just the beginning.

    1985: Juanita Crissy Smith, 22, gave Jays pitcher Dave Stieb a kiss in front of thousands of screaming fans during the second inning of a game against Kansas City An inspired Stieb gave up only three hits as Jays trounced Royals 6-1. (Photo: david Cooper/Toronto Star)

    LOOK MA, I’M A BLUE JAY

    It took three weeks for Stieb to sign and when he did, they sent him to Dunedin, where he made four starts in the Class-A Florida State League. Stieb went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings. He struck out eight and walked only one.

    Pitching in Dunedin also proved critical to his success because that’s where he met Bob Humphreys, Toronto’s minor league pitching instructor at the time. Humphreys showed Stieb the slider that would become his signature pitch.

    “He made my career,” said Stieb, who, at the time, still couldn’t get hitting or playing the field off his mind.

    The success he had at the plate in college kept his hopes alive of somehow continuing to play the field. That idea faded quickly, though. He appeared in 27 games as an outfielder and designated hitter and found out quickly that he was no longer playing college ball. Stieb hit .195 with a homer and nine RBIs before handing in his bat to get ready for instructional league.

    “I would play the outfield four days and pitch on the fifth day,” Stieb said. “I thought I was an outfielder but if they wanted me to pitch, I’d pitch. It was never my specialty but I guess I was a natural. I had an easy little windup and I threw gas. I had good movement on my fastball. It [playing the outfield] was great the first two weeks and then I faced a guy who threw a slider like mine.”

    The Blue Jays were hurting for pitching so it was no surprise that they moved Stieb quickly through the system. He pitched the first two-plus months of the 1979 season for Dunedin and Syracuse of the Triple-A International League [10-2, 3.18 ERA, six complete games in 15 starts] before getting called up to the parent club at the end of June. He would remain solely with the Jays until 1992.

    Stieb made his Major League debut on June 29, dropping a 6-1 decision at Baltimore in which he allowed six runs in six innings. After a no-decision at Detroit, he pitched back-to-back complete games, allowing only two earned in defeating Milwaukee and Minnesota. He then went eight innings in each of his next two starts and was 3-1 with a 2.98 ERA before falling into a bit of a win one/lose one pattern for the remainder of the year.

    He finished his rookie season 8-8 with a 4.31 ERA in 18 starts [129 1/3 IP]. He was second on a bad team in victories and cemented his spot in the Jays’ rotation for the next decade plus.

    Dave Stieb is congratulated by his teammates after pitching a no-hitter in Cleveland, Sept. 2, 1990 (Photo credit/CBC)

    A DECADE OF DOMINANCE

    Stieb made his first All-Star appearance in 1980, a year in which the Jays once again finished last in the American League East, 36 games behind the first-place Yankees. He went 12-15 with a 3.71 ERA and continued to show opposing hitters what they would have to deal with in years to come. He followed that up by going 11 -10 with a 3.19 ERA in the strike-shortened 1981 season, earning his second All-Star selection while becoming the first Blue Jays pitcher with more than 150 innings pitched to post a winning record.

    The Jays slowly began to improve, though, thanks in large part to Stieb, who ran off six consecutive seasons of double-digit victories [1980-85], posting a winning record in five of them. He went 17-14 with a 3.25 in 1982 while leading the league in complete games [19], shutouts [five] and innings pitched [288 1/3]. He also finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

    Stieb won 47 games over the next three seasons, making the All-Star team each year. He was part of the Cy Young conversation in 1984 and 1985, leading the league in ERA [2.48] during the latter. He also helped guide the Jays to the playoffs for the first time though they were ousted by the Royals in the ALCS. He went 1-1 with a 3.10 ERA in three starts against Kansas City.

    “’85 was a rough, emotional year,” Stieb said. “They changed the playoffs from five to seven games and we just couldn’t win that fourth game. I dominated the Royals for two starts and then had one debacle of an inning [in Game Seven] and blah, blah, blah. We should have gone to the World Series and it all just caught up to me in 1986. But then I had the best years of my career.”

    Stieb reestablished himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball between 1987 and 1990, winning 64 games, including a career high 18 in 1990, the same year he posted a 2.93 ERA. That included a late stretch in 1988 during which he took a pair of no-hitters into the ninth inning only to lose them. Those efforts, however, allowed him to finish that season on a 31 1/3-inning scoreless streak.

    Dave Stieb (left) with fellow Blue Jays pitcher David Wells

    While the Jays reached the playoffs again in ’89 – they were knocked out again, this time by Oakland – Stieb appeared well on his way to 200 or more career victories, a mark that would have solidly put him in the Hall of Fame conversation. He had more no-hit heartbreak in 1989, as well, but finally picked up the no-no on Sept. 2, 1990 in Cleveland. Injuries, however, sidelined him for much of 1991 and 1992, effectively ending his first go round with Toronto.

    “We were in Oakland in 1991 and I went on the DL for the first time in my career,” Stieb said. “My back problems came from having a new strength and conditioning coach in Toronto. I was doing 500 sit-ups a day with the medicine ball. I was doing it to better myself but I was hurting my disk [in my back] and I didn’t even know it.

    “My disk didn’t get any better so on Dec. 5, 1991 I had surgery. I went back to San Jose to have surgery. I saw Arthur White, the best doctor in San Jose. He did Joe Montana’s surgery so you know you’re in good hands. I had my surgery and I went home.”

    Stieb opened the 1992 season in Dunedin and while he was back with the parent club by the end of April, it was obvious that he was no longer viewed in the same light by the team, which had become championship caliber. Stieb appeared in 21 games [14 starts] and was 4-6.

    The Jays would go on to win the World Series but Stieb wasn’t on the active roster for the post-season, a fact that he said “killed” him. The face of Toronto’s franchise for a dozen years was about to be shown the door. The Jays bought him out after the World Series, making him a free agent.

    Stieb signed with the White Sox and lasted 22 1/3 innings over four starts before getting released. He signed with the Royals and pitched a handful of games with the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate in Omaha before calling it a career six weeks later when he suffered a minor tear in his meniscus.

    “I had bought a house on the north shore of Lake Tahoe and was loving life there,” Stieb said. “I was playing softball and winning tournaments, playing the outfield and hitting home runs. I was back where I was when I was in amateur ball.

    “I was guest coaching for Toronto in spring training in 1997 and 1998 and I was throwing batting practice in ’98 and my arm felt pretty good. I wanted to throw a side session in the bullpen and Roger Clemens and Woody Williams were there. My sinker was sinking and my slider was decent and my fastball was 88 to 90. I said I would try again in couple of days to see that it’s not a fluke and Sal Butera, the bullpen coach, said he wanted to catch that [second session]. After 10 minutes of doing that he said I needed to talk to the manager.”

    Stieb speaks with reporters from his locker - 1985

    The manager was Tim Johnson, who was a teammate of Stieb’s when he first came up in 1979. Stieb went to go see him and though he told his old teammate he just wanted to go home Johnson talked him into a comeback.

    “I go into Tim’s office and I ask what are you shaking your head yes for?” Stieb said. “He said it was a great idea and I told him you’ve got to be kidding me.  He said I he thought I should make a comeback that my stuff was good. Next thing you know I’m in minor league camp and pitching in Single-A ball in Dunedin where I had played my first pro game 19 years before. I kept thinking what am I doing? I’m 40 years old at Single-A.”

    Stieb was beginning his final baseball chapter in the place where he began his first. He worked at Dunedin [2-0 in three starts] and was eventually sent to Syracuse of the Triple-A International League, where he was 5-4 with a 2.73 ERA in nine starts.

    “I went 0-4 in my first four starts and they didn’t score any runs and it was the same damn thing I had early in Toronto,” Stieb said. “To make a long story short I won my next five in a row. We were on the road for my last loss and I threw eight innings and we lost 1-0. I went into the clubhouse yelling what is wrong with you guys.”

    His teammates responded and so did the Jays, who brought him up to the Majors after the Rangers began poking around, looking to acquire Stieb.

    “The Blue Jays didn’t want me to burn them so they brought me up and I was as happy as can be,” Stieb said. “To be in the majors with the Blue Jays, the team I started with was incredible because otherwise my career ended with Royals in Triple-A. My first game in ‘79 was against Baltimore and 19 years later we got to Baltimore and I got came out of the pen [on June 18 to pitch a scoreless inning]. I was so nervous.”

    Stieb went 1-2 in 19 games, three of which were spot starts. The victory was his 175th as a Jay.

    “I turned 41 in July,” Stieb said. “They said they wanted me to come back in 1999 but I found out that it was way harder to pitch when you’re not throwing 95. I was just happy that it had all come full circle and that it was a great way end my career. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for how it happened.

    “That was a great ending. If it wasn’t for Tim Johnson I wouldn’t have done it. Any other manager and it wouldn’t have happened.”

    It brought Stieb full circle, allowing him to end his career in the places that it started – and on his terms.

    Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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