Sports

Catching up with Blue Jays Legend Dave Stieb about His New Life and Improbable Comeback

Dave Stieb is a building contractor and plays electric guitar. Before that, he was one of MLB's best pitchers, and made a triumphant return to the mound in 1998 after a five-year hiatus.
August 9, 2016, 4:32pm
Photo by Reuters

It is three hours before game time at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver. A young man wearing a hangdog look approaches a parking security staffer with a question. The Vancouver Canadians game is sold out, but he desperately covets an autograph from the evening's special guest. Could he just sneak in, get a photo signed and then leave?

Sorry, the security guard says. You need a ticket.

The frustrated fan is roughly half the age of the celebrity guest. Chances are he had not been born when Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays was one of baseball's elite pitchers, and perhaps its most truculent.

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But many who stand in line for an hour inside the stadium remember. Most are close to Stieb's age—he turned 59 on July 22, the day after his Vancouver visit—and some are considerably older. A few have brought their grandkids. Many pose for photos with Stieb, who affably obliges. He signs and poses for nearly two hours.

For nearly two hours, Stieb signed autographs and posed for photos in Vancouver. Photo by John Lott

It is difficult to imagine Stieb patiently embracing this experience in his playing days.

"He was angry," Sportsnet's Stephen Brunt wrote last year, recalling his days covering Stieb in the 1980s. "Eventually, you figured out that he was almost always angry."

Two hours before his autograph session in Vancouver, I interview Stieb as we stand in the half-light of the stadium's lower concourse. It is a convivial conversation. Stieb is relaxed and voluble. After 20 minutes, professional courtesy dictates that I end the session, or so I presume.

"Is that it?" Stieb says with a smile. "Is that all you got?"

The once-prickly pitcher is not angry any more.

***

Back in 1998, I covered Dave Stieb's improbable comeback with the Blue Jays, 4 1/2 years after he retired. I wrote this then:

Stieb was a magnificent pitcher, a tragic hero, a lone wolf whose intensity could be as intimidating as his slider, a surly sort who alienated many a writer and some teammates as well … He hated to give in to a batter or a writer. For reasons that seemed irrational, he was sometimes as fierce off the field as on the mound, still fighting when the real fight was over.

In Vancouver, we do not talk about any of that, nor about his remarkable career: the 175 wins in 15 seasons as a Blue Jay, the 3.24 ERA over his 11-year prime, the year he logged 288 1/3 innings and 19 complete games, his no-hitter and the three that got away with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning.

Longtime fans know all about that. So instead, we talk about his successful, short-lived comeback with the Jays at age 40, and his new career as a building contractor, and his continuing passion for playing heavy-metal guitar. He is eager to expound.

He also says he looks forward to returning to Toronto on Aug. 14 when the Blue Jays honour the top pitchers of their 40-year history in a pre-game ceremony. A bobblehead giveaway will feature the likenesses of Stieb, Roy Halladay and Pat Hentgen on the same pedestal.

I ask him how he thinks he stacks up. He insists he does not compare himself to the others.

"I feel like I was good," he says. "I'm not going to say I was great. I had great moments. But I was good. I was a pitcher to be reckoned with, obviously."

Obviously. On the days when his slider was diving and his fastball was crackling, his stuff might have been better than anybody's.

***

Stieb's comeback started by accident. Injuries ended the first 15 years of his career in 1993. He did not look back until spring training in 1998, when the Jays invited him to Dunedin as a guest instructor.

They also wanted him to pitch batting practice, so he threw for a few days on flat ground to build up his arm, then decided to try it on a bullpen mound.

A rapt audience of players and coaches gathered. Afterward, Roger Clemens told him he should still be pitching.

Stieb lacked his old velocity, but his sinker was sinking and his slider was breaking.

'I just thought, 'Man, it feels good. If I keep doing this, it can only get better,'" he says. "I was almost naive enough to think, 'Oh, if I just say yes, I'll be on the big-league team.' It sounds stupid, even admitting that."

Especially considering all he'd been through in the big leagues, and the high (and often unrealistic) expectations he placed on himself and his teammates.

Then, a few days later, bullpen coach Sal Butera caught him in the 'pen. Butera said Stieb should tell the Jays he was ready to pitch again. Stieb told Butera he was crazy. I'm 40 years old, he said. I'm going home to Nevada in a few days.

But by then, his pitches were darting and diving in the 'pen and the itch was back. So he walked into manager Tim Johnson's office.

"He was shaking his head yes before I said a word. I said, 'What are you shaking your head yes for? You don't know what I'm going to say.' He said, 'I know what you're here for and I think it's a great idea.' Next thing I know, I'm at the (minor league) complex with all the young kids and I'm going, 'What have I done?' I felt like I was stuck."

Stieb pitched at Triple-A Syracuse in 1998 on his way back to the Blue Jays. Photos by John Lott

He considered calling the whole thing off. Then he thought of his old adversaries in the press corps.

"I was not going to have all the media, who already heard this was happening, a day later go, 'Oh, he's not doing it.' That would look really bad," he says.

Stieb pitched to a 2.78 ERA over 12 games in the minors. In mid-June, he got the call every minor leaguer craves.

Back with the Blue Jays, he was not great, but he had moments when he was good, especially for a rusty 40-year-old. He posted a 1-3 record and 4.83 ERA in 19 games, including three starts.

And by that time, he had mellowed. He appreciated the chance to close the circle.

"It was fun to start all over again and make it the same exact way I did 19 years earlier," he said. "I've never had a déjà vu experience like that in my life—so many things that were the same. So it was exciting again, and it was cool to do that at 40 years old. But I realized at the end of that season that man, it's a lot harder throwing with the stuff I had. It wasn't vintage Dave Stieb stuff."

The Jays offered him a shot to return in 1999 and work out of the bullpen. He said no.

"I said, 'I've come full circle. I'm done. I can end it on my own terms. Thank you for the opportunity.'"

***

These days, Stieb and two partners are building their second subdivision in Reno, where he makes his home. When he was playing in the 1980s, he became interested in real estate through his agent and ever since then has used his savvy to buy and sell residential properties.

A few years ago, he joined two friends in a construction firm. Their current project will take another two years to finish. "Then," he says, "I'll be done with that career."

Meanwhile, he still plays electric guitar, a hobby he picked up in 1985, around the time the Jays were heading for their first playoff appearance. Assorted amps and a drum set fill his basement studio. Friends come to jam.

I ask him if he is good at it.

"I'm all right," he says. Then he laughs. "I would not get on stage. I could entertain a bunch of drunks probably.

"I like rock and roll and heavy metal. I never had a lesson. I'm all self-taught from friends and books. My worst problem with the guitar when I first played it, I wanted to play speed metal. You can't just sit down and do that. And I had bad habits, and I wouldn't sit down and practise the things that you needed to. So I never got really, really good, but I can play some stuff and do the rhythm and stuff like that. I have fun with it."

Sometimes when Stieb pitched, it did not look like he was having fun. He glowered and muttered on the mound. He came in hot and left the same way, taking it to the clubhouse and the waiting writers.

Fans lining up for autographs in Vancouver found a more mellow Stieb than the version they once saw on the mound. Photo by John Lott

But his fierce intensity was also the engine of his success. For Stieb, fun was flying close to the flame.

After the comeback, he closed the book on baseball.

"When I got out of baseball and I ran into people," he says, "they would always talk about what a great career I had, and they were always amazed that I wasn't outgoing as far as wanting to talk to them about it and say stuff about it. I ended up telling people that reacted that way, 'You know, I feel like I'm in the second part of my life. Baseball was one part and this is my new part. Baseball doesn't define me now. It defined me then, not now.'"

The definition may have changed, but baseball blends more easily into his conversation these days. The old battles are over. The edges are smoother. And after many years of self-imposed separation from the franchise he helped build from scratch, Stieb enjoys coming back once in a while.

Especially when the Jays put him on a bobblehead with Pat Hentgen, a longtime friend, and Roy Halladay, a future Hall of Famer.

"How do you not show up to something like that?" he says.

A few fans might be saying the same thing, just as they did in Vancouver.