Once upon a time, the Dave Stieb rookie card stood toe-to-toe with the Rickey Henderson rookie card as the best the 1980 Topps set had to offer.

Back in those days, in the early to mid-1980s, Rickey was a burner who had already set the single-season stolen base record and Stieb was developing into one of the best pitchers in the game, helping build the fledgling Toronto Blue Jays into a contender.

By the time the Jays won their first division title in 1985, that Stieb RC was pulling down about $3 a pop, not far behind Rickey, who set the pace in the $3-10 range depending on how the winds blew.

And, while it’s hard to beat that first Rickey card in terms of color pop(!) and overall aesthetics, the Stieb rookie has a calm, cool elegance that always made it stand out in any dealer’s case:

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You get the feeling, too, that the Exhibition Stadium crowd basking in the afternoon sunshine in the background are rubbing elbows, adjusting caps, building the electricity of anticipation for what’s about to unfold over the next decade.

And it would, indeed, be an exciting decade.

By the end of the 80s, the Jays would own two American League East division crowns … they would have their first league MVP (George Bell, in 1987) … they would have a shiny new stadium, the SkyDome.

Oh, and they still had a rotation ace who stacked up as among the best pitchers in the game over the course of the 1980s. Depending on how you look at it, in fact, Stieb was the absolute best during those ten years.

Jack Morris, of course, is well-celebrated as the pitcher with the most wins during the big-hair decade, notching 162.

Stieb? He landed in second place, more than a season’s worth of Ws behind, at 140.

But if you take team performance out of the mix (or try to) with a more modern stat like WAR, you can see why Sabermetricians like Stieb so much.

The Toronto righty led all comers during the 1980s with 45+ wins above replacement, far outdistancing second-placer Bob Welch at about 35.

And Morris? Number 12, with just about 28 WAR.

If you like your rate stats a bit more traditional, Stieb still acquits himself well.

The Blue Jays ace ran up a 3.32 ERA and 126 ERA+ on the decade, compared to 3.66 an 109 marks for Morris.

Why the side-by-side with good old Jack?

Because Morris is in the Hall of Fame, and Stieb probably should be, and because Stieb was the better pitcher.

But, of course, there are reasons the way things are the way they are …

Morris fronted the staff for that historic 1984 Detroit Tigers, then did the Game 7 thing for the Twins in 1991, then sort of stuck it to Stieb by winning a World Series with the Blue Jays in 1992.

And Henderson went on to set just about every base-stealing record you could dream up, and became the greatest leadoff hitter ever, and won an MVP award, and developed into an all-around dangerous and complete offensive machine, and darn near played forever.

In the process, he turned his RC into one of the top handful of cards in the whole decade.

Stieb, meanwhile, sort of aged as pitchers tend to and was done in the majors at 35, albeit with a brief comeback in Toronto at the age of 40 in 1998.

And still, his final tally reads as: 176-137, 3.44 ERA, 122 ERA+, 56.4 WAR (Baseball Reference version).

That leaves him as something like the 73rd greatest starting pitcher ever, by reckoning of JAWS and Baseball Reference — sort of borderline from a Cooperstown perspective, but way ahead of some guys already enshrined.

Today, you can still find that Stieb rookie card for about three bucks — in PSA 6 condition or “raw.”

If you step up to PSA 7, 8, or 9, you’re looking at an outlay of $10-30 across that spectrum. A perfect 10 — if you can find one — will set you back somewhere around $200.

So, was Dave Stieb the best pitcher of the 1980s?

Maybe, maybe not.

But his classic rookie card most certainly belongs on anyone’s list of the most underrated cards of the decade.

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