EXCLUSIVE: 1998 Interview with Joe Altobelli, Baltimore Orioles World Series Championship Manager, Toronto Blue Jays Pitching Legend, Dave Stieb
Joe Altobelli joined the Baltimore Orioles as their manager at the beginning of the 1983 season and led them to a victory in the World Series. In 1998, he was the radio voice of the Rochester Red Wings, the Orioles' Triple-A farm club. On April 28, 1998, having been granted a media pass (for the nascent Dave Stieb website that Len Lumbers and I had started in March), I spoke to Joe on the night when Blue Jays pitching legend, Dave Stieb, was making his first official AAA start, in Rochester, during his comeback at the age of 40 after 5 years out of the game. Stieb had moved up from Single A Dunedin, and was 8 weeks away from re-joining the Jays on June 18, 1998. (Follow our @DaveStiebToday Twitter account for your daily dose of Dave Stieb history.)
BELL : You managed the Baltimore Orioles from '83 to '85. Was that the first time you would have seen Stieb pitch?
JOE : I imagine it was when I was managing the Orioles, somewhere in that time.
BELL : And your opinions of him...?
JOE : My opinions? I tell you what - he was a dominating type of pitcher when he was with the Blue Jays. What I thought about as a manager was how we could score maybe 2 or 3 runs off of him and hopefully our pitching staff could hold the Toronto team to less than that. When you start talking about a pitcher along those lines, you know that he dominates. I think one of the things the players used to really get confused about when they hit off of Stieb was his late-breaking slider. He had a slider that broke relatively late. A lot of times, a player picks up the spin of the ball right from the pitcher's hand. In Stieb's case, you couldn't do it. That's why they looked so bad.
BELL : Because it just had such a tight rotation?
JOE : I don't know whether it was the force of the ball, but every now and then, there comes along a guy like Stieb and he certainly made a lot of hitters in the league look very bad.
BELL : When you're the manager, of even what would be a World Championship team, and you go up against a guy like him before the game, how are the hitters feeling? Can you see a lull in their confidence because they know whom they are facing? And how do you approach the hitters to try and get them up, or are they just keen to take their shot at the 'superstar'?
JOE : I think, in preparation for facing a guy like Stieb, I think your thoughts always go 'I hope he has a bad day tonight'. But he pitched us awfully tough. As a matter of fact, I recall a ball game that he started and we only had two catchers; we had Dempsey and Joe Nolan. Nolan was a left-hand hitter and Dempsey was a right-hand hitter, and we started that game, and of course, Dempsey caught; I used Nolan as a pinch-hitter and in the bottom of the ninth, trying to tie the score off Stieb, we used almost everyone on our bench and we did tie it. But I had exhausted both of my catchers.....
BELL : The 'Sakata Game'?
JOE : Yes, I had to go with Len Sakata behind the plate and that was when Tippy Martinez picked off three Blue Jays off of first base in one inning; then, in the bottom of the tenth inning, Sakata hit the home run to win it for us. But that's how much respect was held for Dave Stieb.
BELL : Did your star players have a more aggressive approach when they're facing a 'star pitcher' like that, and did you see your 'lesser-than-stars' wilt back when they go up against somebody like that?
JOE : When you're going up against a good pitcher, and of course, Dave Stieb is that, what you try and do is not go 0 for 4. By that I mean maybe have a sacrifice in there; bunt a ball, maybe to beat it out for a hit - at least go 1 for 4 - but if you are going to take the collar, make it 0 for 2, 0 for 3; try to sandwich a walk in. And I didn't start all of this. I remember talking to Hank Greenberg, the great first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, and he told me the same thing : what he tried to do against the good pitchers in the league was minimize his mistakes and try to minimize his at-bats to the point where he could sandwich a walk in or something like that. I guess if a player tried to approach every game that way, he'd go crazy by the end of the year thinking so much, but he probably would end up hitting .300.
BELL : Stieb had a volatile personality back then. Did you, and your hitters, do anything to try and throw him off his game, or was he just solid in his approach?
JOE : Yes. To me, he was just solid. We never got the opportunity to rattle him. He was always in command out there against us. There might have been one ballgame where he might have shown something like you're talking about, but it was too minimal, really. I think, on my part, I wouldn't want to get him that way. He might have been even better that what he was.
BELL : What were your first thoughts when you heard he was coming back?
JOE : I probably said, what took you so long? Maybe with the pitching the way it is today changed his mind. But if I were a Dave Stieb, I wouldn't have taken five years to try and come back. I'd probably done it within the first year of my retirement.
BELL : When was the last time you saw him pitch?
JOE : The middle '80's. I didn't get to see him pitch much when he left Toronto.
BELL: What do you expect tonight? From a pitcher like him who hasn't been in the majors, or any level, for five years, how does he approach a game like this when he doesn't know any of the hitters?
JOE : I think he's wise enough, because of the experience he's had, to go with what he's got. If they can hit that, he'll probably say more power to you. What he'll do is try to throw strikes, but it's tough time for pitching because they're really not as sharp. Our season has just began and the slider is a difficult pitch to try and hit corners with, and that's what I think he'll try to do. He could be off the plate, and a lot of the times, with a name like Stieb, sometimes the umpire might give you that pitch on the outside corner. In any way, it's going to be an interesting ball game. I can't wait to watch him and see how he's doing, cause I'm going to pull for 40 year-olds.
BELL : Even though he is 40, what is a Triple-A ballplayer's reaction to someone like him? Do they feel intimidation or do they think 'I can prove myself, to the big club, by nailing this guy'?
JOE : Some guys don't even know who he is. Some guys, who haven't been playing more than 3 or 4 years probably don't know who Dave Stieb is and maybe haven't read about how good he was, so they might be better off. For the guys that have seen him, or heard about him, they're probably in a situation where they're going to think 'well, I've got to just try to stay on the baseball and hit it somewhere'.
BELL : Who are the guys to watch on this Rochester Club? Who's going to give Stieb the most trouble?
JOE : Possibly, our left-handed bats. Maybe a guy like Bo Dotson or Derek Lee. We do have a strong right-handed hitter, Otanez, playing third base and we do have a really spark-plug-type of player in second baseman, P.J. Forbes. These might be the guys that do a little damage against Stieb.
BELL: Who are the best slider-type hitters? He told me downstairs, when I talked to him, they weren't going to see a lot of fastballs.
JOE : Yes, that was his bread-and-butter pitch; his slider. If he keeps it up and in to the left-handers, he might be more successful than keeping it down and in. It'll be interesting to watch him pitch tonight.