DAVE STIEB, THE BLUE JAYS & THE WILD ‘80s

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Wednesday, May 25, 2022


Part 4 – Stieb’s Quest For the ‘No-No’

Dave Stieb had been an All-Star numerous times through the course of his stellar career.  He had the respect of not only his teammates but opponents throughout the Major Leagues as well.  And he had put up exceptional games here and there from the start of his time with Toronto until the day he hung up his glove and spikes.

In 1986, he and his co-author Kevin Boland wrote a book titled “Tomorrow, I’ll Be Perfect”.  It was a tome that talked about his life, his career and his climb to the major leagues and life as an All-Star pitcher.  It also alluded to his quest for not a perfect game, necessarily, but ‘THE perfect game’.  

It almost became a personal thing for Stieb though, as his life as a baseball player and a pitcher went on, that he was going to always come just this close to throwing a no-hitter, while putting up outstanding nights season in and season out.  

When it came to individual performances, Dave Stieb kept Blue Jays’ fans on the edges of their seats numerous times.  I’ve already recounted his August 1985 outing against the White Sox when he took a no-hitter into the ninth but had nothing left in the tank and he lost not just the no-hitter but the shutout as well.

He had a few other ones dotted through his career as well.

Let’s fast-forward to September of 1988.  The 24th was a Saturday and the Blue Jays were in Cleveland at the old Municipal Stadium.  The place held 81,000 and was used for both baseball and football.  By the late 80s, the place was beloved by Clevelanders but the rest of the sporting world wondered how any team could play there.  The attendance that evening is listed as 8,157.

Stieb was reasonably efficient on this night.  He faced just two batters over the minimum through the first eight innings and he threw 109 pitches in that span.  The score had been 0-0 going into the ninth.  But, Rob Ducey hit a fly ball in the top of the inning that scored Fred McGriff with the go-ahead run for the visitors.  It was 1-0 in favour of Toronto.  This game was now not just about nailing down a possible no-hitter.  This inning could decide the result of the entire contest!  

Unlike that game in 1985 though, Stieb still had some gas left in the tank in this one.  The first batter he faced was Cleveland’s catcher Andy Allanson.  Allanson worked the count full but then Stieb got him swinging for out number one.  The next man up was Stieb’s former teammate, Willie Upshaw.  Upshaw had come in to pinch hit for the shortstop Paul Zuvella.

Upshaw looked at a ball and a strike.  Then he hit a ball on the ground to Manny Lee at second who gobbled it up and made the throw to Fred McGriff for the out.  Two were retired now.  Cleveland’s second baseman Julio Franco was the next hitter.  Franco had grounded out to McGriff in the first, he had walked and struck out later in the game.  His appearance marked the fourth time he would get to face Stieb.

With the count at one ball and two strikes, Franco fouled back the next Stieb delivery.  Then he fouled back another and one more before taking ball two.  On the next pitch, the eighth of the at-bat, Franco got over the top of it and hit what should have been a routine chopper to Lee at second.  But the ball had incredible topspin and took a wicked hop off the lip of the infield and wildly bounded over Lee’s head.  The no-no was gone. 

The next batter was the designated hitter Dave Clark.  Clark pounded a 2-1 pitch deep to centre field that Rob Ducey was able to run down for the final out.  Stieb didn’t get the no-hitter but he got the 1-0 victory along with his one-hit shutout. 

Oh, on the same day, the Montreal Expos’ Pascual Perez tossed a rain-shortened no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

*

Less than a week later, on September 30th, Stieb was back on the mound to face the Baltimore Orioles.  If he was good against Cleveland the week before, he was brilliant against the O’s on this Friday night at home at Exhibition Stadium, by the lake.

The operating margin was a lot less narrow on this night.  The Blue Jays had taken a 1-0 lead in the first inning and increased that lead to 4-0 with three more runs in the fifth.  So it was a lot less a matter of life and death as Stieb cruised through this one.

Through the first eight innings, the man his teammates called ‘Cy’ tossed less than ten pitches five times.  Over those eight innings, his pitch total was just 77.  He had faced just 24 batters over that span.  

His only blemish was a walk he issued to Pete Stanicek in the seventh inning.  Stanicek was erased though when the next batter, Cal Ripken, Jr., drilled a line drive right into the glove of first baseman Fred McGriff, who quickly stepped on the bag to double off the runner.

The ninth inning opened with a still-fresh Stieb facing the centre fielder Brady Anderson.  Stieb missed with his first pitch for a ball.  But he got Anderson to swing at the second pitch. Anderson grounded the ball to McGriff at first who picked the ball and stepped on the bag for the inning’s first out.

The next Orioles’ batter was supposed to be the left fielder Ken Gerhart.  But manager (and former Orioles’ great) Frank Robinson sent Jeff Stone up to pinch hit.  Stone went up there swinging.  He offered at Stieb’s first pitch and hit a grounder right back to the mound.  Stieb tossed the ball over to the ‘Crime Dog’ to retire Stone.

The next scheduled hitter was supposed to be the ninth place man, third baseman Craig Worthington.  Robinson sent Jim Traber to bat in his place.  With the count at 2-and-2, Traber fouled back a Stieb pitch.  Stieb tried a curve ball that Traber poked high enough down the first base line that it soared over the glove of McGriff and landed fair for an agonizing single.  Stieb then got Joe Orsulak to ground out to third to end the ballgame.

After the game, Stieb told reporters about a regret he had.  As soon as Traber hit his curve ball, he knew he had thrown the wrong pitch.  He called that pitch “my third-best pitch, instead of going to a fastball.”  If, if, if.........

Soooooo close!

*

On April 10, 1989, an early season game on a Monday night in the Bronx unfolded and illustrated the excellence of David Stieb.  The Blue Jays were a good team but were still trying to find their way with Jimy Williams at the helm.  The Yankees were not the juggernaut they had been in years past.  Dallas Green started the season as the manager.  He would eventually be replaced by Bucky Dent.

The Blue Jays had scored three runs in the second and three more in the fifth to take a 6-0 lead into the bottom of the inning.  To that point, the Yankees had been unable to get anything going against the Jays’ right-hander.  Stieb had thrown 43 pitches through the first four innings and had faced just 14 hitters, allowing a pair of walks, one in the third and another in the fourth.

Stieb came in to face the third baseman Mike Pagliarulo.  ‘Pags’ swung at the first pitch from Stieb and stung a hard line drive right to Jesse Barfield in right field for the first out.  That brought catcher Jamie Quirk to the plate.  Quirk also swung at the first pitch and put it into shallow left centre for a single.  That would be the only base hit the Yankees would get on this day.

After a Tom Brookens walk, Stieb would retire Roberto Kelly and Rickey Henderson to end the Yankees’ rally.  He would allow a Don Mattingly walk in the sixth, but that was the last baserunner in the game for the ‘Bronx Bombers’.  Stieb would allow just the lone single in the game for another one-hit game.  

“There’s no secret to it,” Stieb told the assembled press after the game.  “I’m getting all of my pitches over and they (his teammates) got me a lot of runs, and that usually means victory.”

The Jays won 8-0.  That year, Williams would manage into May and would be replaced by a man named Clarence ‘Cito’ Gaston.  Gaston would be given the ‘interim’ tag but would use his people skills to lead the Jays to another division title in 1989.  They would lose the ALCS in five games to the Oakland Athletics, but it was the start of something special with a manager that doesn’t get the appreciation he should.

*

On August 4, 1989, the American League East was not the bulwark of baseball that a lot of people like to think of it as.  The Orioles led the East Division with a record of 55-52.  The Blue Jays were a game below .500 at 54-55 and sat in third place.  The Yankees were down in sixth place with a record of 51-58.  However, just five games separated the Orioles and the Yankees with a lot of time left in the schedule.

The Jays had moved into their spectacular new building, The Skydome, in June of 1989.  People loved it.  They especially loved the fact that the roof could be employed or retracted as needed.  They also loved seeing the panels of the roof move as they were sitting in their seats.  All that said, as wonderful as the new roof was, Dave Stieb was putting on a show of his own on that Friday night against the evil Yankees.

In the home half of the second inning that night, George Bell and Fred McGriff had led off with singles.  Ernie Whitt came up with runners on the corners.  Whitt grounded a ball up the middle that Yankees’ shortstop Alvaro Espinoza picked up.  He stepped on the bag to get the force on McGriff.  Bell scored though and the Jays led 1-0 heading into the third inning.

By this time, though, Stieb was ‘feeling it’ and had established himself as dominant in this game.  In the first inning, he had turned away Steve Sax, Luis Polonia and Don Mattingly.  In the second, he dispatched Mel Hall, Jesse Barfield (yes, former teammate Jesse Barfield) and Bob Geren.  Hall and Barfield went down swinging.  Oh, and Stieb had thrown a total of 19 pitches to get those six outs.

In the third inning, he got a couple more strikeouts.  By the time the Yankees had been to the plate six times, Stieb had faced eighteen men and had not allowed any of them to reach base.  He was incredibly efficient.  Over those six innings, in facing those eighteen batters, he had used just 56 pitches.  And he had retired seven of them via the strikeout.

In the bottom of that sixth inning, the Jays’ ninth-place hitter, Nelson Liriano, smacked Yankees’ starter Clay Parker’s second pitch into right field for a lead-off single.  Tony Fernandez grounded out to second baseman Sax to move Liriano into scoring position.  That brought Jays’ right fielder Mookie Wilson to the plate.  He laced a Parker pitch to the wall in right-centre to plate Liriano and give Stieb a 2-0 lead.

In the Yankees’ seventh, Stieb toyed with the top of the order.  He got Sax, Polonia and Mattingly on seven pitches.  In the eighth, Stieb got Hall and Barfield out on strikes and he got Geren on an easy grounder to Tony Fernandez.

Stieb had thrown just 73 pitches through eight innings.  He had faced 24 Yankee hitters and he had dismissed them all.  Nine of those 24 Yankees had been sent back to the dugout on strikes.  In the ninth inning, Hal Morris came up to pinch hit for Randy Velarde.  He struck out swinging.  Ken Phelps came in to hit for Espinoza.  He went down on strikes as well.

26 Yankees had come up.  26 Yankees had sat down.

The ninth-place hitter, Roberto Kelly, came up to face the mighty Stieb.  His first pitch to the Yankees’ centre fielder missed for a ball.  The second one missed as well.  On the third pitch, Stieb had to come into the zone and Kelly tagged it down the left field line for a double.  The agony continued as Steve Sax singled down the right field line to score Kelly and make it a 2-1 game. 

It took an outstanding Kelly Gruber play at third to get the final out and end the game though.  Gruber made a diving stop of Luis Polonia’s liner, knocked it down and gunned it over to Lee at second to force Sax out.

After the game, Stieb sighed to reporters that it just may not be meant to happen.  “If I haven’t gotten a no-hitter after (this many) times, I doubt if I ever will.”

“It’s disappointing,” Stieb said, “but I’ve been through it before.  After they got the hit, I had to bear down.  And then they got another hit and I had to bear down again.  And then Kelly Gruber made a great play.  We won the game 2-1, and that’s what matters.”

*

By September of 1990, Dave Stieb was 33-years-old.  He had lived through a bunch of bittersweet endings.  His fans, living vicariously through him, shared in the despair over the course of Stieb’s last few years.

On September 4th, Stieb was on the mound at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium once again.  That mound held bittersweet memories for him.  He had accrued 16 victories in 1990 and was going after a personal high.  The Jays were a decent team and Cleveland was languishing in the swamps of mediocrity.

Through the first two innings, Stieb had been able to keep the home team off the board but he had already walked a couple of batters.  Then, in the third, he got the Tribe in order by striking out the side.  The Blue Jays bats weren’t exactly hot either though.  But in the bottom of the third, Fred McGriff blasted a ball into the seats for a solo shot.  Stieb had a lead.

He got the Cleveland hitters out in order in the fourth and the fifth.  Meanwhile, back to back doubles by Kenny Williams and Manny Lee gave him another run as a cushion.  Stieb got Cory Snyder, Tom Brookens and Joel Skinner on strikes in the sixth.  In the seventh, he retired Alex Cole, ‘The Governor’ Jerry Browne and Dion James on ten pitches.

In the eighth, he allowed Ken Phelps to get aboard on a base on balls.  He threw six pitches to Phelps.  But then he got Brook Jacoby, Carlos Baerga and Cory Snyder out on four pitches in total!  They all lofted fly balls that were caught by Stieb’s outfielders.

In the top of the ninth, Fred McGriff smashed another ball over the wall.  Stieb and the Jays now had a 3-0 lead!  

In the bottom of the ninth, Stieb was facing the bottom of the Cleveland order.  8-9-1.  Chris James came up to hit for Tom Brookens.  He hit a fly ball to left-centre that was run down by Glenallen Hill.  Joel Skinner was due up for Cleveland.  Candy Maldonado pinch-hit for him.  He swung at strike three.  Alex Cole drew a walk.  

Jerry Browne came up.  Cole took second on defensive indifference.  Browne swung at a 1-0 breaking ball and hit a line drive to right field.  Junior Felix was out there.  He found the ball and settled under it as it hit its apex and fell into his outstretched glove.  The more than 20,000 that were there at ‘The Mistake By The Lake’ cheered at what they witnessed from Stieb.  

David Stieb had his no-hitter!  He wiped his brow and raised his arm.  His teammates rushed him and mobbed him.  Many in the crowd had travelled down from Toronto.  Stieb had struck out nine and walked only four but he threw 123 pitches.  Only 75 of them were strikes.  Not his greatest numbers, and even he admitted that he didn’t have his best stuff, but it’s difficult to scoff at the ultimate result!

“I was struggling with my control a little bit the whole game,” Stieb told reporters after the game.  They halped me out by swinging at balls in the dirt.  I could have been in more jams.  I had much better stuff the other times, much better control.  I always knew it took a lot of luck to get a no-hitter.”

He was asked if there were any jitters as he got closer to the final out, since some of his earlier one-hitters had been foiled right before he got the final out.  “I wasn’t real nervous.  I’ve been there quite a few times,” he told his questioner.  

1990 had been a good year for no-hitters.  Stieb’s was the ninth in the major leagues in that season.  Stieb had an answer for that little factoid as well.  “Maybe it’s not that tough to get one this year.  That’s why I got one,” he said with a bit of a grin.

That no-hitter was the first such game by a pitcher in Blue Jays’ history.  As of the end of May, 2022, it is the only one thrown by a Blue Jay pitcher.

*

When one looks at the game of baseball during the decade of the 1980s, that is to say from the beginning of the 1980 season to the end of 1989, there are a couple of facts that stand out when looking at the prominent pitchers of that time window.  First, Jack Morris had the most victories of any pitcher in that decade.  Second, the pitcher with the best WAR (wins above replacement) in that period was Dave Stieb.

Jack Morris is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The key arguments for people who advocated for Morris were that he had more wins than any other pitcher in the decade of the ‘80’s and he had a masterful complete game shutout in the 1991 World Series.  Those are both true, but there are other statistics that paint a clear picture of which pitchers were great.  And, please don’t misunderstand.  Jack Morris was great.  But was he the greatest?  Was anyone else greater?  Let’s take a look.

Wins above replacement measures a player's value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player at his same position.  Among pitchers in the decade of the 1980s, the man with the best WAR was Dave Stieb with a 45.2.  Next was Bob Welch at 35.1.  Fernando Valenzuela was third at 34.8.  Jack Morris was 12th at 27.9.

Stieb played on a team that only began to flex its winning muscles in 1985.  His opportunity to collect victories was cut by half of a pitcher like Morris.  The teams that Morris pitched on were, for the most part, perennial divisional contenders and therefore he was far more likely to get a W at the end of every game than was a pitcher who was on a less polished team like Stieb.

ERA+ is a statistic that looks at an individual pitcher’s ERA as compared to the league average, the league being given the rank of 100.  When it comes to ERA+, Morris posted a 109 in the decade of the ‘80’s.  Stieb’s ERA+ over the same time was 127.  

There are numerous baseball websites and influential baseball people who regard Stieb as one of the best, if not THE best pitcher of the 1980s.  Jack Morris is in the Hall of Fame.  If he is there, does a pitcher like Stieb not at least deserve consideration?  I’m not making a case for Stieb to be in the Hall of Fame.  There are people who have more influence than I do that can do that.  I’m just looking at the numbers.

*     *     *

This was Part 4 of the four-part series Dave Stieb, the Blue Jays and the Wild ‘80’s.  Thanks for taking the time to read the entire series.  Howie and the rest of us at the FiredUp Network hope you enjoyed it.

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.