Dave Stieb: I wouldn't change my time in Toronto for anything
The Blue Jays legend sat down with the Betway Insider to discuss his unexpected career as a pitcher, and the ups and downs of his 15 years in Toronto.
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Dave Stieb was never supposed to be a pitcher.
The seven-time All-Star and Toronto Blue Jays legend came through the ranks in the outfield, and was named an All-American as a centerfielder at Southern Illinois University.
Although he was an above-average hitter, Stieb prided himself on his arm. It was strong. It was accurate. And, in his junior year, it changed everything.
Asked to fill in as a relief pitcher due to injuries in the bullpen, he impressed on the mound, and was spotted by Toronto scouts Bobby Mattick and Al LaMacchia.
Stieb remembers their first conversation vividly.
“We like the way you pitched out there.”
“I'm not a pitcher. You saw me come from center field. I'm just helping these guys out.”
“Well, the quickest way to the majors is to be a pitcher. If we were to draft you, would you consider pitching?”
Sure enough, Stieb was drafted by Toronto a couple of months later, but he wasn’t at all convinced by his new role. He still wanted to hit.
“I told them once I signed that I wanted to play outfield and pitch. They said: ‘OK, when you're not pitching, you can play outfield.’ So, I did that for a month,” he says.
“The first couple of weeks I did pretty good, and then one game I faced a guy who threw these nasty breaking balls, and I struck out three times.
“It was at that moment that I realised these guys don't care how I hit, they have all the outfielders they need. What they need is pitching. And I gave into the fact that I was going to be a pitcher.”
Despite his hesitancy, it quickly became clear that Mattick and LaMacchia knew what they were talking about.
“I was 5-2 in Triple-A and the next thing I knew I was going to Toronto in less than a year. Those guys were right,” he admits. “They said the quickest way was to be a pitcher, and I hit success right away.
“It was a blessing in disguise.”
Stieb’s natural talent continued to blossom in the majors, and he was named an All-Star in just his second year in Toronto.
The pressures of being on the mound are totally different to those at the plate or in the field, though, and Stieb admits he found it hard to enjoy life as a pitcher.
“The transition took time and I never fell in love with it, but I had no choice, that was my career now,” he says.
“Obviously it was great when I was winning and I loved being an All-Star but, man, when we lost it was tough.
“For me, with the kind of makeup I had, it was hard to sit on that loss for four days and wait to redeem myself. So, it was a love-hate relationship.”
Stieb was a fierce competitor his whole life, but the added pressures of pitching brought that out of him more than before.
He quickly developed a reputation as a bit of a hothead on the field, which is something he doesn’t deny.
“I was an intense competitor. I wanted to be the best. When I approached a start, my attitude was that I have to win. There's no losing. There's no doing bad,” he explains.
“I've got to perform because that's my little window of opportunity to play on that field.”
Stieb’s intensity sometimes saw him at odds with his teammates, who couldn’t always keep up with his high standards.
“When you're like that, certain things happen, and in the spur of the moment you react in a wrong way because you're so wound up. You want it so bad,” he says.
“I wasn't used to having my results rest in other people's hands. That was one of the things I didn't like about being a pitcher. I can only control the pitch I throw, after that it's out of my hands.
“When I was an outfielder, if I struck out, it was on me. If I made a bad catch or a bad throw, it was on me. Now, I've got these seven guys behind me and catcher in front of me that I have to count on.
“I did a couple of bad things where I showed up my teammates because their play wasn’t up to my calibre, but I learned quickly that you can't do that stuff.
“You can't react that way. They're going to make errors, they're going to make mistakes. And I kind of got a bad rap for that in the beginning.”
Stieb’s animation on the field was somewhat out of place at the time, and he even drew the attention of some of the biggest names in the sport.
“I remember my idol, Reggie Jackson, pulling me aside one time when we were playing the Angels,” Stieb says.
“He said: ‘Hey, I gotta tell you, you can't be out there showing that emotion. That gives the other team an edge.’
“But that's just how I was. I don't think it gave anybody an edge. I did that stuff to get more out of myself. I'd be mumbling and yelling at myself, but I didn't care what anyone else thought, because that’s what motivated me.
“I was venting. I was getting it out of my system, so I could move on from whatever bad thing just took place.
“He tried to give me that advice, and I tried to pitch like that for a while. I don't know how long I gave it, but bottling that stuff up didn’t work for me. I’ve got to be me.”
Another issue that Stieb faced during his first few years as a professional was a lack of quality around him in Toronto.
The Blue Jays were admitted to MLB as an expansion team in 1977, just two years before Stieb made his debut. As with many expansion teams, their early years were a struggle, including three straight 100-loss seasons between 1977 and 1979.
So, while Stieb was developing into one of the best pitchers in the league, the team around him were not on the same level.
“The bottom line is I had no choice in the matter,” he says. “That's where I was, and I had to make the best of it. The whole idea was that, in time, we will get better. And we did.
“We just had to be patient, roll with the punches and rise above it. It was almost a better thing to go through than being put on a first-place team where everything's already there.
“I don't think I would change that experience for anything because it was a growing process, just like me learning how to pitch in the major leagues was a growing process.
“When you go through that, and you finally get to where you want to be, it makes it all worth it. All the hard work paid off.”
By the mid-80s, Stieb was a regular in the All-Star Game and Toronto was finally a playoff team, reaching their first postseason in 1985.
It was Stieb, of course, who started their first ever playoff game against the Kansas City Royals. The result was never in doubt – Stieb pitched eight shutout innings as Toronto won 6-1.
The Blue Jays ended up losing the series 4-3 but, for Stieb, that Game 1 win was his greatest career achievement.
“That ranks top because that'll never change, that'll never be erased, and it was a one-time opportunity,” he says.
“It was a great achievement, for both the organisation and for me personally.”
Some may be surprised that Stieb doesn’t consider his no-hitter in September 1990 – the first and only no-hitter in Toronto history – to be his personal highlight.
But, having previously missed out on four other no-hitters – including a couple with two outs and two strikes in the ninth on consecutive starts – Stieb recognises the number of factors at play in achieving one.
“A lot of great pitchers have never thrown a no-hitter. That tells you what kind of luck it takes to throw one,” he explains.
“It didn't make me any greater a pitcher by doing that. Obviously, it says a lot when you contain the game to that degree, but it takes a lot of luck.”
All in all, Stieb was one of the greatest pitchers in the major leagues during the 1980s. Only Jack Morris claimed more wins during that decade than Stieb’s 140.
He played a huge part in transforming Toronto from newcomer to playoff contender but, unfortunately, was to miss out on their crowning achievement.
A series of injuries saw his 1992 season cut short, and he would have to watch from the sidelines as Toronto won its first World Series title.
Stieb was still awarded a ring for being a part of that team but, having gone 4-6 and not played in the postseason, it brings mixed emotions.
“That whole thing was bittersweet, as you can well understand. It was very bitter,” he says.
“The fact that I played all those years, and we finally had a great team that was going to the World Series, and I had to watch – it was hard.
“It was great to get that ring and have a trophy for all those years I played there, but it really stings that I wasn't able to contribute that year.
“But I’ll never give my ring back. Nope, I'll take that, thank you.”
Stieb still hold the records for wins, starts, innings pitched, shutouts, strikeouts and complete games with the Blue Jays.
Considering the scale of his contribution to the franchise, there is surely no one that can begrudge him that.