Then, on a Labour Day Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, Stieb had his moment. On Sept. 2, 1990, 31 years ago today, Stieb pitched the first, and only, no-hitter in Blue Jays franchise history, shutting out the Indians 3-0 at Cleveland Stadium.
Stieb breezed through the Indians lineup. After two early walks, he retired 16 consecutive batters from the second to the eighth innings. There were no hard-hit balls, no great defensive plays. Just pitching mastery. Exit velocity had not yet entered the baseball lexicon; if it had, the Indians’ average on this day would’ve been quite low.
On the 31st anniversary of the only no-hitter in Blue Jays franchise history, a look back at Dave Stieb’s masterful performance in Cleveland
Entering the eighth inning, six outs away from the feat that had eluded him for so long, Stieb first faced Indians designated hitter Ken Phelps. Earlier in the year, while he was with the Oakland Athletics, Phelps had ruined Brian Holman’s bid for a perfect game with a two-out, pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning. And he nearly broke up Stieb’s run at history, lining a slider down the right-field line that landed a few feet foul. He worked a walk, then Stieb came back to retire the next three Indians batters on four pitches.
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Stieb was now just three outs away, a place that had become all too familiar to him. On Aug. 24, 1985, he had a no-hitter broken up against the White Sox on Rudy Law’s home run leading off the ninth. In September 1988, during back-to-back starts, he came as close as he could get. With two outs in the ninth inning in Cleveland on Sept. 24, Julio Franco hit a routine grounder that took a bad hop over the head of Manny Lee. Six days later, Orioles pinch-hitter Jim Traber flared a soft hit that barely landed in fair territory down the right-field line, again with two outs.
The next year, on Aug. 4, 1989, before 49,000 fans at the newly-opened Skydome, Stieb lost a perfect game when the Yankees’ Roberto Kelly lined a double to left on a 2-0 pitch. Stieb carried the memory of all those near-misses on this September afternoon. He had stopped worrying about getting a no-hitter; it was all luck, anyway, and who knew it better than him?
After retiring the first two batters in the ninth inning, the late-afternoon sunbathing the mound in sunlight while the batters’ box remained in shadow, Stieb was one out away for the fourth time in his career. He walked leadoff man Alex Cole on four pitches. Up next stepped the left-handed Jerry Browne. Stieb threw him a slider for ball one, then came back with a fastball that Browne took for a strike. At 4:04 p.m. local time, Stieb threw his 123rd pitch of the game, a slider that hung in the middle of the plate that Browne hit on a line to right field. Junior Felix, shielding his eyes from the sun, made the catch.
Stieb put his hand to his cap in disbelief before embracing catcher Pat Borders. The 23,000 in attendance, many of them cheering for the Blue Jays after making the trip to Cleveland on the holiday weekend, gave him a rousing ovation. His teammates came pouring out of the dugout to congratulate him. Stieb, at long last, had done it.
All these years later, though, and Stieb is nonchalant about what he pulled off that day. For him, his best moment in a Blue Jays uniform came not on a September day in Cleveland but back five years earlier, when he started and won the first playoff game in franchise history in the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals. The no-hitter didn’t change who he was as a pitcher.
“A lot of great pitchers have never thrown a no-hitter. That tells you what kind of luck it takes to throw one,” Stieb says in a recent interview provided to Jays Journal by Betway. “It didn’t make me any greater a pitcher by doing that. Obviously, it says a lot when you contain the game to that degree, but it takes a lot of luck.”
No-hitter served as a fitting cap to Stieb’s Blue Jays career
It was the pinnacle of Stieb’s 15-year career with the Blue Jays, but it was also the last hurrah. Stieb won a career-high 18 games in 1990 and finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting. In 1991, battling back and shoulder problems, he made only nine starts. In 1992, Stieb went 4-6 with a 5.04 ERA. The Blue Jays went on to win the franchise’s first World Series title, but they would do it without their former ace; Stieb was not included on the postseason roster.
He still proudly owns the ring he got that year, but it carries with it some mixed emotions. “That whole thing was bittersweet, as you can well understand. It was very bitter,” he says today. “The fact that I played all those years, and we finally had a great team that was going to the World Series, and I had to watch, it was hard. But I’ll never give my ring back. Nope, I’ll take that, thank you.”
Stieb left the Blue Jays after 1992 before coming back for a short 19-game stint in 1998. More than 20 years after he last threw a pitch in a Blue Jays uniform, he’s still the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, starter’s ERA, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts.
The Blue Jays have played more than 4,800 games in the 31 years since he was nearly perfect; 173 pitchers have started a game for the franchise since then, from Hall of Famer Roy Halladay through to today’s current rotation. A few have come close: Halladay, David Cone, Dustin McGowan, and Brandon Morrow have all carried no-hit bids into the ninth inning. None has matched what he pulled off that afternoon.
More than three decades later, Stieb himself may not be too impressed with what he did—what role does luck play in baseball, anyway?—but it remains, to this day, the greatest pitching masterpiece in the history of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise.