Aug 21, 2016

Late Seventies Mets Catcher: John Stearns (1974-1984)

John Harden Stearns was born August 21, 1951 in Denver Colorado. He was originally drafted in 1969 by the Oakland A's, but chose to attend the University of Colorado instead. He was a star baseball & football player there, earning the nick name “Bad Dude”. In 1972 he was drafted by the NFL's Buffalo Bills as a defensive back but did not sign.

The next year he was the second overall pick, drafted ahead of Robin Yount & Dave Winfield, by the Philadelphia Phillies. He was sent right up to AA level but only hit .241 and had seven passed balls behind the plate. The next year he batted .343 and got promoted to AAA, joining Gary Carter on the International League All Star Game.

He got promoted to the Phillies squad in September appearing in one game getting his first MLB hit. By December 1974 Bob Boone was catching in Philadelphia with a long future ahead of him.

In New York Jerry Grote was starting to age & the Mets believed a sist in Tug McGraw’s arm was going to ruin his career. So a trade was made sending Stearns, Del Unser & Mac Scarce to the Mets for Tug McGraw, Don Hahn & Dave Schneck.

In 1975, Stearns began his Mets career as the backup to Jerry Grote, starting his first game catching Jon Matlack in St. Louis on April 16, 1975. He got his first career Mets hit that day as well.

At the end of April, in his Mets fourth game, he hit his first career HR at Wrigley Field in a 7-4 Mets loss. In his rookie year he would only hit .159 with 3 HRs & 10 RBIs in 59 games played. Looking back, Stearns said he looked at the lineup card one day, saw his name was on it & saw Tom Seaver was pitching. In the first inning Pete Rose stepped in as he gave a sign to Seaver. That’s when it hit him; he was now in the big leagues.

In 1976 he was sent back down to AAA Tidewater, where he hit .310 finishing in the top ten for the batting title. He got called back up to the Mets in September, getting 18 hits in his first 13 games back. He ended up taking over the catching duties from Jerry Grote & Ron Hodges the rest of the month.

On September 8th he had a three hit, three RBI day which included a HR at Wrigley Field in a Mets 11-5 win. Two days later he drove in a pair of runs in St. Louis , helping the Jerry Koosman to win #19 & the Mets to a 4-2 win.

On September 16th he was behind the plate as Jerry Koosman won his twentieth game of the year, the first time in his career he won twenty games. Koosman pitched a one run four hitter, in which Stearns drew three walks & scored a run.

Stearns finished the year batting .262 with 2 HRs 6 doubles a 364 on base % & 10 RBIs. Behind the plate he threw out 53% of would be base stealers. He started his career by wearing the uniform number 16 but he ended up switching numbers with Lee Mazzilli and took over the number 12.

By 1977 he was the Mets main catcher, and on Opening day he drove in two runs, helping Tom Seaver to a 5-3 victory at Wrigley Field. On June 1st he hit a grand slam HR off Jackie Brown at Stade Olmpique in Montreal, to help beat the Expos 6-4. Later that month he hit a three run shot off Houston's Joe Sambito in an 8-2 Mets win at Shea Stadium.

On June 12th Stearns was battery mate to Tom Seaver in the last game he would pitch as a New York Met, before getting traded to the Reds. Seaver beat the Astros in Houston 3-1, Stearns hit a 9th inning double scoring Mike Vail. He went into July batting .300 leading the club in hitting.

That year he was chosen for his first All Star game, batting .290 with 10 HRs & a .550 slugging percentage by the break. He caught the final inning of the All Star Game, catching the final strikeout in the NL victory. He struggled in the second half, as his average dropped off forty points, finishing up batting .251, with 12 HRs 55 RBIs, a .370 on base percentage and leading the team in doubles (12) & walks (77).

Bad Dude as he became known, would always take one for the team, getting hit by seven pitches & leading them in that category the next two seasons. All time in his career he was hit by 25 pitches (11th on the Mets all time list). He caught 127 games behind the plate (5th in the league) was second in put outs (742) putting up a .982 fielding % while throwing out 40% of runners attempting to steal.

In 1978 he had a slow April, hitting just .197 with two extra base hits. But he gave himself a kick start in mid May, driving in runs in all but one game the week of May 7th-May 14th. On May 8th he tied up a game in the top of the 9th inning in Cincinnati with a single off Fred Norman. The Mets went on to win it in extra innings.

On May 27th Stearns had a three RBI day in the midst of a six game hit streak. In June he hit two HRs on a California road trip including a three hit day at Dodger Stadium.

In a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stearns made a big play which help build his reputation. The Pirates big Dave Parker crashed into Stearns in a play at the plate, but Stearns stood his ground, & tagged out Parker to end the game. Parker ended up running into a brick wall when he ran into Stearns, fracturing his cheekbone, sidelining him for two weeks.

When the Phillies came to town, they actually thanked Stearns for standing up to their rival, the big Dave Parker.

In July he got hot hitting safely in 14 of 16 games. On a mid July road trip he had back to back multi RBI games & then a four RBI day on July 20th against the Houston Astros at Shea.

On August 1st Stearns started the month with a three run HR off The Phillies Steve Carlton, helping the Mets to a 5-1 victory at Philadelphia. Three days later he had a three RBI night in St. Louis as the Mets beat the Cards 8-3. In July & August he drove in 33 runs, then ended the year with a September eight game hit streak.

On September 8th Stearns went into the Record book, when he stole first base in the first inning of a game against the Montreal Expos. Stearns stole his 24th base of the season against pitcher Bob James & catcher Gary Carter. The steal broke the old National League modern day record of 23 set in 1903 by Johnny Kling.

In 1978 he batted .264 with a .364 on base % & led the team in doubles (24). He had career highs in HRs (15) RBIs (73) & games behind the plate (141). Defensively he was second in the league in put outs , assists, errors & stolen bases allowed. He was third in catching runners stealing (53) 38% with a 985 fielding %.

In the fourth game of the 1979 season, Stearns started a bench clearing brawl with the Montreal Expos. It began as Gary Carter tried to score on Mets pitcher Pete Falcone's throwing error. Outfielder Eliot Maddox threw Carter out at home plate, but Stearns felt Carter had tried to elbow him with a cheap shot.

Stearns went after Carter, attacking him & starting up the melee’. That season Stearns began to see more action in the outfield, as well as first & third base. This was to help reduce some of the wear & tear on his body. He caught 121 games and played in a career high 155 games overall. He was selected to the 1979 All star team again even though he was only batting .242 at the break.

On a bad Mets team, he was certainly their best everyday player. At the end of May he went on a 13 game hit streak, topped by a three hit, three RBI day in Atlanta on June 3rd. On July 112th he had a walk off RBI single against the Los Angeles Dodgers, scoring Lee Mazzilli thrilling 12,000 Shea fans. In the first week of August he drove in runs in six of the first eight games, proving to be one of the teams better offensive players when healthy.

On September 8th, he singled off Pittsburgh's Jim Bibby scoring Lee Mazzilli with the games walk off game winning run. Stearns drove in runs in three straight games from there. At the end of September he drove in runs in four games of the final week.

That year the Mets finished last 63-99. Stearns finished the season with a career best 131 hits & 29 doubles. He only hit .243, with 9 HRs, 66 RBIs (second on the club) a .312 on base % & 15 stolen bases (second on the club) while getting thrown out just as many times.

In 1980 he started out well & found himself batting .348 at the beginning of May. In the final week of that month he drove in runs in five of seven games hitting safely in six straight.

On June 26th his 7th inning single off the Cubs Dick Tidrow put the Mets ahead for good in the 4-3 win at Wrigley Field. Two days later he doubled off the Phillies Ron Reed in the top of the 11th inning, scoring Joel Youngblood in a 2-1 extra inning win in Philadelphia.

In a June game, two drunken fans stormed the field and as security guards were chasing the two drunks around were trying to catch them, Stearns grew irritable. He left his position behind the plate ran into left field tackeling one of them down to the ground. That ruckus ended there.

On the Fourth of July another classic Stearns even occurred. In a game at Shea Stadium against the Montreal Expos, rookie pitcher Bill Gullickson threw a pitch at the head of the Mets Mike Jorgenson. Stearns jumped from the dugout, ran to the mound and leveled Gullickson to the ground.

In the midst of all these Stearns stories, comes my favorite of all which took place in Atlanta. During a game against The Braves, their mascot Chief No-a-Homa was annoying Stearns by teasing him. Bad Dude Stearns screamed at the mascot and proceeded to chased him off the field.

He was still hitting over .290 into July and made another All Star team, getting to bat in the game for the first time in his career. He went 0-1 grounding out in the 5th inning against the American League's Tommy John in the All Star Game held at Dodger Stadium.

After the All Star game he continued to hit well, with four multi hit games. On July 25th he drove in both Mets runs in Pat Zachary's six hit shutout over the Reds. The next day he broke his finger on a foul tip, which ended his season. He finished up hitting a solid .285 with no HRs 25 doubles a .346 on base % & 45 RBIs playing in just 91 games.

He missed the first two weeks of 1981 with an injury, then slowly came back to play more at third & first base. He was back behind the plate in May, and started hitting well until the MLB baseball strike stopped play. In mid May he hit safely in nine of ten games, which included two four hit games as well. On September 18th he hit an 8th inning two run game winning HR off Steve Carlton to beat the Philadelphia Phillies. He finished up hitting .271 in 80 games, stealing 12 bases, but his power production was still down with one HR & 12 doubles.

Behind the plate he only caught 66 games with a .985 fielding % & throwing out 36% of would be base stealers. In 1982 he came back strong, and hit .313 in the first month. On April 24th he drove in the only run of a game against the Montreal Expos, with a double off Ray Burris.

In May he hit a HR off San Francisco’s Greg Minton, stopping Minton’s streak of 254 innings without allowing a long ball. On June 20th Stearns tripled in the top of the 10th inning at St. Louis off relief ace Bruce Sutter, he drove in two runs leading the Mets to a 5-4 win. He hitting well over .300 in the first half making his last All Star appearance.

After the break he had elbow problems sidelining him for the rest of the year. He finished the 1982 season up with a career best .293 average, tying for the team lead with Mookie Wilson with 25 doubles. He had 103 hits hitting 4 HRs 3 triples a .349 on base % & 17 stolen bases.

Defensively in 81 games he threw out a career best 40% of would be base stealers. By 1983 the elbow injury had made it difficult for him to throw at all & he only appeared in four games all year.

In 1984 he did play in eight games getting his last career hit on the last day of the season. He attempted a minor league come back in 1985, but the injuries cut his career short, and at age 34 he officially retired from baseball.

In his 11 year career he played in 810 games (20th on the Mets all time list), hitting .260 with 696 hits (20th on the Mets all time list), 152 doubles (14th on the all time Mets list) , 46 HRs, 10 triples, 91 stolen bases (14th on the Mets all time list-tied with Cleon Jones) 312 RBIs, 323 walks (18th on the Mets all time list) & a .341 on base %.

In 699 games behind the plate he had a .985 fielding% throwing out 37% of would be base stealers. He is fourth on the Mets All Time list in games caught behind the plate (678).

Retirement: After his playing days, Stearns coached & managed at the minor league levels. In 1996-1997 he was promoted to the MLB level coaching for the Baltimore Orioles at first base.

From 1998 -2001 he coached under Bobby Valentine with his old Mets club as Valentine's bench coach. He enjoyed getting two to post seasons, something he never participated in as a player.  In 2003, he became manager of the AA Binghamton Mets then the AAA Norfolk Tides the next year.

In 2005, he was the New York Mets minor league catching coordinator but then left the organization in 2006. He moved to the Washington Nationals system managing three seasons at A ball. 

In 2011 he was the Seattle Mariners catching coordinator & a pro scout in 2012. In 2013 he served as AAA Tacoma's interim Manager. In 2014 he was suppose to be the Mariners third base coach under Manager Lloyd McClendon, but had to resign due to a hiatal hernia injury.

Trivia: Younger fans witnessed Stearns's enthusiasm and excitability while he was a Mets coach in 2000. He was wearing a microphone for Fox television when the Mets' Mike Piazza hit a run-scoring double in Game 1 of the 2000 NLCS.

Stearns's audible reaction of "The Monster is out of the cage!!" became a rallying cry for the entire series, which the Mets won four games to one.

Family: His brother Bill Stearns was a catcher who advanced as far as AAA in the minors.

1 comment:

lanzarishi said...

Stearns' career that was cut short was nothing short of heartbreaking. He was the most exciting player on the worst Met teams of the late 70s.