It seemed like a simple enough proposition.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the only Toronto Blue Jays no-hitter, Sportsnet would produce a half-hour special to celebrate the event and to celebrate the guy who threw it, Dave Stieb.
For those too young to remember, Stieb was a seminal figure in franchise history, whose rise to become one of the best starting pitchers of the 1980s was a metaphor for the Jays’ rise from expansion awfulness to contender.
The beginning of his story followed the lines of a classic sports (or Hollywood) discovery myth. Stieb was playing outfield during a college game, a position at which he was a middling prospect at best. But mid-game, he was called in to pitch. A wise old Blue Jays scout who just happened to be there understood that he was watching something special, and the team wound up drafting this hidden gem in the fifth round in 1978.
Stieb employed a full and varied repertoire, but his out pitch and calling card was his slider, which dropped late as though it were falling off a table. At his best, he was unhittable. But at some point in his life, he seemed to have angered great powers on high. Before finally completing his no-hitter in Cleveland on Sept. 2, 1990, Stieb threw three one-hitters—two of them in consecutive starts during a remarkable week in 1988—all of which ended with two outs in the ninth and two strikes on the hitter.
The first was broken up when Julio Franco hit a routine ground ball to second that took a ridiculous hop out of nowhere and sailed over Manny Lee’s head. The second ended when Jim Traber hit a soft liner to right that dropped in over the head of first baseman Fred McGriff, who seemed to get a very late break on the ball. The third at least died on a no-excuses base hit by the Yankees’ Roberto Kelly. But that one was also a potential perfect game. (Less well remembered is the fact that Stieb also took a fourth no-hitter into the ninth in 1985, which was ruined by consecutive home runs.)
There was clearly a tale to revisit there, and who wouldn’t want to be celebrated for the shining achievement of their career, for the moment of delivery after all that torture?
Well, for the longest time, Dave Stieb.
The first inquiries went out through official Blue Jays channels. Eventually, a response came back. “He says thanks, but he’s not interested.”
That seemed odd. Time for a bit of gentle persuasion employing the services of some of Stieb’s former teammates, including Pat Hentgen, who as a young up-and-comer worshipped him. The call was made. “He says he doesn’t want to do it,” Hentgen said, smiling a knowing smile.
Next, a chat with Bob LaMonte, Stieb’s long-time agent and former high school football coach in Santa Ana, Calif. From those beginnings, LaMonte built a hugely successful career representing mostly NFL coaches. He lives in Reno, Nev., as does Stieb, just a few blocks away. LaMonte understood that telling the story would be good for his friend and former client (in fact the last Blue Jays contract LaMonte negotiated for Stieb included a whole lot of deferred money and only expires this year). “I’ll call him,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
The answer was the same. “No thanks.”
And then the memories came flooding back, of being a kid reporter, fresh out of school, standing with a group of men (they were all men then) at a locker in the Blue Jays clubhouse, where a naked or nearly so Stieb stood with his back turned. He had pitched well that day. Might have even picked up the win. But he was angry. Eventually, you figured out that he was almost always angry. Some teammate had let him down by not making a play, some writer had written something that had struck him as unfair or, more likely, he was beating himself up for a pitch not made, for some minor imperfection. A shrink might have found him a sympathetic figure, but among a bunch of sports writers feeling a deadline approach and waiting forever for Stieb to deign to speak to them, there were few warm thoughts. More than a quarter of a century later, with a whole lot more athlete encounters under the belt, Stieb would still win the prize as the most difficult subject ever.
A decision was made to go ahead with the show with or without him. If he didn’t come around, given all of the above, his self-imposed absence from his own testimonial would seem kind of fitting. The night before I boarded a flight for Reno to talk to LaMonte, something changed. “Dave is going to be here,” LaMonte said.
The next day, there he was in LaMonte’s kitchen, happy to talk.
The conversation? Well, it was different than in the old days—and it wasn’t. Has he mellowed? Sure. We all mellow. But he’s still Dave Stieb, still kicking himself for the pitch not made.