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A Rare Bird: The Natural
Ron Fimrite
May 16, 1983
Dave Stieb didn't become a pitcher until five years ago, but now he's one of the best
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May 16, 1983

A Rare Bird: The Natural

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

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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 288⅓ 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."

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