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Dave Stieb

February 16, 2016

Stieb

Here are, I don’t know, ten things about Dave Stieb:

  1. I associate Dave Stieb with Ivan Lendl. They were around at the same time, inhabiting the tops of their professions right around the time that I was drifting away from childhood and magic and into something steeper and more tedious. In the place of the dashing, colorful comic book heroes of the 1970s were these two colorless, methodical grinders, known for steely endurance and for tireless work ethics that had produced, from sheer will, formidable “best in the world” weapons: Stieb with his slider, Lendl with his forehand. They’d made it to the top on hard work, it seemed, which I found demoralizing. I don’t think I’ve ever realized it, but the other thing that ties them together in my mind—neither quite getting to the very top circle of the history of their games—pleased me. I didn’t want Lendl to ever win Wimbledon, and when Stieb kept losing no-hitters in the ninth I exulted, just a little.
  2. Stieb finally did get his no-hitter, the year this 1990 card came out. Before that, he’d lost four of them in the ninth inning, three of those with two out, one of those one-out-away instances a would-be perfect game. If he’d converted all four of those plus the one that he actually did complete, he’d have five no-hitters, more than anyone but Ryan, and maybe that glittering bauble would have spirited him into the Hall of Fame. The statistic of WAR, which I don’t understand but generally buy as a legitimate contextual estimation of a player’s overall worth, finds Dave Stieb to be the 69th most useful pitcher in baseball history, ahead of such pitchers as Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, and Mariano Rivera. Those guys all had a lot of glittering baubles. Stieb? Not so much.
  3. There are three red heart-shaped balloons floating around my house. My wife got them for Valentine’s day for me and my two sons. It’s cold here in Chicago, so the heat is running constantly, blowing warm air up out of the floor vents, causing the balloons to drift around the house. My wife and the boys are out of the house right now. I would never be able to notice the movement of the balloons if they were here. When they’re here it’s all chaos, and I lose my composure constantly in the unending series of annoyances and crises and fits of wailing and whining. In the brief quiet, I can see how full my life is with love.
  4. Dave Stieb had a very small mustache and never wore long sleeves. Maybe he did wear long sleeves once in a while, but I only remember his bare arms, which I associate with the trim, punctilious mustache that was an affront to me somehow, again a reminder that my Rollie Fingers childhood was over. Also, I like a pitcher to wear the sleeves. Bill Lee wore sleeves. It made pitchers seem somehow more cerebral and fragile, and less likely to challenge you to a humiliating arm-wrestling contest, which always seemed like what might happen if I ever ran into Dave Stieb.
  5. Dave Stieb went 8 and 8 in his rookie season with the 1979 Toronto Blue Jays, which is like _____. What is it like? The Blue Jays lost 109 games that year, and it was their third season in existence, and they were getting worse as they went on. Danny Ainge, arguably the worst baseball player in history, was a regular player. No pitcher finished with a winning record, and Stieb was the only pitcher whose losses didn’t outnumber his wins. So what is this like? I used to be able to whip off the similes. I think I’m losing control of my pitches.
  6. Whatever happened to Cardboard Gods? You know, that website that churned out the baseball card celebrations in bunches every week? Guy must have just lost it, right? Did he ever have it?
  7. My wife and sons are back from their outing. I hear crying (the baby) and whining (the boy) and my wife’s voice rising, exasperated. So better make these last three quick.
  8. Dave Stieb came up recently on an episode of the Pop Culture Happy Hour. Is this entire post just an excuse to bring this up? Well, mostly, but I also always want most of all to connect with my writing, and this doesn’t happen a whole lot these days. I’m writing another book, but that’s entirely a solitary endeavor at the moment, so I want to write some words and have them be read, and Dave Stieb is as good a subject as any. Anyway, one of the guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour, Sarah Bunting, mentioned that Cardboard Gods (the book) was making her happy (near the end of the episode, if you are interested), and a key point of connection for her was when the book went into the phenomenon of getting one player’s card again and again and again in seemingly every pack. For me it was Dick Sharon, for her father it was Reno Bertoia, and for her it was Dave Stieb.
  9. Baseball cards are my hobby, but not in the same way that they are to most who use that word. I haven’t collected them since 1980, when I was twelve, and I don’t take good care of the cards I have from then and from sporadic, random acquisitions and gifts since then. They’re all in a couple of cardboard boxes, the post-1980 cards loose and the cards from my childhood still sorted into thick stacks, teams, wrapped in rubber bands, the teams themselves piled into the four divisions that existed back then. I didn’t get this card back then. Dave Stieb is from the great, long aftermath of my life, which stretched from puberty on into my twenties, thirties, forties. I’ve been alive so long I’ve outlived that aftermath! I’m into a whole new unsortable mess, fatherhood, which has cast everything from the past into a kind of evaporating preamble, a rickety, no longer useable bridge that brought me to my boys.
  10. Dave Stieb had one of the most prolonged hiatuses in baseball history. For four years he “did not play.” In the eyes of the world he was retired, but there must have been for him some unfinished business, some nagging voice calling him back to the game. In 1998, after not playing since 1993, he returned for a few games for the Blue Jays. It doesn’t seem like he did so well, but maybe it felt good to be out there again, and maybe he’d needed that feeling. I wish I had an eleventh item on the list so that I could talk about how much I love the idea of the hiatus. I like fantasizing about some hiatus that will lift me up and out of my life like the heat vent lifting one of the red heart-shaped balloons. Up I would rise for a while, a long time, and then at some point I’d come back. That’s the key—you’re just on hiatus, not gone.

3 comments

  1. Stieb had the luxury of starting in 1980 and thus can lay claim to the second most wins in the AL for the decade of 1980 – 1989. I always liked the fact that other than the end of the line time with the White Sox he was Mr. Blue Jay.


  2. I like to forget he played on the White Sox in 1993, but the 1993 Upper Deck set refuses to let me .
    Stieb started out as an outfielder. The Jays liked his arm as a pitcher.


  3. Phil: I was thinking that Stieb spanned as great an arc of his team’s history as any player for any team–starting in the absolute depths with that 109-loss expansion era team, leading the rise to contender status and hanging on until the first championship. Mike: Stieb going from outfielder to slider-specialist ace has made me wonder whether he was indirectly responsible for the Dodgers picking all-time bust Bill Bene (a college outfielder turned slider-thrower) with the #1 pick in the ’88 draft (http://theclassical.org/articles/cardboard-gods-harold).



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