Dave Stieb never spent long afternoons throwing a pink Spauldeen against his parents' garage, picking off imaginary runners, working the count to 3-2, perfecting the art of confrontation. He was an outfielder, not a dreamer. He had no premonition about becoming the best righthanded pitcher in the American League.
That moment when the batter wiggles his bat, the pitcher nods for his catcher's sign and the dare begins anew was just another at bat for him. "I never thought much about pitchers except when I was in the batter's box," he said.
Then one day in 1978, quite by accident, two scouts from the Toronto Blue Jays saw him pitch two innings for Southern Illinois University, where he was an all-America center fielder. He did not know who they were or which team had sent them. He did not take it seriously when they said they might draft him as a pitcher.
But they did. That year, he batted .195 in 35 games for the Blue Jays' Class A team. More important, he was 4-4 with an ERA of 4.24. A year later, he was pitching in the major leagues. Now, he leads the league with a record of 10-4 and 92 strikeouts. He is third in ERA with a 2.18 and complete games (seven). He is 25 and has 58 career wins, more than anyone else his age.
Still, it's strange. "It's like it's still funny I'm a pitcher," he said. "It's different. It's not like I've totally, totally accepted it. There's still something missing. I had programmed myself to be an outfielder. I still have flashbacks.
"A few times, I'll see the news on television and I'm on the mound and it still strikes me kind of weird, like, 'Oh, I'm a pitcher.' It doesn't seem right and yet it is."
He does not believe you develop a personality from the position you play. But that doesn't mean that certain positions don't attract certain personalities. In many ways, Stieb is an unpitcher.
Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver have analytical minds that delve into the mechanics of their craft. When Bobby Mattick and Al LaMacchia told him the surest way for him to make the big leagues was to pitch, "I just did it," he said, which is the way he pitches.
"I'm probably a lot different from other pitchers because I was an outfielder so long," he said. "They probably do a lot of thinking. I just go with what I have, go with the best. It makes it kind of easy.
"A lot of people are thinking about changing speeds and what to do. Nine times out of ten, I'm going to throw a fast ball or a slider. I try to tell everybody I have no story to tell. I just go out there and do it." Pause. "Sometimes." Pause. "More often than not." Smile.
He is obviously intense on the mound. Rick Dempsey, the Orioles' catcher, a fair judge of these things, says Stieb is so hard-nosed he could be a catcher. John Lowenstein said, "He has a very viable fast ball, a heater to be contended with. His composure is outstanding. He's one of the few guys who throws a breaking ball for a strike when he's behind. Incredible command."
Some hitters say that when Stieb has that command, it seems as if he's looking through them. "It's like he's oblivious to who's in the batter's box," said Ken Singleton. "He just wants the ball and throws it."
"You can see it in his warmups," said Buck Martinez, a catcher for the Blue Jays. "He throws four or five and says, 'Let's go.' . . . Some pitchers are saying, 'Okay, I want to hit the corner on the next pitch.' Or, 'I've got my fast ball at 84 miles an hour, I've got to get it up to 86.' He just has a feeling when to turn it on without figuring out how to do it."
Martinez compares him to Catfish Hunter because he has such good control. Bobby Cox, his manager, compares Stieb to another former Yankee, Mel Stottlemyre, because his ball sinks so much "but he throws so much harder (over 90 mph)." Sammy Stewart says he has one of the best sliders around.
He doesn't waste time or motion. The delivery is spare rather than elegant. "Step and throw," said Ray Miller, the Orioles' pitching coach--the kind of motion that takes pressure off an arm.
So does playing outfield, which, Stieb says, is the obvious benefit of having changed positions so late. The delivery came naturally but the transition was not entirely smooth. "In the past," Martinez said, "he'd throw tantrums in the dugout and on the mound about errors and nonproduction offensively. He doesn't do that any more."
In February 1982, Stieb demanded to be traded. He looked at what Danny Ainge was being paid and felt slighted. The Blue Jays felt his attitude was being affected by his agent, Steve Comte of San Francisco. "He was bad-mouthing the organization," said Cox.
Stieb replaced Comte with Bob LaMonte, his former junior college football coach. This February, he signed a six-year contract worth about $5 million, which includes a $900,000 signing bonus and guarantees only for the first three years. "I was doing my job and coming through with the stats and I wasn't getting it (the money)," Stieb said. "I had to get someone else and find out if it was him or me. I found out."
He knows that the transition from roaming the outfield to stalking the mound "is one in a million." If he still isn't quite like the others bred to the mound, "that'll change the first time he hurts his arm," Miller said dryly.
The transition to being a media star is something else. Stieb is on grudging terms with his newly found notoriety. He says it gets to his wife sometimes, although surely it gets to him, too.
"It's always me, me, me," he said. "This job calls for that type of thing. Sometimes she feels she's just there to take care of the kid. She handles it well. She keeps it in perspective."
Stieb says he doesn't need any help doing that.