A Rare Bird: The Natural

Dave Stieb didn't become a pitcher until five years ago, but now he's one of the best
May 15, 1983

On May 3, 1978 Bobby Mattick, then the director of player development for the Toronto Blue Jays, and Blue Jay scout Al LaMacchia were stationed near the stands on the first-base side in a little ball park in Charleston, Ill., when the visiting centerfielder jogged in to pitch the sixth inning. They looked at each other quizzically. They had come to the Eastern Illinois University campus specifically to scout this Southern Illinois outfielder. And they'd been disappointed. Another Toronto scout, Don Welke, had said the boy could run, throw and hit with some power. But Mattick and LaMacchia had their doubts. "I didn't like his swing," says Mattick. They were prepared to write the prospect off when—what's going on here?—he came in to pitch.

It wasn't the first time Dave Stieb had taken the mound for the Salukis. He'd been pressed into duty earlier in the college season as an emergency pitcher by Southern Illinois Coach Richard (Itchy) Jones. But, says Jones, "the scouts couldn't know when he was going to pitch because we never did." Mattick recalls having heard something about Stieb's pitching, but he and LaMacchia were there to look at him strictly as an outfielder. Disappointed by what they had seen, they nevertheless decided to stay around long enough to see him throw. It was, Mattick concludes in retrospect, one of the smartest things he has ever done, no small claim for a man who signed the likes of Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. "Stieb knocked our eyeballs out," says Mattick. "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."

An astute decision it was. Stieb won 17 games last year for the Blue Jays, although they did no better than tie for last place in the American League East. He led the league in shutouts (five), complete games (19) and innings pitched (288‚Öì). He's continuing apace this year; at week's end he shared the league lead in complete games (four) and strikeouts (43) and led in ERA (1.26), while winning five and losing two for a team in third place. Seattle Manager Rene Lachemann, among many others, considers Stieb the best righthanded pitcher in the league. "He comes at you and has good control," says Lachemann. "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." "I don't think he has any weaknesses," says Baltimore Manager Joe Altobelli. "Dave Stieb," says the Orioles' designated hitter, Ken Singleton, "is no picnic."

On and on the encomiums flow. "He's got a nasty slider...." "He's a real competitor...." "He's cocky, but he backs it up...." Stieb, only 25 and in his fifth season in the major leagues and his sixth in professional baseball, is at the very top of his profession. And that must be considered one of the wonders of American sport, a true phenomenon, because until that fateful spring of 78, Stieb had never pitched at any level—Little League, Pony League, Colt League, Thorobred League, high school or junior college.

When Mattick and LaMacchia caught Stieb's act he was a .394 hitter for the Salukis en route to a berth on The Sporting News's All-America team. He stubbornly persisted in regarding himself as an outfielder in his first season of professional baseball that summer and played center-field most of the time. He didn't, in fact, become a full-time pitcher until 1979. And that, to the amazement of even the most optimistic of his boosters in the Blue Jay organization, was also the year he made the big leagues. What a season it was! Stieb started it with Dunedin in the Class A Florida State League. He was 5-0 there when the Blue Jays moved him in May to their Triple A Syracuse farm. He was 5-2 with a 2.13 earned run average in his month there. On June 29 he started for Toronto against the Baltimore Orioles—and lost. He finished the '79 American League season with eight wins and eight defeats for a team with 109 losses. When he took the ball for his first major league start, Stieb had pitched, counting college baseball, a grand total of 216 innings in his lifetime.

Other pitchers, notably Bob Lemon and Bucky Walters, have made effective transitions from positions on the field to the mound, although the switch from pitcher to fielder, as made by the likes of Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Lefty O'Doul, is more common. Both Lemon, a Hall of Famer who won 207 games for Cleveland in his 13 seasons, and Walters, who won 198 games for Philadelphia and Cincinnati in 16 pitching seasons, had been big league third basemen whose throws had such a bewilderingly natural break that protests from their first basemen may have hastened their conversion. But they had at least done some pitching along the way. Stieb had done none until Jones asked him to fill in on an injury-afflicted staff in the middle of the 78 college season.

Stieb's parents—Pete, a San Jose general contractor, and Pat, a delivery-woman for the San Jose Mercury—hadn't allowed either Dave or his older brother, Steve, a former minor league catcher, to pitch in youth baseball. "We didn't want to ruin their arms," says Mrs. Stieb, whose fierce involvement in the careers of her sons is well known to baseball people. "A lot of these parents don't think about that. They see their boy out there pitching and say, 'Oh boy, isn't that great.' But you can't be taking chances with those young arms." Stieb had been asked to try pitching by his Oak Grove High coach, John Bessa, and, at the behest of a pro scout, by his San Jose City College coach, John Oldham. To both he responded, "No way." "He didn't want pitching to interfere with his hitting," says Bessa. "Maybe," says Oldham, "the outfield saved his arm."

Jones, however, appealed to Stieb's sense of team spirit. A Saluki starter was injured. "Mark Newman, our pitching coach then, had watched Dave throw a litle batting practice," Jones says. "After working with Stieb for a day or two, Mark told me Dave already had a better breaking ball than any of our starters. And he had great velocity. We didn't find out he could pitch until April 1. Shows how smart we were."

Stieb pitched only 17‚Öî innings for the Salukis that season, but providentially Mattick saw two of them, and there followed his recommendation that the Blue Jays draft Stieb as a pitcher. Stieb was nonplussed by this unusual turn of events. All his life he had resisted becoming a pitcher, and now he was being told by a top baseball man that his best chance, probably his only chance, of playing in the big leagues would be at that unwanted position. "It was hard for me to fathom why they wanted me to be something I wasn't," Stieb says. "I don't think I even knew how to figure an ERA in those days. I still felt I could make it as a hitter."

In the summer of 1978, as a concession to Stieb's lingering outfielder's sensibility, the Blue Jays assigned him to Dunedin as a combination pitcher-outfielder, instructing Manager Denis Menke to play him as a designated hitter the day after he pitched and as an outfielder in the other games between starts. Stieb hit only .192 in 35 games for Dunedin that rookie summer, but he was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings. That winter Mattick took Stieb to the Florida Instructional League to work exclusively on his pitching.

Stieb came to the Instructional League with two pitches, a "heavy" fastball that naturally dropped and a slider developed for him by Newman at Southern Illinois and polished by Toronto's minor league pitching instructor, Bob Humphreys. "All we did," says Mattick, "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. He was a natural, one in a million. He had such a desire to excel. He had that good slider. 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."

No one, not even Mattick, his discoverer, expected Stieb to progress with such astonishing alacrity through the Totonto system. "I really couldn't believe it myself," Stieb says. "I'd just settled into an apartment in Syracuse after I moved to Triple A when they called me up. I was almost reluctant to go." He had made the big leagues in his first full season as a professional and at a position still strange to him. The next year, when he finished at 12-15, he played in the All Star Game. In the shortened 1981 season, he became the first starter in the history of the Toronto franchise to have a winning season—11-10. He also came to bat that year in the All Star Game when American League Manager Jim Frey ran out of pinch hitters. He struck out against Bruce Sutter. He was a pitcher now, for certain.

Stieb began as a two-pitch thrower; he has become a four-pitch pitcher who has mastered the changeup and the curve. He will use any of these pitches in any situation and on any count. He may throw as many as 20 changeups in a game. "You can't look for one pitch with him," said Cleveland's Andre Thornton after Stieb beat the Indians 4-1 last month. "He's always had good stuff. He struck me out in the first inning on a slider that kind of backed up."

Stieb pitches quickly, partly because of his restless nature, partly because the fast pace upsets many hitters and partly because his fielders stay more alert when the game is moving along briskly. And he doesn't walk many batters—75 in those 288‚Öì innings last year. Thus a Stieb game rarely lasts longer than 120 pitches. Last year, according to Toronto Pitching Coach Al Widmar, Stieb threw fewer than 110 pitches in 10 games and fewer than 100 in six.

Stieb has other assets. "He's the best fielding pitcher in baseball," says his manager, Bobby Cox. This is a skill attributable to his outfielding experience. Another byproduct of that experience is his approach to the hitters. "Like Lemon," says Widmar, "Dave knows how tough it is to hit. That gives him a psychological edge." And last year, says Blue Jay Catcher Buck Martinez, Stieb realized, perhaps for the first time, "that he could win when he did not have good stuff. In the first half of the season, he couldn't make his slider work at all. It was a frustrating time for him, but he learned to pitch his way out of it by moving the ball around. That's the mark of a good pitcher."

Stieb is an extraordinarily handsome man, tall and well built (6 feet and 190 pounds) with hazel eyes and a trim brown mustache, the baseball equivalent of Tom Selleck. He is bright and well spoken, if somewhat reticent. He and his wife, Pattie, have a son, Andrew, who celebrates his first birthday this week. He seems to have it all. But until this year, Stieb suffered from what baseball people euphemistically call a "makeup" problem. In plainer language, he had a temper, one which frequently manifested itself in unseemly displays of petulance on the field. Stieb had the uncharitable habit of responding to errors behind him by planting his hands on his hips and fixing the offender with a baleful glare, a mannerism not likely to win him friends on his own team or, for that matter, to inspire improved play. To his opponents he appeared unnecessarily demonstrative. "Some guys call it being a hot dog," says Milwaukee Outfielder Charlie Moore. "If he made a bad pitch, he'd slap his glove enough to get you teed off. If you got a hit off a good pitch, he'd look at you as if to say, 'How did you hit that pitch?' "

A confrontation Stieb had with Martinez early last season helped him see the error of his ways. Says Martinez: "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. 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."

Stieb acknowledges that the brush with Martinez was instructive. "He thanked me for my apology," says Stieb. "No way he should be thanking me. That showed me something, made me feel even worse, and I already felt pretty bad about the whole thing. 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."

"Dave is the most intense person I've ever met," says his agent. Bob LaMonte, who lives only a short drive from Stieb's parents' modest Spanish-style home in San Jose and who was Stieb's high school history teacher and special teams football coach (Stieb averaged 42 yards a boot in his two seasons as a punter). "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."

Stieb has had protracted and bitter contract disputes with the Blue Jays, invariably involving demands to be traded, but all was resolved this February when LaMonte, who still works as a teacher, and Blue Jay vice-presidents Pat Gillick and Paul Beeston agreed to a six-year deal that could pay Stieb, with incentive clauses, as much as $1 million a year. LaMonte urged Stieb to fly immediately from California to Toronto and make his peace with a city he had offended in the past with his trade demands. At one point in the Stieb-Blue Jays wars, Trent Frayne of The Toronto Sun wrote, "Stieb often leaves the impression that pitching in Toronto is like playing for the Bangkok Beavers." Stieb made the diplomatic mission, thanking the Jays for the "generous contract" and promising to stay with Toronto long enough to make the community proud of its team. "It's time," LaMonte advised Stieb, "for you to take on a humility that is becoming to a person with that kind of contract. It's not the big things in life that make you, it's the little things. Your ability is a given, but signing autographs, talking decently to a writer, things like that, will separate you from the crowd. We're interested now in developing the total man."

In his third start this season, on a blustery April night in Yankee Stadium, Stieb was experiencing one of those games that can imperil a pitcher's sanity. A dropped fly ball in the second inning had given the Yankees four unearned runs. There was a rain delay in the fourth inning. A mishandled ground ball led to a fifth Yankee run in the sixth. Stieb fought his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, striking out Butch Wynegar on three pitches. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, had pecked away at three Yankee pitchers and had gone ahead 6-5 in the ninth. Still Stieb had every reason to feel apprehensive, even peeved. Every time his team had taken a lead in this long and imperfectly played game, it had found a way to give it back. It was cold and wet, not a pitcher's night, and because of the shoddy support he'd received, Stieb had already thrown more pitches—nearly 140—than he normally does in a complete game. And yet he bounded jubilantly to the mound to face the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth. And when he struck out Steve Kemp to end the game, he fairly leaped for joy.

His enthusiasm was scarcely diminished at breakfast the next morning. "It was a storybook game," he said. "Winning one like that is better than throwing a shutout. With all the mistakes leading to runs, it's a testing type of circumstance, a challenge." He smiled. "Of course, in the past, I don't know how I would've reacted to a game like that."

The fact is, he has found the one missing ingredient in his still new makeup as a pitcher: peace of mind. He has come so far in such a short time. And now, with everything apparently in place, there's no telling how much farther he can go.

PHOTO PHOTOPete and Pat didn't picture Dave as a pitcher. PHOTODo Pattie and Dave want Andrew to be a fireman or follow in his father's footsteps as a starter? PHOTOPast history made LaMonte urge Stieb to make peace with Toronto. PHOTOStieb's "makeup" improved after Martinez gave him a talking-to about his attitude.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)