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Mudville: September 28, 2022 12:38 am PDT
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Tackling Destiny

John Stearns certainly had a productive career and was a fan favorite for nearly a decade in New York. However, if you look a bit closer at the four-time All-Star’s career from start to finish, you’ll see that he just missed being part of something special not once, not twice but three times.

Stearns, 70, was drafted out of high school by the Oakland Athletics in 1969 but opted for college, where he starred on Colorado’s baseball and football teams. That decision likely cost him a chance to be the catcher for the great Oakland teams that won three consecutive World Series [1972-74] and made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons.

The Denver native did eventually get drafted by Philadelphia with the second overall pick in the 1973 First-Year Player Draft but was traded to the Mets the following winter in the deal that brought Tug McGraw to the Phillies. Stearns would endure the demise of the Mets as they wallowed in last place for the better part of a decade while Philadelphia went on to finish first four times and win a World Series in 1980.

Finally, when New York eventually began to turn a corner and become a National League power in the mid- 1980s – winning a World Series in 1986 – Stearns was no longer there, having been forced into retirement by injuries.

The hard-nosed catcher, whose nickname was Bad Dude [more on that later], was a superb athlete whose skills were never fully appreciated by the Phillies, who handled him in a most peculiar fashion after choosing him ahead of both Robin Yount and Dave Winfield in the draft. He became a star in New York, setting a stolen base record by a catcher that lasted for decades but the tantalizing what-ifs surrounding his career make Stearns one of the more interesting baseball stories of the 1970s.

Stearns never felt as if he missed anything, though, calling himself “a lucky guy” after spending 10 years in the Major Leagues and another 30 as a broadcaster, coach and manager.

“I’ve been so lucky to have played sports and played in the big leagues and to have been to New York as much as I have and experience being around the eastern part of the United States I have,” said Stearns, who was also drafted by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1973. “When I was 10 years old, I knew I could play any sport I wanted at the major league level. I could have played in the NFL. Everything came easy. I can’t explain why. My parents gave me all the right genes and I got the best of those genes.”

“The way I always thought that if you’re going to play sports, don’t let the other guy beat you. You have to beat him and to do that you have to be faster, stronger and meaner than the other guy.”

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Stearns came from a family of athletes and that environment helped mold him into a star basketball, football and baseball player. He had many choices of where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do coming out of high school. While most players would have had to decide between football and baseball, Stearns ultimately chose both and headed to the University of Colorado.

However, his collegiate journey didn’t begin until after the Oakland A’s selected him in the 13th round of the 1969 First-Year Player Draft. The Athletics were about to embark on one of the most dominant runs in baseball history and had Stearns signed he could have been part of that journey. One of the areas in which Oakland lacked was the absence of a dominant catcher and Stearns, by 1972, could have changed that. However, signing never really entered his mind.

“I was never close with Oakland,” said Stearns, who was an honorable mention All-American football player at Thomas Jefferson High School. “I waited for the draft and they picked me in the 13th round. I should have gone in the second. I had already signed a football deal with Colorado so signing a pro baseball contract didn’t affect me. If someone had drafted me where they should have, in the first or second round and given me a decent bonus, I probably would have signed.

“The agreement I had in Colorado was that I would play baseball in the spring and not play spring football. I played both sports at the same time in the spring of my freshman year because it would be my first time with the varsity football team. This was still when freshman couldn’t play. There was one day that a doubleheader started at 10 o’clock and after it was finished I ran up to the locker room and changed into my football uniform. I caught two and then went to play football.”

Stearns proved to be a dynamic football player for the Buffalos. He was a free safety and played only three seasons because of the NCAA rules at the time. Yet, he still holds the school record for career interceptions [16] and yards returned off interceptions [339]. The Buffalo Bills saw what Stearns was capable of but knew that he was more than likely going to go high in baseball’s amateur draft. That, however, didn’t stop them from taking a flyer on him in the 17th round, making him the 423rd out of 442 players drafted that year. FootballReference.com lists Buffalo’s pick as John ‘Bad Dude’ Stearns.

Portrait of John Stearns, catcher for the New York Mets, 1982

“I wanted to play in the NFL and I was disappointed that I didn’t get drafted until the 17th round,” Stearns said. “I think the reason was that when I was a junior, I led the Big Eight [Conference of which Colorado was a member] in hitting. They knew I was a baseball player. But if they had drafted me in the first two rounds, I might have gone football instead.

“I still hold the school record for interceptions and yardage. I could play football, especially free safety. I liked football a lot. But I was probably a better prospect in baseball. I could have played a long time at free safety in the NFL, though, and intercepted a lot of passes.”

Dreams of the NFL were pushed aside, though, when the Phillies made him the second overall pick on June 5. Stearns hit .366 with 28 homers in 147 games over four seasons at Colorado. He left the Buffaloes as the career leader in hits, runs [169 runs], RBIs [101] and homers. He hit a Big Eight record 15 homers runs as a senior after hitting .492 as a junior.

High schooler David Clyde had gone to Texas with the top pick that year while Hall-of-Famers Yount and Winfield followed.

“I was shocked when I went second,” said Stearns, whose brother Bill spent six seasons [1971-77] in the Yankees farm system. “Someone called me and told me the Phillies picked you second. I was hoping to go in the first round but to go number two to the Phillies, that was a shock. So, after going number two I decided to go with baseball.

“I would have played both, but nobody had been doing that. So, I picked one and went with one. I definitely would have tried to do both today. I did it in college with no problem. I got my signing bonus and they had me go to Reading [of the Double-A Eastern League].”

That’s when things started to go a little sideways for Stearns.

WE HAVE HIM, NOW WHAT DO WE DO WITH HIM?

It all began well enough for Stearns at Reading. He made his pro debut on June 20 against Bristol and went 2-for-3 with two runs scored and an RBI after entering the game as a pinch-runner in the fifth inning. That, however, seemed to be one of the few positive experiences Stearns had in Reading. He hit .241 in 67 games with three homers and 24 RBIs while competing for time with Jim Essian. The 22-year-old Essian had signed with the Phils as a free agent out of high school and was in his second season with the R-Phils, for whom he hit .292 with 10 homers and 55 RBIs in twice as many at-bats as Stearns.

“I was upset about going to Reading because they already had a prospect [Essian] there,” Stearns said. “I sat on the bench and played less than half the games when they first sent me there. I was the second pick in the first round and the Phillies send me to a team that already had a prospect.

“I struggled. You can’t come in twice a week and expect to have success. Then they took me down to instructs and did the same thing. They had five guys catching and I didn’t get any playing time. I went to Spring Training the next year and I tore it up. I was pissed off. They put me on an A-ball team and then jumped me to Triple-A.”

Stearns’ time with Rocky Mount of the Class-A Carolina League showed the Phillies of what he was capable. He hit .344 with four homers and 38 RBIs through 62 games before getting bumped up to Toledo of the Triple-A International League, where he hit .266 with three homers and 28 RBIs.

His effort at both stops earned him a callup to Philly, where he made his Major League debut in the final game of the 1974 regular season. Stearns went 1-for-2 in what turned out to be his only game with the Phils. Philadelphia had Bob Boone behind the plate, though, who was just beginning a decade-long run as the starting catcher so it was only a bit of a surprise when Stearns was traded to the Mets with Mac Scare and Del Unser for Tug McGraw, Don Hahn and Dave Schneck that December. McGraw would be on the mound when the Phillies won the World Series in 1980 while Stearns was busy riding the train to the bottom of the National League standings with New York.

The 1975 season only brought more disillusionment. The Mets were two years removed from being in the World Series yet the cracks that would bring the organization tumbling down were beginning to show. Yogi Berra was fired as manager two thirds of the way through the season and was replaced by Roy McMillan as the club squeaked out a third-place finish in the NL East at 82-80. It was another disappointing experience for Stearns.

“The Phillies put me in one game and then I went home and got traded to the Mets,” he said. “I went to the Mets and the same thing happened. They had me sit on the bench behind Jerry Grote. I was the number two pick in the draft, they took me to the big leagues with them out of Spring Training but Grote was their catcher. So, I made the team and sat my ass in the bullpen.

“After two years of pro ball I was pissed and couldn’t see straight. Both teams I played for were screwing me around.  It took me another couple of years before they finally let me play. It was really strange. The Phillies drafted me and they didn’t know what they were doing. Why they drafted me, I didn’t know. And if the Mets wanted Grote, they should have just sent me to Triple-A and let me play every day. The first two years I played I wasn’t even in the starting lineup. I had two teams sit me on the bench. It was pretty crazy, so I went into the manager’s office [in 1976] and asked him to send me to Triple-A.”

Stearns hit .189 in 59 games in 1975 and was back on the bench in New York in ’76. He hit .262 in 32 games that year but had a much better showing when he requested the club send him to Triple-A Tidewater of the International League. He hit .310 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs in 102 games.

He would finally get his chance to start in 1977 but by then all hell was breaking loose in Flushing and the Mets essentially dropped off the baseball map. The stunning and organization-crippling trade of Tom Seaver that June sent the club into a seven-year spiral from which they would not exit until the 1984 season.

New York Mets John Stearns (12) during game vs Houston Astros at Shea Stadium. Flushing, NY 5/28/1982 (Photo by Tony Triolo /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

BRIGHT DAYS FOR STEARNS, DARK YEARS FOR THE METS

Stearns finally earned the starting job in 1977 as Joe Torre took over as player-manager after Joe Frazier got fired 45 games into the season. The Mets were nine games under .500 and headed for a 64-win season when Seaver, who engaged in a very public spat with the front office, was traded to the Reds on June 15 for Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman.

Zachry was the 1976 co-NL Rookie of the Year and had won a pair of post-season games that year in helping Cincinnati win the World Series.  Flynn was a no-hit defensive wiz who would go on to win a Gold Glove with New York while Henderson was a serviceable outfielder. Norman was a throw-in and if you added them all together they didn’t provide what Seaver did – leadership, gravitas and star power. The trade proved to be the organization’s death knell.

“1977 was really strange,” Stearns said. “They had old owners and they just thought if someone made $20,000 a year, that was way too much. They were old school. That’s what they were used to paying people. And the Seaver trade, I can’t imagine why anyone would do that. It was these old-school owners who didn’t want to stay up with the new money line in baseball and Seaver wanted to get paid. He needed to be the highest paid guy in baseball and they traded him. Seaver and I had hit it off and it was amazing catching him. It was awesome and he brought me a long way.

“We got all these players [for him] and it just didn’t work. I don’t think we had enough talent to be a contender after the Seaver deal. If you look at the players we got, how many turned out to be solid Major Leaguers? Doug Flynn was a good second baseman but he wasn’t a good hitter, Zachry wasn’t that good, Henderson had one good year and then wasn’t that good. It didn’t turn out to be a good deal.”

Stearns, however, started to fulfill the promise that accompanied being the second pick in the draft. He hit .251 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs, earning the first of four All-Star nods. He hit .264 with 15 homers and 73 RBIs in 1978 while stealing 25 bases, tying the National League record for steals by a catcher set by New York Giant Roger Bresnahan in 1906. It was a record that lasted until Pittsburgh’s Jason Kendall swiped 26 bases in 1998.

“They could see I could run the bases and they let me have the green light after a while and I when I was not getting thrown out at the wrong time,” Stearns said. “If I had the choice when I could run, that’s when I would steal. I did a lot of things other catchers didn’t do. I could handle the bat, I could hit and run and was a fast runner.”

He also enjoyed playing for Torre, who, despite having a largely talent-deprived roster, showed glimpses of the manager he would become in later years.

Pete Rose #14 of the Philadelphia Phillies is tagged out at home by catcher John Stearns #12 of the New York Mets on June 27, 1982 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

“Joe was good,” Stearns said. “He is a down-to-earth, down-home guy. He doesn’t yell or scream and people just like him. It was fun being there with him for a few years. I always thought, how did he get away from us. It doesn’t surprise me that he was over with the Yankees.”

Stearns earned his second All-Star berth in 1979, which was also the last full season he would play in the Major Leagues. He had career highs in games [155], at-bats [538], hits [131] and doubles [29]. He also had nine homers and 66 RBIs while adding 15 more steals.

He made his third All-Star team and had a fantastic first half of the 1980 season, hitting .285 with 45 RBIs through 91 games. Stearns’ season, however, thudded to an end of July 26 against the Reds when he suffered a broken finger on a first-inning Dave Collins foul ball.

1981 brought some more nagging injuries and the player’s strike. Still, Stearns hit .271 with 12 more steals in 80 games while continuing to be one of New York’s few marketable commodities. The following season brought his fourth All-Star selection but it was bittersweet. Stearns was having a strong season, hitting .293 with 17 steals and a team-leading 25 doubles when an elbow injury knocked him out of action after 98 games.

Stearns played only 12 more games over the next two seasons because of the elbow and finished out his career in 1985 playing for Cincinnati’s Triple-A team in Denver. He missed the Mets’ resurgence of the mid-80s as the club traded for Gary Carter and went on to win a World Series.

“Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were coming up right when I was leaving,” Stearns said. “And the only reason I left was because I hurt my arm. I couldn’t throw anymore. The doctors said I could have surgery but that it would take a couple of years for me to recover. My arm never came back and I had my career cut short.

“I still had a few years left on my contract, but I couldn’t play. I should have played over 15 years and I only played like nine. The arm hurt and I couldn’t catch anymore and that was it. If I don’t hurt my arm, I don’t know if they would have traded me but I would have caught longer. I never did hit as well as I should have. If I didn’t hurt my arm, I could have hit .300 several years but I can’t say that after I didn’t do it.”

New York Mets' Mike Piazza (L) is congratulated by third base coach John Stearns (L) after Piazza hit a first inning home run driving in Edgardo Alfonzo 03 April 2001 against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia. The Mets beat the Braves 6-4. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP via Getty Images)

POST-PLAYING AND THAT NICKNAME

Stearns scouted, coached and worked as a television analyst in the years following his retirement. He also managed several seasons in the minor leagues and served as a Major League coach for several teams, including the 2000 Mets team that went to the World Series. But he never achieved his goal of becoming a Major League manager.

“I wanted to be a big-league manager and thought that I could easily do it,” Stearns said. “I even went to the minors and won several minor league championships. I managed at several different levels and spent 10 years doing it, but I never got that call. It was the only thing I was never able to achieve. There is a town in West Virginia [Princeton] that still has a plaque for me in City Hall. They liked me there.”

Everyone liked Stearns despite the Bad Dude nickname for which he is remembered – yet never liked. He acquired the nickname and it stuck while playing football in college after he spoke without thinking to a reporter.

“It was a stupid nickname that I didn’t like,” Stearns said. “Bad Dude. A writer asked me what I wanted to be remembered for as football player back at school and I said, ‘I just want to hit people, I want to be remembered as a bad dude’ and that stayed with me forever. Everyone called me John ‘Bad Dude’ Stearns. It wasn’t anything I planned or wanted. I answered a question and used that phrase and I couldn’t get rid of it. When you’re 21, anything can come out of your mouth.

“The way I always thought that if you’re going to play sports, don’t let the other guy beat you. You have to beat him and to do that you have to be faster, stronger and meaner than the other guy. That was my theory and I couldn’t get rid of it. People started calling me Bad Dude and it followed me to the big leagues.”

Stearns, however, had a hand in keeping that reputation going. His hard-nosed no-nonsense style was his trademark, and it was evident during his well-known run-ins with Chief Noc-A-Homa, the fellow dressed like a Native American warrior that used to dance around Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta celebrating the Braves. Stearns had no use for the Chief and on at least one occasion went out on the field and downed him with one of his best open-field tackles.

“He used to come out and do that dance and my pitcher was trying to warm up and he was taking too much time,” Stearns said. “He was dancing around the infield so I went out and tackled the guy so my pitcher could start throwing again. I just got pissed off and ran out and tackled him. I didn’t mean it to be any big deal. I was pissed because the pitcher was out there having to wait for him. I didn’t hit him hard; it was just basically a pull-down thing.

“Everybody wrote it up like it was a big deal, but it was no big deal and that’s just what I said when they asked me. I was just upset because of our pitcher. No one was doing anything on the part of the Braves to stop it, they just let the mascot run around the field. It was going on for too long.”

The incident is just one of the many reasons he remains a fan favorite in New York nearly four decades after he last suited up for the Mets.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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