“He was just here” may well represent the thoughts of Mets fans and the organization as they mourn the loss of John Stearns, who passed away from prostate cancer late Thursday at the age of 71.
Stearns, knowing he was battling Stage IV cancer at the time he made it back to New York for the revival of the Oldtimer’s Game on July 27, exemplified his reputation as a “Bad Dude” – his nickname going back to his college days – even took a few hacks in the batting cage, despite his frail condition and failing health.
The former backstop, who played for the Mets for ten years (1975-84), was diagnosed just earlier this year before that appearance, and even had a setback in April when he broke his hip.
“I saw how sick he was at Oldtimer’s Day,” said ex-teammate John Franco, “and I think he was holding on just to get back to the ballpark and see some of the guys one more time. John loved the game. He always had your back.”
He had more than “your back” quite a few times as a player for the Mets. He initiated a bench-clearing brawl in the fourth game of the 1979 season, when Montreal’s Gary Carter gave him a hard slide trying to score on a base hit to right. Right fielder Elliott Maddox made a sharp throw to the plate, and in the collision, Stearns felt Carter threw an unnecessary elbow his way and came up swinging with his fists.
Wish we could have told him, “Wait a minute, John, that’s a future Met World Champion you’re challenging there,” but Stearns was always one tough dude on the field in every game.
The Colorado native once gave outfielder Dave Parker a broken jaw after another collision at the plate, tackled a fan who had dared to enter the field another time, and even charged the mound when teammate Mike Jorgensen had a pitch sail over his head by Bill Gullickson, and Jorgy had words directed to the mound. Stearns wasn’t even in the game but backed up his teammate by racing toward Gullickson – from the dugout! – and exchanged punches with the Expos’ rookie hurler at Shea in 1980.
Stearns was disciplined when he tackled the Braves’ mascot, Chief Noc-A Homa, prior to a game in Atlanta. The Indian-garbed employee was not prepared – or even looking his way – to be assaulted by a former defensive back on the University of Colorado football team.
“It was the greatest open-field tackle I’ve ever seen,” said former teammate Lee Mazzilli.
“I am heartbroken,” Maz stated when he learned of the sad news. “John was just a joy to be around. He loved the game so much. I was amazed when he went into the batting cage on Oldtimer’s Day. That just showed you how much of a competitor he was.”
Then-Mets manager Joe Torre was not amused when Stearns imagined Chief Noc-A-Homa as a running back. Torre, himself a former catcher, vehemently reprimanded the catcher in front of teammates.
Nonetheless, Torre was horribly dismayed at the news of Stearns’ passing.
“I’m so glad we had a chance to talk at Citi Field a few weeks ago,” Torre said in a statement. “No one played the game harder than John. He never came to the park in a bad mood. All he wanted to do was win. To be a four-time All-Star is something special.”
Stearns made the All-Star team in 1977, 1979, 1980, and ’82, with several appearances as the sole Met representative. It took until the 1980 game to even get an at-bat in the Summer Classic, where he grounded out, but hey, he made the squad four times.
His lack of plate appearances in the All-Star Game was a direct result of backing up the likes of future Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Ted Simmons, and Carter.
At 6’0” and 185 lbs., Stearns was named the MVP of his University of Colorado football team in 1972 – as a safety! If you know football, you know that’s not easy to do, as most honors go to the quarterbacks, running backs, or wide receivers, but 16 career interceptions in pads contributed to his recognition and an 8-4 record for the Buffaloes that fall.
Stearns almost went from the Buffaloes to Buffalo in the NFL, as he was drafted by the Bills the next spring (17th round), but instead he chose wisely and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $53,000, who had drafted the righthanded catcher in the first round (second overall) in MLB’s June 1973 amateur draft.
He first was drafted by the Oakland A’s after high school in 1969 (13th round), but chose to go to college instead. He made that decision a wise one and got to the bigs by the end of ’74, when he made his one-game debut for the Phils in September, going 1-2 with a base hit.
But the Phils had Bob Boone now locked in behind the plate so Stearns became trade bait, and they made a good deal for themselves and their trading partner (maybe) when they dealt Stearns, Mac Scarce, and Del Unser to the Mets for Tug McGraw, Don Hahn, and Dave Schneck (which answers the question, “What the heck happened to Schneck?”).
Hahn and Unser were both light-hitting defensive centerfielders, so that was a wash, and Stearns certainly became one of the better backstops the Mets ever employed, but McGraw went on to pitch another ten years for the Phillies, and was even on the mound when the club won the World Series in 1980. So some Mets fans might still have some regrets over that transaction.
Stearns mostly backed up Jerry Grote and later Ron Hodges in ’75 and ’76, but after a stint in the minors in 1976, he came back up late in the year and banged out 18 hits in 13 games. The “Dude” earned his first All-Star status in ’77, which led to the Mets trading Grote to the Dodgers in August of ’77.
Now entrenched as the primary receiver, Stearns became known as a fast catcher, stealing 25 bases in ’78 and 15 more in ’79.
Stearns had the misfortune of being a Met in those awkward transition years, between the Tom Seaver Era (Dude caught Tom Terrific’s last game as a Met in 1977, June 12, at the Astrodome, and before Tom’s return in ‘83) and before the club had better days again in the mid-1980s. Remember those “Magic is Back” clubs that didn’t make many highlight reels?
His career was stifled also by the baseball strike in 1981, and later, injuries, including elbow tendinitis, which curtailed his playing days.
The Mets traded for Carter after the ’84 season, and that made Stearns a free agent. He tried comebacks with the Reds and the Rangers, but didn’t make the rosters with either club.
For his entire Mets career, Stearns batted .259, with 46 home runs and 312 RBI. You can add that notable one for two Phillies career, and for most of his games he caught, but he did appear in 29 games at third base, and 50 games at first base. His ten-year fielding percentage was a respectable .985.
After his playing days, Stearns scouted, coached, and managed for numerous teams, including the Brewers (scout, catching instructor), Yankees (bullpen coach), Blue Jays (minor league manager), Reds (scout, minor league manager), and in recent years, the Nationals (minor league manager), and Mariners (scout, minor league manager and catching coordinator).
In 1995, Davey Johnson brought him aboard his Reds staff as a coach, but owner Marge Schott insisted she didn’t have the budget to pay an extra coach, so Stearns sneakily coached without a name on the back of his uniform.
Johnson took Stearns with him when he managed Baltimore in ’96, but lost that job when Johnson lost his and Ray Miller was brought in to manage.
In 1999, the Mets brought him back as an advance scout, and in the World Series year of 2000, manager Bobby Valentine utilized Stearns as his bench coach.
When Mike Piazza launched a home run in Game 1 of the NLCS that fall, Stearns was mic’ed up for TV and was heard proclaiming, “The monster is out of the cage!” That became the team’s rally cry for the rest of the postseason.
Valentine was devastated at his passing.
“John was such a key part of our staff,” Valentine stated. He had a unique way of lighting a fire under the guys. Every time we spoke by phone, he kept telling me he was going to beat this thing. That was John Stearns to a tee.”
John Stearns is survived by his son, Justin, his brothers, Richard and William, and his sister, Carla.
Rest in peace, Dude.