Flashback to 1983 – A glorious start for both of Canada’s teams

Macleans- Stieb-Rogers

If only Canadian baseball fans could turn their clocks back 30 years.

That was my initial reaction when a fellow baseball aficionado handed me a copy of the July 11, 1983 edition of Maclean’s magazine (cover pictured above) last week.

With 2005 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Dave Stieb and Steve Rogers (who are dubbed “arguably … the best two right-handed pitchers in baseball” inside the magazine) adorning the cover, this publication describes the excitement surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos, who three decades ago were leading their respective divisions as the all-star game approached.

After several seasons in the American League East basement, the surprising Blue Jays, with Bobby Cox as their manager, were emerging as contenders, and much of Canada was falling in love with this young and exciting club.

“Euphoric over their 1983 windfall, Jays enthusiasts have roared, ‘We’re number 1′ ever since the American League team clambered into first place just 38 games into a 162-game season on May 23,” writes Hal Quinn in the magazine. “They have cheered home-run hitters so lustily that only after players doff their caps repeatedly do the crowds quiet down.”

The Expos were also sitting in first place in the National League East as teams prepared for the mid-season all-star break, but their fans were much more reserved and even critical.

“The fans feel that we’ve screwed them out of three or four championships,” said Rogers at the time. “Being a bridesmaid just gets you into the party. Now they want the ring.”

The article shines the spotlight on Stieb and Rogers, the respective aces of the Canadian clubs, who were fittingly inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame together in 2005. The then 25-year-old Stieb is described as a “natural,” while Rogers, eight years Stieb’s senior, is deemed a “craftsman.”

Thirty years after its publication, this article was fun to read because so many of the baseball minds quoted in it now have plaques in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.

The article recounts how the Jays dispatched director of player development, Bobby Mattick, a 1999 Canadian ball hall inductee, along with legendary scout Al LaMacchia to observe Stieb, then a brash centre field prospect at Eastern Illinois University, in a game in 1978.

“We weren’t impressed,” Mattick told Maclean’s about Stieb as an outfielder. “I didn’t like Stieb’s swing.”

In fact, Mattick and LaMacchia were about to write Stieb off when the young outfielder was summoned to pitch in the sixth inning.

“He knocked our eyeballs out,” remembered Mattick of his first impression of Stieb on the mound. “He was absolutely overpowering. We decided to draft him.”

Though they signed Stieb as an outfielder, they soon convinced him that his future was as a pitcher. Nearly 30 years later, Stieb, during his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in June 2005, said only half-jokingly to the audience that he still believed he could’ve been a major league outfielder.

Jays vice-president and general manager, Pat Gillick, a 1997 Canadian ball hall inductee,  was also interviewed for the article. He called signing Stieb and converting him into a pitcher the best move the franchise ever made. After recording 17 wins for the Jays in 1982, Stieb was 10-6 with a 2.51 ERA in 1983 and was named the starting pitcher of the all-star game.

The son of a dentist and an engineering graduate from the University of Tulsa, the crafty Rogers had posted 11 wins and a 2.77 ERA for the Expos at the time of publication. In the article, Rogers attributes his dominance that season to two events. The first was his elbow injury in 1978 which forced him to re-evaluate and then perfect his mechanics and the second was his role as a player representative and key negotiator during the players’ strike in 1981. Prior to the strike, Rogers admitted he’d get frustrated at the lack of run support and errors being made behind him on the field.

“Prior to the strike, frustrations weighed on me,” said Rogers in the article. “But I was on the negotiating committee in 1981 and I learned a great deal. We negotiated for 50 days and were stonewalled for 50 days, all the time knowing there was a solution. I had never faced that level of frustration, and, having gone through that, it minimized all the frustrations on the field.”

Of course, Rogers’ frustrations also eased as the quality of the players on the field behind him improved, and in recent years, the Expos had fielded contending teams. In the article, Expos president John McHale, who was inducted alongside Gillick into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, lauds Rogers for the stability he brought to the rotation which helped the Expos bring up-and-coming hurlers like Charlie Lea, Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson and David Palmer along at their own pace.

“Steve Rogers’ consistency, our knowing he’ll be out there every fifth day to do the job, has allowed the youngsters to rest properly and develop,” said McHale.

Stieb was the only Blue Jays representative at the 1983 all-star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 6, 1983. Four Montreal Expos – Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Al Oliver – were voted to start in that contest, while Rogers was selected to the pitching staff. (Writer’s Note: With Raines’ induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame later this month, four of those five Expos all-stars will have plaques in the St. Marys, Ont.-based shrine).

Stieb pitched the first three innings for the AL in their 13-3 thrashing of the Senior Circuit to record the win. Rogers didn’t pitch in the game.

Unfortunately, as exciting as the 1983 season started for the Canadian clubs, neither of them advanced to the postseason. In the first winning season in franchise history, the Blue Jays finished 89-73 – eight games back of the eventual World Series champion Baltimore Orioles, while the Expos stumbled to an 82-80 record – eight games behind the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Still, despite both squads falling short of the postseason, most longtime Canadian baseball fans would love to turn back the clock 30 years to relive the excitement that the Expos and Jays generated in their glorious starts to the 1983 season.

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