"We've never had this much talent."
A year after reshaping both the offense and defense with trades for Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar and Devon White, Toronto management dipped into the SkyDome's vast vault and signed free agents Jack Morris and Dave Winfield.
And now Stieb, who lost to the Angels at Anaheim Stadium Friday night, has returned from almost a year on the disabled list to deepen an already deep pitching staff and make the Blue Jays even stronger.
They are 21-10, with a five-game winning streak ended by the Angels on Friday, and the rest of the division already is feeling pressure to keep pace.
In fact, suggested Stieb, it's a foregone conclusion that the Blue Jays will reach the playoffs again.
Toronto has never made it to the World Series, though, and Stieb figures that this may be the season.
"We'll be going into (postseason play) with a much better team this time," he said. "We'll have a lot more going for us."
Including the talent and leadership of Morris and Winfield, whose signings sent a message of sorts to Blue Jay players: Another division title isn't good enough. Management wants to take that final step.
"It's a good feeling to realize everyone here is on the same page with the same goals," third baseman Kelly Gruber said. "When you draw 4 million fans, you can easily sit on your winnings and absorb your success, but the decision was made to press forward. The hunger is still there."
Said Carter: "When you have the luxury of (drawing) 4 million fans, you can do what you want to do, and (the front office) did. They put the necessary ingredients together, and it's up to us now to get the job done."
Winfield is 40, Morris 36, but General Manager Pat Gillick said Toronto scouting reports indicated that both could still be productive on the field, so they were signed. Leadership, he said, was an attractive byproduct.
"Chemistry-wise, we've added four guys who won't back away if leadership is an issue," Gillick said of Morris, Winfield, Carter and Alomar.
Carter drove in 108 runs last year and became the first player in major league history to knock in 100 or more runs for different teams in three successive seasons.
"Jack and Dave are the anchors of this team already," he said. "They're gamers, leaders, and with Dave in the lineup it takes a big load off me. I don't have to be the one guy driving in runs. Last year, we didn't get much production from the designated hitter and had to rely more on the pitching.
"We have a lineup to be reckoned with now. It's the best lineup I've seen since the All-Star game."
That lineup normally would include right fielder Derek Bell, Baseball America's minor league player of the year at Syracuse last year. Bell broke his left hand when he fouled off a pitch by Frank Tanana in the second game of the season and has been out since, but he is expected to return this weekend.
In winning 91 games last year, the Blue Jays had the league's best earned-run average, but only the Angels and Cleveland Indians scored fewer runs.
A lineup bolstered by the addition of Bell and Winfield and the continuing offensive development of Alomar should provide better support for a pitching staff that has no significant weakness and will be even stronger when Mike Timlin and Ken Dayley get off the disabled list.
The Blue Jays have averaged 4.7 runs per game with Bell sidelined and White, Gruber and John Olerud yet to find their grooves.
"We've had exceptional talent ever since I've been here, but this is probably the best rounded and most versatile team yet," said Gruber, who came up to stay in 1986.
"We also have more experience on the pitching staff and better depth on the bench."
There are also the ghosts of Octobers past to provide motivation--or, some feel, a burden that detracts from Toronto's considerable accomplishments.
The Blue Jays have won 86 or more games every year since 1983, but they carry the label of a good team that always finds a way to lose the big game or series.
--They won three of the first four playoff games from the Kansas City Royals in 1985, then lost the last three.
--They failed to hold a 3 1/2-game division lead over the Detroit Tigers with seven to play in 1987.
--They were overwhelmed in five games of the 1989 playoffs by the Oakland Athletics.
--They shared or held the lead in the division race throughout late September of 1990 before losing two of three to the Boston Red Sox in the second-to-last series and two of three to the Baltimore Orioles in the last series.
--They lost three consecutive games in the SkyDome last fall, losing the playoff series to the Minnesota Twins in five games.
Asked if he resents frequent references to that litany, Gillick said: "No, because it's there."
But he added that the Blue Jays often are playing when most teams already has begun the off-season, and that the turnover in personnel, particularly in the last two years, has significantly diminished the clubhouse links to that record.
Said Winfield: "I haven't been here long, but the attitude is good. The guys are loose. This doesn't seem to be a team carrying baggage, and I don't think there's the overt pressure in Toronto they'd experience in New York, given the same circumstances.
"I also think they feel good having Jack and myself here--two tough baseball personalities who have championship experience. Jack sets a tone every time he pitches, and I try to do the same every time I go to the plate or take the field."
Morris played on World Series winners in Detroit and Minnesota. Winfield went to the World Series with the Yankees in 1981. He said the Blue Jays are "as good, with better pitching" as any of the Yankee teams he was on in the '80s, when they won more games than any other team.
"We don't have anyone who will blow you away, but everyone is capable of 12, 14, 16, 18 wins," Winfield said of a rotation of Juan Guzman, Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, Morris and Stieb.
Stieb drew his fourth opening-day assignment last year, won four in a row April 19 to May 11, then was put on the 15-day disabled list for shoulder soreness May 23. He was never activated, though. He experienced pain in his left leg and lower back and was ultimately found to have a herniated disk.
He was unable to run, lift his kids or do many of life's normal activities.
"At its worst, I had to crawl from the living room to the bedroom, then try to lift myself into bed," he said.
Stieb spent much of the summer at his home in Gilroy, Calif., undergoing rehabilitation and therapy, hoping to avoid surgery. He watched last year's playoff from the Toronto bench, close but still far enough from the action to feel he wasn't part of the team.
"But I never wrote myself off," he said. "No doctor ever said to me that I might never pitch again."
Ultimately, the painful disk was removed, but the summer of exercise proved beneficial anyway, because the 34-year-old right-hander was strong enough to begin full rehabilitation 19 days after the operation.
He is 1-3 in four starts with a 4.15 earned-run average. His three-hit, 4-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers last Sunday was his first since last May.
It wasn't a masterpiece, Stieb said, but it was another step toward the form that made him the longtime Toronto ace. He had an 18-6 record in 1990, 17-8 in in 1989 and 16-8 in 1988.
"Physically, I feel great," he said. "My stuff is there, my delivery is there and the arm strength is getting better. The location isn't there, but that will come through repetition.
"I know enough that I can be effective enough even when I'm not at my best, but it's only a matter of time before I'm at that level again. I have no doubt about that."
Neither does he doubt that the Blue Jays will be there again in October, getting another crack at the mountain they have never quite made it over.