Call-up Stieb brings plenty of experience Jays' career leader in wins tries again at 40

June 19, 1998|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

In what has been a ho-hum season, there was something to be excited about yesterday in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse.

Dave Stieb, 40, returned to the majors Wednesday night from HTC Triple-A Syracuse, ending a comeback nearly as unlikely as the mid-30s retirement for someone who had been one of baseball's dominant pitchers.

"There were certain steps to take in pursuing this, and this was the biggest objective," said Stieb, who pitched the ninth inning last night, allowing three hits but no runs. "First I had to see how my body would hold up then I had to see how my stuff would progress. All that happened and it's great to finally reach this point."

Stieb was forced from the game by elbow and knee injuries in 1993. He returned to a team treading water at 35-37 after going 5-4 with a 2.73 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse. With the Texas Rangers looking to pick him up, the Blue Jays -- under terms of his contract -- had to promote him or release him.

Stieb is now taking a short-term approach to his second career.

"It's open-ended; there are no long-term goals," Stieb said. "Now that I'm here, my objective is to stay here as long as I can and pitch as well as I can Maybe it's just to the end of this year. That's great. If it's another year, even greater."

The hope is that Stieb can pitch some middle relief for the Blue Jays, a switch for a career starter.

"I have no choice," Stieb said. "I'm definitely prepared to start. My arm has responded well to that routine."

Though Stieb doesn't throw as hard as he once did, Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson said his desire and experience would serve to offset that disadvantage.

"Sometimes you lose velocity," Johnson said. "But he's still got the knowledge and he's still got the fire in his gut; I feel the intangibles are there."

Inspiration for his return sprouted when Stieb arrived at the Blue Jays' training camp in Dunedin, Fla., mainly to pitch batting practice. While living in Lake Tahoe, Nev., he still worked out but had put all thoughts of a baseball career away.

That changed during the spring,when he found himself getting on the mound, "to see how it felt like."

Then he found that the mechanics, the velocity and the nasty slider he used to win a franchise-best 174 games for the Blue Jays from 1979-1992 and earn seven All-Star appearances were there. "I told him that mechanics are the same, the velocity was there; I was hitting and I had to actually get ready," Blue Jays shortstop Tony Fernandez said.

One of the stumbling blocks was that while his pitches still had control and movement, he could throw no harder than 85 miles per hour compared to the low 90s range he possessed in his prime.

"I explained to him about Dennis Martinez," Guzman said, referring to the ex-Oriole still pitching for the Atlanta Braves at 43.

"You're not a power pitcher who needs to throw 95 to pitch in the big leagues. You've been in the big leagues without that," Guzman said.

With that encouragement, Stieb convinced the Blue Jays' organization that he was worth the trouble, and they sent him to the team's Single-A Dunedin affiliate.

Stieb began his comeback by going 2-0 before being promoted to Syracuse, where he pitched into the late innings in his first two starts.

He says he's glad that his younger daughters get to see what it is their father used to do for a living. But he says that the current situation is nothing more than a function of circumstance and that, no, he is not baseball's version of George Foreman.

"It wasn't like this was my objective. I just fell into it," Stieb said. "If I'd never gone to spring training, I would have never pursued this."

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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