DAVE STIEB, THE BLUE JAYS & THE WILD ‘80's - Pt 1
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Friday, May 20, 2022
Part 1 – Stieb’s Rise To Stardom
Major League baseball has been played in earnest in Toronto since April of 1977. It took a while, but since that first ball game in the snow at Exhibition Stadium, Blue Jays’ fans have seen some truly excellent pitchers come and go for their team. When they think of some of those greats, they might mention Roger Clemens, who won a couple of Cy Young Awards in his time in the 416.
They might talk of a guy like Pat Hentgen who also took home a Cy Young. Roy Halladay had to go back down to the minors at the beginning of his career as a Jay in order to become the ace that he became when he won that award as well, before going to Philadelphia. Even Robbie Ray took home the honours as the American League’s best pitcher in 2021.
Folks still talk about how good Jimmy Key was for the Jays when they were making their postseason and World Series runs. Or they talk about the lights-out closing abilities of Tom Henke. Some will even mention R.A. Dickey’s consecutive one-hitters that he lobbed in 2012.
But there was a man who performed that same feat back in 1988. A guy that some fans, especially the younger ones might tend to overlook. The team’s first true ace. The man that his teammates called ‘Cy’.
Dave Stieb had come to the attention of the Blue Jays in early 1978 and by May of that year, their director of player development, Bobby Mattick, and scout Al LaMacchia went out to get a look at the Southern Illinois University player. They were under the impression that Stieb was a prospective outfielder.
Jays’ scout Don Welke had noted that Stieb could run, throw and hit for power. Mattick and LaMacchia were both disappointed in what they had seen of Stieb as an offensive player in this 1978 game.
But then, in the sixth inning, Stieb, the centre fielder was jogging in to pitch. Mattick and LaMacchia thought that this might be interesting to see. What they saw was a pleasant surprise. “Stieb knocked our eyeballs out,” Mattick told Ron Fimrite, for a Sports Illustrated piece in 1983. “He was absolutely overpowering. We hadn’t liked him as a hitter, but he sure as hell opened our eyes when he started pitching. We decided to draft him.”
So, draft him, they did, in 1978, and he appeared in his first game in a Blue Jay uniform in 1979 at the age of 21. He started the season with Class A Dunedin and went 5-0 and in May, he moved right up to Triple-A Syracuse. In less than a month there, he went 5-2 with a 2.13 earned run average. On June 29, he made his first major league start with the Jays against Baltimore and lost.
But he made 18 starts for the big team in 1979 and averaged over seven innings per outing in posting an 8-8 record with an ERA of 4.31 on a team that lost 109 games that year. Over 129-1/3 innings, Stieb struck out 52 and walked 48 with a WHIP (walks + hits/innings pitched) of 1.446. Not terrible for a ‘bottom-of-the-rotation’ guy on a last-place team in his first major league season.
Mattick saw him as a bit of a unicorn. Stieb started his professional career with two pitches. He had a ‘heavy’ fastball that had a natural drop at the end and a slider that he developed with his pitching coach, Mark Newman, in college at Southern Illinois. “All we did was try to give him a changeup and work a little on his control. We didn’t monkey around with his mechanics at all. He has the same delivery today as he had then.”
Then Mattick added, “He was a natural. One in a million. He had such a desire to excel.”
“He had that good slider,” continued Mattick. “That's not a tough pitch to pick up. It's all in the release, and he had that from the start. And the control. It's a funny thing, but most converted infielders and outfielders have good control, especially infielders. They're used to throwing to targets. Someone who has been a pitcher from high school on up may actually have more problems. It's all in what they call the rhythm. I call it a feel. Dave had that feel.”
Jays’ fans started to see the pitcher Stieb would become in 1980. Remember that the team at that time was still not great and the fact that he had a record of 7-6 and an ERA of 3.10 at the All-Star break meant that he would be the team’s representative at the mid-summer classic.
He got into the internationally telecast game in the seventh inning and was able to spend a couple of days with the greats of the game and pick their brains. The experience would pay dividends for Stieb and the Blue Jays for years to come.
1981 ended up being a split season because of the players’ strike and after the two sides finally agreed on a collective bargaining agreement, the season resumed on August 9 with the All-Star Game. Stieb was there once again and got into the game as a pinch hitter. Late in the game, American League manager Jim Frey had no one else on the bench who could pinch hit. Stieb went up and struck out against Bruce Sutter.
That season ended with Stieb finishing the year by posting an 11-10 win-loss total. The Blue Jays finished with 37 wins and 69 losses over the two halves. In doing that, he was the first Blue Jays’ starting pitcher in the brief history of the franchise to finish a season with a winning record.
Toronto spent the 1982 season as they had their previous years, in last place. But Stieb excelled once again, as did his rotation-mate, Jim Clancy. Stieb went 17-14 with a 3.25 ERA. Clancy went 16-14 and his ERA was 3.71. The Jays, as a team, went 78-84, and began to at least knock on the door of respectability. It wouldn’t be long before they crashed that door down.
In 1982, Stieb led the American League in complete games with 19, shutouts with five and in innings pitched with 288-1/3. Clancy wasn’t too bad himself as he tossed eleven complete games and three shutouts. Stieb finished fourth in the Cy Young voting and he also pitched 266 innings. It was the first time that the Jays had two pitchers who could be counted on while starting.
Meanwhile, Stieb was winning accolades from people around the league. Fimrite, in his Sports Illustrated piece, quoted peers of Stieb as being quite appreciative of his abilities and his value to his team. Mariners’ manager Rene Lachemann figured that Stieb was the best right-handed pitcher in the game.
“He comes at you and has good control. He has a tremendously competitive attitude. He has good stuff. He keeps the ball down. He fields his position well. He does all the things a winning pitcher needs to do,” Lachemann told Fimrite. Baltimore manager Joe Altobelli told him, “I don’t think he has any weaknesses.” Orioles’ outfielder and designated hitter, Ken Singleton, said, bluntly, “Dave Stieb is no picnic.”
In 1983, the Jays surprised everybody by winning 89 games. The downside was that there were three teams in the American League East who had more victories. That said, it was the first time that the Blue Jays had finished a season above the .500 mark. And they finished sixteen games above that! Stieb, once again, won 17 games and had an ERA of 3.04. He played in the All-Star Game again as well. And he was leading his team to the point that other clubs now had to respect the Jays.
Now, the one thing about Stieb that rankled people was that if a player made any kind of mistake behind him, he was likely to be made a spectacle of by his pitcher. At some point in 1983, though, his catcher, Buck Martinez, was going to let him know about how his glares or his comments or his looks at fellow teammates as they stood on the field appeared to everyone else.
"He threw a home run pitch to Greg Luzinski in Chicago, and as the ball cleared the fence, Dave threw his hands up in the air and looked at me as if to say, 'How could you call that stupid pitch?' I had butted heads with him before about alienating his teammates, so we had a conversation the next morning about it,” Martinez told Fimrite.
“He's such a high-strung kid. I realized that what he was really doing was criticizing himself. We were asking an awful lot of him. He's such an outstanding athlete, we all expect him to be older. Dave apologized to me for that incident and that sort of thing has never happened again. Now he makes it a point to recognize great plays. He'll go over to the player and compliment him. That wasn't in his personality in the past.”
It seemed that Stieb, through Martinez’ intervention, began to understand that the way he glowered at teammates was belittling to them.
When Stieb was an active player, his agent was his former high school history teacher, Bob LaMonte. LaMonte was also Stieb’s special teams coach during his two seasons as a high school punter back in San Jose. He spoke to Fimrite back in 1983 about his client’s attitude.
“Dave is the most intense person I've ever met. He's so tight. It's that tightness that makes him such a great pitcher. He's also so tight he makes it hard on himself. You forget how young he is. David was a major league pitcher when most of his buddies from school were working in Chevron stations. He was asked to be a leader at 21.”
“You'd have to be a Gandhi to handle some of the pressure Dave's had, and Gandhi couldn't have pitched five shutouts for the Toronto Blue Jays.”
For his part, Stieb acknowledges that he had been pretty highly strung early on in his career. “I'm a real competitor who just doesn't deal too well with failure. I realize now I could've had my butt kicked for the stuff I used to do. I was fortunate to have players around me who could deal with all that. Remember, I'd been an outfielder most of my life, so I'd never had to deal with anyone making an error behind me.”
“All I had to worry about was myself. And I wasn't accustomed to playing for a last-place team. That was something else new I had to deal with. I'd release all that tension and stress verbally. I said a lot of things I shouldn't have. I won't do the things I used to. I realize now how bad all that looked. It's out of my system. I try my damndest now not to let any runs score as the result of an error.”
As the 1984 season began, the now 26-year-old Dave Stieb was still growing as a pitcher. As he was developing, so was his team around him. For the second straight year, the Blue Jays finished the season with 89 wins. The only problem was that they shared a division with the Detroit Tigers. In 1984, the Tigers started the season 35-5 and went on to cruise to the American League pennant. They won the World Series that autumn against the San Diego Padres.
For Stieb, 1984 was a good season. He was 9-3 with a 2.42 ERA at the All-Star break and, of course, he would not only participate in the annual showcase game but he was named the starting pitcher for the American League. Interestingly enough, the starter for the National League that night was Charlie Lea of the Montreal Expos! The Nationals won the game 3-1. Lea got the victory and Stieb had to take the loss.
Stieb finished the season 16-8. His ERA was 2.83. He led the major leagues with 267 innings pitched and he threw eleven complete games. Still, his teammate Doyle Alexander managed one more victory than Stieb did. That said, it had been another year of improvement for a Jays team that had been on the rise since Stieb’s arrival.
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This has been Part 1 of a four-part series. Keep your eyes on the FiredUp Network to catch the rest of the series.
You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.