- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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 (288⅓). 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 17⅔ 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.