Former Blue Jay Pat Hentgen was tweeting about Dave Stieb last night, which turned my attention to the story of Stieb’s improbable MLB comeback.
Baseball fans have been turning to a great deal of nostalgia to satisfy the itch, and former Blue Jay Pat Hentgen was tweeting about a great story from Blue Jays history.
It was back in the spring of 1998 and the Blue Jays were coming off of a 76-86 season that saw them finish last in the AL East. They had a dominant pairing at the top of their rotation in Hentgen at Roger Clemens, but others such as Chris Carpenter (5.09 ERA), Woody Williams (4.35), and Robert Person (5.61) struggled to get the job done, while Juan Guzman couldn’t stay healthy, making just 13 starts.
When the Blue Jays got to spring training in ’98, they returned with largely the same group of starters. They had some young talent on the way (some guy named Roy Halladay made his debut that season), but they were lacking depth in a fairly bit way, and they addressed it in a pretty unconventional way. In fact, it wasn’t even part of the plan when spring workouts began, but by the time the regular season began they had another veteran ready to get tuned up in the minor leagues.
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Dave Stieb was making a comeback.
The biggest reason that Stieb ended up on the comeback trail was because he was invited to spring training that year as an instructor. After being around the team, throwing some batting practice, and feeling the itch of MLB spring training that he had for 15 seasons, the franchise leader in most pitching categories wanted to see if he could still get big league hitters out. The Blue Jays were on board with the idea, and he stuck around in Florida for extended spring training in order to get himself into playing shape.
Here’s the explanation the then-40-year-old gave to Mark Maske of the Washington Post that was published on June 21, 1998:
"“I kind of fell into it. After throwing BP for about three weeks, I knew I’d get on the mound at some point for the heck of it. Even at that point, I had no thoughts of a comeback. But after throwing on the side one time, I had a lot of positive feedback.”"
Even after almost five seasons away from the big leagues, it turned out that Stieb still had a pretty good arm. He ended up making nine starts in Triple-A and was really impressive, posting a 2.73 ERA, and throwing two complete games. As the story goes, the Blue Jays had agreed that if any other team expressed interest in Stieb, they would either call him up themselves or release him so he could pursue another opportunity. As a result, the Blue Jays recalled him and he made his first appearance on June 18th, after not having pitched in the big leagues since May 22, 1993.
Stieb ended up pitching in 19 games for the Blue Jays that season and made three starts, posting a 4.83 ERA, and a 1.490 WHIP across 50.1 innings. The Blue Jays were much improved that year going 88-74, but unfortunately there was no storybook ending to be had with the Yankees ruling the AL East at the time.
Still, for a few months it was pretty cool to see Dave Stieb back on the mound in a Blue Jays uniform. And to think, it all started from being asked to come join the Blue Jays as a guest instructor for spring training.