Out 4 years, Stieb had an unlikely comeback

January 21st, 2021

TORONTO -- ’s name stands among the greats in the history of the Blue Jays, who he starred for from 1979-92.

One of Stieb’s most interesting chapters, though, is his final one, when the right-hander made the unlikely return to the Blue Jays at age 40, after four seasons out of professional baseball.

Stieb was one of baseball’s best and most consistent pitchers through the 1980s, peaking with an incredible run over four years from '82-85, where he averaged nearly 275 innings per season with a 2.91 ERA. Injuries caught up to him in the early ‘90s, though, and after his final season with the Blue Jays in '92, he had brief stints with the White Sox and Royals before retiring. The fiery right-hander wasn’t done, though.

In 1998, Stieb was at Spring Training with the Blue Jays as a guest instructor. It’s still a common role for former players, some of whom are interested in getting into coaching or mentoring younger players. Stieb, though, quickly realized that he still had something left in the tank.

"I kind of fell into it," Stieb told the Washington Post in 1998. "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."

Stieb shifted over to the club’s Minor League camp in March and stayed in Florida when the season began, eventually joining the the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse. With the SkyChiefs, the 40-year-old posted a 2.73 ERA over nine starts and 66 innings. Despite the time away, there was, in fact, something left. Like Stieb said, though, he fell into this. It wasn’t part of a grand plan.

“I was enjoying my life out of baseball, spending time with my family,” Stieb added to the Washington Post. “After about three years, I got used to the idea I wasn't going to play any more.”

That’s when the Blue Jays came calling. Again.

In a June 18 game against the Orioles, Stieb was sitting in Toronto's bullpen as it held a big lead late. With the score at 13-6 after young starter Chris Carpenter left the game, Stieb trotted in for the ninth.

It wasn’t perfect, but Stieb managed to dance around three singles to pitch a scoreless inning. For a pitcher with his track record and a no-hitter to his name, it may not have met expectations, but Stieb had some fun after the game when asked what he’d do with the game ball, which was sitting in his locker.

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“I don’t know what I’ll put on that thing,” Stieb told the Toronto Star. “'Ugly, but painless'? ‘Five years later’? I don’t know.”

Stieb went on to make three starts and 16 relief appearances for the Blue Jays in 1998, ending with a 4.83 ERA. Toronto was interested in him returning the next season in a bullpen role, but after making the successful comeback, Stieb knew it was time.

"I said, 'I've come full circle. I'm done. I can end it on my own terms,’” Stieb told John Lott of Vice in 2016. “'Thank you for the opportunity.'"