For most athletes there is a moment, one that seems frozen in their memory, when all the years of work suddenly pay off.
One swing of the golf club, of the tennis racket. One jump shot from the corner. One broken-field run through half-a-dozen tacklers.
Tonight, Dave Stieb threw The Pitch. Within the context of this game -- an easy 6-1 victory for the Toronto Blue Jays over the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the American League championship series -- The Pitch meant little. Toronto and Stieb were going to win, regardless. But to Stieb, as a master at his craft, it meant far more than that. It was a pitch that, years from now, when he is sitting in front of his fireplace remembering a distinguished baseball career, he still will be able to see in his mind's eye.
"It was a perfect pitch," said Stieb, who normally is reserved, almost reticent talking about himself. "I think I was running off the mound before the ball even crossed the plate. I just knew.
"The ball started out about thee or four inches outside and just broke, right where I wanted. It was a backup slider. I was really pumped up by it. It was just a great pitch, probably the only pitch he can't hit."
That was what made the moment so sweet. 'He' was George Brett. Brett is a great hitter in a groove, now 12 for his last 24. While the rest of his teammates were flailing helplessly at Stieb, Brett was making him look human: he doubled to the center field wall in the first; lined a single to center in the third.
By the time Brett came up with two out in the fifth, the game no longer was in doubt. The Blue Jays had a 6-0 lead and, on this night, unless Brett batted in all nine spots in the order, the Royals weren't about to catch Stieb.
The Blue Jays had talked about pitching around Brett, especially in light of the banjo bats in the rest of the Royals' lineup. But with a 6-0 lead, there was no need.
Stieb threw sliders all the way, except for a fast ball starting out. On 2-2, he went for the slider with the big break, the one that, as Brett put it, "breaks about two feet and makes you look silly."
Brett rarely looks silly with a bat in his hands. But as this pitch broke toward him, he froze. If it was outside, it was ball three. If not, it was strike three. The ball zipped across the inside corner -- two feet, remember? -- and Brett, after looking first at the catcher's glove, then the umpire, turned and walked away.
Stieb almost jumped in the air, he was so excited. He sprinted off the mound like a dash man coming out of the blocks, practically running through the dugout wall.
"I was excited," he said. "To throw a pitch that good to a hitter that good in this kind of game. What more can you want?"
Down the hall, Brett just shook his head at the memory. "I can't remember him ever throwing a slider that well," he said. "And he's thrown some good ones."
Could he remember anyone throwing a slider that well? "No," Brett said, "I can't."
Brett will remember the pitch because he doesn't often get left standing at the plate staring in disbelief. But Stieb will remember it for more than that. He will remember it as part of a cool, magic night when he was a hero, when he rose to a new challenge in his first postseason game. He will remember the victory. He will remember the crowd. But more than anything, he will remember The Pitch.
"I don't think," he said, "I can throw one any better."