Dave Stieb - Blue Jay Great

Dave Stieb in his Playing days. A childhood hero of mine. An illustration of the fine line that can separate good, great and legendary.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, a recurring theme is that Gladwell asks the reader to consider the role of chance factors when it comes to analyzing the exceptional success of certain people.

Now remember I said chance, not luck. The people Gladwell looks at in the book (Such as hockey players who make it to the NHL, Bill Gates, The Beatles, and even himself) certainly made the most of the chances presented to them. But it’s somewhat appealing and heartening to look at success stories from Gladwell’s perspective.

Bill Gates? Went to one of the only high schools in the country with a computer lab with permanent access to a University mainframe. NHL players? Overwhelmingly born in the early part of the year and get resources, playing time and coaching as kids that smaller, younger kids don’t get. The Beatles? Recruited by a slave-driving promoter as teenagers to play clubs in Hamburg non-stop for months on end, getting an unparalleled musical education in the process.

As I look back on the startup I ran unsuccessfully for several years, I found Gladwell’s analysis encouraging, if not necessarily helpful. I often compared myself to younger, much more successful founders and felt ashamed of my failures. While Outliers doesn’t provide much in the way of lessons about succeeding with a startup, it does show you that it’s not the most productive exercise to compare yourself to more successful entrepreneurs. And that in certain cases, very successful people may owe as much to chance as they do their own brilliance and hard work.

As I embark on a new venture, I’m reminded of a childhood hero of mine that provides a great illustration of the thin line that can sometimes separate good, great, and legendary:

Dave Stieb

Who? Exactly.

If you grew up in Toronto in the 1980’s, Dave Stieb was a huge deal. A legend to those who lived and died with the Toronto Blue Jays. If you were a baseball fan in another city around the same time, you may recall Dave Stieb as a very good pitcher from Toronto. If you’re anyone else, you have no idea who Dave Stieb is.

And that’s quite reasonable really. He’s not in the Hall of Fame. If you took the time to check his career stats over at Baseball-Reference, you wouldn’t see much to suggest that he was any more than a good pitcher for his day. When the Jays finally won the World Series in 1992, Stieb lost his spot in the starting rotation and was released before the playoffs.

And I’ll admit that Stieb’s stature is greatly enlarged by the role he and the Jays played in my own personal narrative. The Toronto of my youth was a pretty small, provincial place, characterized by a large civic inferiority complex that left the city, its citizens and its leaders constantly comparing itself to more storied cities. It’s “New York, run by the Swiss”, said Glenn Gould in the CBC documentary series, Cities. It’s “Hollywood North” said a succession of mayors as tax breaks and a low dollar attracted US film productions to the city.

As a kid, I assumed Toronto’s inferiority complex as a right of passage. In an effort to define myself and my place in the world, I gravitated toward things that I thought put Toronto on the map. Rush were 3 kids from suburban Toronto selling millions of albums. SCTV was a homegrown comedy show with terrible production values that scrapped its way to a deal with NBC for 2 seasons in the early 80’s. Both were heroes to me.

But the Jays were the greatest heroes of all for an insecure kid from an insecure city. A young, terrible expansion team that gradually grew into contenders. Instead of baseball cathedrals like Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field, they played in a concrete toilet housed on the grounds of an amusement park and agricultural fair that remained deserted 50 weeks a year. Since they played in Canada, their entire fan base developed a chip on their shoulders, convinced that the team didn’t get their due from fans and press around Major League Baseball. “One of the best teams in baseball, and you NEVER see them on American TV”, we would gripe.

And Stieb was greatest of the greatest. And a wonderful symbol of the team’s nervous and insecure fan base. One of the league’s dominant pitchers, and yet, he never won 20 games. He never won the Cy Young award as the league’s best pitcher. And he never won the World Series as an active player.

As I grew up, Stieb became an icon for what I believed the Blue Jays of that era were: underachievers who choked in key situations. In 1985, the Jays blew a 3-1 lead to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series. In 1987, they lost 7 straight games to close out the season and lost a 3.5 game lead to lose the American League East Division to the Detroit Tigers. 1989 saw them bow out of the ALCS to the Oakland A’s and look completely overmatched in the process.

And Stieb? He was the guy who “blew” 3 no-hitters (one of which was a perfect game) with 2 outs in the 9th inning. A hard-luck pitcher who could never get over the hump. A choker. A loser.

By the time the Jays won it all in 1992 and 1993, the heroes of my youth were all gone. The outfield of Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby and George Bell that combined for over 100 HRs and 300 RBIs in 1987 was history. Stieb collected a ring in 1992, but his career was pretty much over. He had been released earlier in the season and never played in a World Series. Hated rival players like Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, Jack Morris and Dave Stewart were signed and traded for to give the franchise its World Series. As a fan, I ate it up. These guys were winners. Winners win. And they did.

So yes, Stieb and his contemporaries have an unusually large stature in my mind because they played a big role in defining me as a person when I was growing up. But after reading Gladwell’s book, I thought about Dave Stieb and realized something. My impression of Stieb is idiotic. The guy was probably the best pitcher of his era, and but for chance, might have actually become a legend who’s entry into the Hall of Fame would have been a forgone conclusion as he retired.

I’m far from a stats geek, but I find this piece by Callum Hughson at MopUp-Duty fascinating and highly relevant in looking at Stieb in the same way that Gladwell might. By a good many of these statistical measures, Stieb was a far more valuable pitcher than Jack Morris. But Morris’s votes for the Hall of Fame have been increasing steadily, while Stieb fell off the ballot in his one year of inclusion in 2004.

Let’s look at some chance factors:

Dave Stieb played for an expansion team. While it might have been an advantage to Stieb to get so much playing time so early in his career (In fact, Gladwell might have called this an unfair leg up toward him getting his “10,000 hours” to master the craft of pitching), it certainly doesn’t help when it comes to becoming a legend. Legends win. And to win, you need run support. The Jays of Stieb’s early career sucked. They didn’t have a winning record until his 5th year in the league. In fact, run support seems to be an issue that plagued Stieb through his career. According to the analysis at Mop-upDuty.com, Stieb’s run support over his career was 5% less than average, while Morris’s was 7% higher than average.

Stieb played in Canada. This isn’t some conspiracy theory, though I don’t really have data to support it. To me it’s just logical. As a Canadian team, the Jays were an oddity in the American League. They wouldn’t have appeared on TV much in the US and they wouldn’t have had a following. And the current membership of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America is largely American. Stieb just isn’t top of mind with the guys who vote you into the Hall of Fame.

The story of Stieb getting drafted by the Jays is somewhat of a chance encounter too. Stieb was an outfielder for his college team and the Jays’ scouted him as an outfielder in 1978. But in the game the scouts attended, Stieb came in to pitch as an emergency reliever. The scouts decided to draft Stieb and convert him to a pitcher. He was pitching in the big leagues a little over a year later.

It could have been a scout for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers that showed up that day. But instead it was the expansion Blue Jays, their ugly uniforms and their horrible, windy, cold stadium on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Dave Stieb was 3 pitches away from being a legend. Despite a good, not great, career for a lousy team that became a good (not great) team, I think Stieb’s candidacy for the the Hall of Fame may have been significantly enhanced had he retired just a few more batters.

On September 2, 1990, Dave Stieb pitched what is to date the only no-hitter in Blue Jays history. But what most Jays fans remember is what happened in 1988 and 1989. In 1988, in his last two starts of the season, Stieb pitched two consecutive 1-hit shutouts. What was notable about these starts of course is that in both games, Stieb had a no-hit bid broken up with 2 outs in the 9th inning. In fact, both batters who broke up the no-hit bids were down to their final strike. And in 1989? Stieb took a perfect game into the 9th against the Yankees and had it broken up with 2 outs.

You win some you lose some. In the course of a long career, Stieb started hundreds of games, faced thousands of batters and threw tens of thousands of pitches. If Stieb just finished the no-hitters and perfect game he took to the ninth inning, if he just had a different outcome for 3 of his pitches, he’d have 4 no-hitters including a perfect game. It’s only one stat, but Sandy Koufax had the exact same number. Koufax is a legend for many reasons, but 4 no-hitters would put Stieb in some pretty select company.

Oh, and what else happened in 1988 and 1989? Stieb threw an additional THREE 1-hit ballgames. So, imagine an additional 3 slightly different pitch outcomes. This gives Stieb 7 no-hitters including a perfect game in the space of 3 seasons, and his stats and the probability of the outcomes barely move. Just take 6 outs he recorded elsewhere in the season and swap them for the outs in a different situation to make him a legend. Over the course of a career consisting of tens of thousands of pitches, a different outcome for 6 pitches may as well be pure chance.

If you look at some of the video footage of the games, the role of chance is even more apparent. One of the hits was a grounder hit straight at Manny Lee. The ball hit a pebble and bounced right over his head. Another hit was a bloop single. Stieb fell behind 2-0 to Roberto Kelly before Kelly broke up his perfect game. The pitches were borderline and with a more favourable count, Stieb might have pitched him differently.

So with the exact same stats, the exact same Won/Loss record, no Cy Young Awards, no World Series and relatively lacklustre performances in his post season appearances, but 7 no-hitters? He’s a legend. Hall of Fame voters could argue all they want about his stat line. You can’t keep a guy with 7 no-hitters out of the Hall.

6 pitches, 6 outs. A legend is born. 6 pitches, 6 hits, and some know-it-all kid thinks you’re a bum.

Think about that the next time you compare yourself with somebody else. And then get back to work and learn to recognize, and make the most, of the chances you’re given.