RIP to All-Star John Stearns, who was a long-time part of the Mets family as a player, scout, minor-league manager and coach. He died in Denver on September 15 at the age of 71, following a long battle with cancer. Less than three weeks before his death, he made a final public appearance at a Mets’ Old-Timers’ Day. Stearns played for the Philadelphia Phillies (1974) and New York Mets (1975-84).
“No one played the game with more spirit or determination than John Stearns,” said Mets President Sandy Alderson in a statement. “He literally willed himself to attend Old Timers’ Day last month so he could visit friends and old teammates. Despite his illness, he even managed to step into the batting cage to take a few swings. His nickname, ‘Bad Dude’ couldn’t have been more appropriate. A four-time All Star, John was one of the most complete catchers in Mets history. Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family.”
Stearns is survived by his son Justin and siblings Richard, William and Carla.
John Hardin Stearns was born in Denver on August 21, 1951. He was a star quarterback and running back at Thomas Jefferson High School and was named to the UPI All-State Class AAA high school football team in 1968. His baseball career at high school was relatively overshadowed by his football skills, but he was a strong enough catcher and pitcher that he was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 13th Round of the 1969 Amateur Draft. Rather than sign, Stearns decided to go to the University of Colorado.
As an underclassman, Stearns needed some time to find a spot with the Colorado Buffaloes football team. The sophomore started the 1970 season as a weak safety and part-time punter because every other defensive position was occupied by a returning letterman. As it turned out, Stearns had a knack for intercepting passes and was voted the team’s most valuable player in 1972. He had 16 picks and set the Big 8 Conference record with 339 interception yards. Stearns was drafted as a defensive back by the Buffalo Bills in the 17th Round of the NFL Draft in January of 1973. He had the football-ready nickname of “Bad Dude” and was all set for an NFL career if not for one thing — he was an outstanding baseball player as well.
Unlike football, where Stearns had to take whatever position was open, he was made a starting catcher for the Buffaloes early on in his college career. He also played the infield and outfield and hit well at any position. Stearns slammed 3 home runs in a doubleheader sweep of Brigham Young University in April of 1973. One of them, a grand slam, broke the school season record of 10 long balls, and he kept crushing the ball. He hit his 15th and final home run of the season against Iowa State on May 12, giving him 28 for his career. He graduated from CU as the single-season and career leader for hits, home runs, runs scored, RBIs and stolen bases.
Unsurprisingly, Stearns was a First Round draft pick in the 1973 June Amateur Draft. The Philadelphia Phillies selected him as the second overall pick, after the Texas Rangers took high school pitching phenom David Clyde. How star-studded was this draft? Robin Yount and Dave Winfield were picked immediately after Stearns, and long-time major-leaguers Johnny LeMaster, Gary Roenicke and Lee Mazzilli also went in the First Round. Philadelphia’s pick eliminated any doubts Stearns had about a football career.
“If the Phillies think that much of me, I think my career is in baseball,” Stearns said. “I realize I’ll have to go through the minors awhile and refine, but I feel I have a good, long career in baseball.”
The only downside was that his nickname — “Bad Dude” — didn’t fit as well in baseball as it did in football. The name came from an interview in college where he said he wanted to be remembered as the baddest dude that ever played for Colorado. “It’s kinda bush,” he admitted. “I wish I hadn’t said it.” Still, it became a fitting nickname, given his competitive, tough nature.
Stearns rose quickly through the Phillies minor leagues, too. He reported to the Double-A Reading Phillies, skipping A-Ball entirely. Over 67 games, the 21-year-old Stearns hit a respectable .241 in his first taste of pro ball. He also drew 46 walks to give him an even .400 on-base percentage. He wasn’t the only Stearns in the Eastern League. Older brother Bill was a catcher for the West Haven Yankees in 1973. Philadelphia split their catching prospect between Class-A Rocky Mount and Triple-A Toledo in 1974, and Stearns hit a combined .301. He also showed his speed, with 12 stolen bases, and demonstrated he had a good enough of a throwing arm to make it as a catcher. By the end of the year, the Phillies had brought him to the majors, and he debuted on September 22, 1974. With the Expos winning 7-0, Stearns was brought in as a pinch-hitter and singled in his first at-bat against Mike Torrez. He later reached on an error by Expos reliever Dale Murray. It would be his only appearance in a Phillies uniform.
By 1974, Bob Boone had established himself as one of the top catchers in the National League, so Stearns became part of a package deal with the New York Mets in December. The Phillies sent Stearns, Mac Scarce and Del Unser to the New York Mets for Don Hahn, Dave Schneck and relief ace Tug McGraw. The move didn’t bring him more playing time in 1975, as the Mets had a productive backstop with veteran Jerry Grote. Manager Yogi Berra said that Stearns could continue his development by sitting next to him every three days and then playing on the fourth. Berra didn’t last the year as manager, and Stearns didn’t hit well when he relieved Grote. He hit .189 in 59 games. He homered 3 times, including his first career homer off the Cubs’ Ray Burris on April 30. He stumbled out of the gate in 1976 and spent most of the season in Triple-A Tidewater. As competitive as he was, Stearns was surprisingly at ease with the demotion. In fact, he requested it.
“Let’s face it, the last time I was here I wasn’t ready,” Stearns said when he returned to the majors in September of 1976. “First of all I should not have come here last year. I wasn’t ready for the big leagues, the big city, the action. Here I was a young kid who couldn’t catch and I was catching Tom Seaver, and it was a mistake. I had to learn. I had to learn to hit, learn to throw, learn to catch. That’s why I asked to be sent out.”
It was a game on May 16 against Cincinnati that was his wake-up call. Stearns went 0-4 to drop his batting average to .067, and Dan Driessen and Ken Griffey stole bases off him. He nailed Mike Lum trying to steal, but the damage was done. He’d rather play every day in Tidewater and learn to be a major-leaguer than to stay in the majors and flail away as a part-time player. Maybe the demotion was a reality check, or maybe he learned when he needed in the minors, but the John Stearns who returned in September of 1976 was prepared to play. He started for most of the month of September and hit .296, leaving him with a .262 average on the season. After that, there were very few days off. Stearns took over the starting catching job in 1977 and held it until injuries got the better of him — which was about three and a half years. But they were really good years.
Stearns’ first season as a starting catcher resulted in a .251/.370/.397 slash line. He drove in 55 runs and hit 25 doubles and 12 home runs. He was named to the NL All-Star Team and had a 15-game hitting streak in June and July. Most importantly, he showed that his self-confidence wasn’t empty bravado. From the moment he reached the majors with Philadelphia, some veterans took issue with his confidence. When the Mets traded for him, he said publicly that the Mets made a great deal, even if it had been just a Stearns-for-McGraw deal. He quickly became a player that opponents loved to hate, and even his teammates didn’t always know what to make of him. He was unafraid to call out veterans (i.e. Dave Kingman) who Stearns felt was playing too “soft.”
“Nobody can play everyday and use up that much energy,” said Joe Torre, who took over as Mets manager in mid-1977. “John is a football player. He plays baseball like it’s a once-a-week game. I think he’ll mellow out as he plays regularly. Then people might see him differently.”
This is not to say that Stearns was a jerk. Far from it — when a Mets-Cubs game was cancelled due to a blackout in July, he drove two couples from Shea Stadium back to the city. He didn’t know them. They were fans who were stranded, and he volunteered to help. His intensity while he was in uniform, though, was off the charts.
Stearns had his best season in 1978, though it was one of the seasons where he didn’t make the All-Star Team. In 143 games, he hit a career-high 15 home runs, batted .264 and led the team with 25 stolen bases. He also became infamous for bringing a bit of his football background into baseball. He was involved in a nasty home plate collision with Pittsburgh’s Dave Parker on June 30 when Parker was trying to score the tying run in the ninth inning. Parker was called out and got the worse end of the collision, breaking his cheekbone in three places when his face met Stearns’ helmet. Stearns held a grudge against the Phillies for how he was treated by the team and was involved in several incidents with them. He attempted to get out of a rundown by running over reliever Warren Brusstar in one game and had collisions at home plate with Mike Schmidt (as a catcher) and Bob Boone (as a baserunner) in another. He also started a Mets rally by letting a Ron Reed forkball hit him. “He didn’t move,” Reed said after the Phillies hung on to win the game. “If I had to do it over again, I’d hit him again… only not with a change-up.”
Angering the Phillies (and their fans) only pushed Stearns more. “The crowd’s on me here. Everybody’s against me,” he said after a 2-0 win over Philadelphia in September. “These guys keep throwing gas on my fire. I love it. I love it.”
Stearns reached peak durability in 1979 when he appeared in 155 games. Not only did he catch, but he also played multiple games at first base, third base and left field. His batting average dipped to .243, and his stolen base percentage fell to 50% in 30 tries, but reached a career high with 29 doubles and was as an NL All-Star again. He also ignited a brawl against the Montreal Expos in April when he tagged out Gary Carter on a play at the plate and then pummeled him with rights until the two were separated.
Given the physical natural of his play, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Stearns’ career was curtailed by injuries. The first serious one derailed a comeback year of sorts in 1980. Stearns had been batting .285 along with 25 doubles through 91 games through the end of July. His home run power had vanished, but he was slashing .285/.346/.370 when he fractured the index finger on his right hand. It didn’t come in a collision or a brawl — and he’d had several of them in 1980. It happened on July 26 off a foul tip from Cincinnati’s Dave Concepcion. It caught his bare hand, because he was getting ready to throw to second base, and broke the finger in such a way that it ended Stearns’ season. He required two surgeries but recovered in time to play out the strike-shortened 1981 season. He hit .271 in 80 games, albeit with 1 homer and 24 RBIs. It was the last healthy season of his career.
Stearns said in 1982 that he had mellowed, though he continued to be the nemesis of anyone in a Phillies uniform. And he tackled a fan who got onto the field and evaded security for a little too long. “I feel like I’m a more experienced player and that I’m playing more to my potential now,” he told Claire Smith of the Hartford Courant in June of 1982. “It took me a number of years to get my act together.”
Stearns’ power didn’t come back, as he homered just 4 times in 1982. But his hitting returned with a vengeance, and he was batting well over .300 for much of the season. He was also stealing bases at a rate that rivaled his 1978 campaign. He earned his fourth All-Star Team nomination, but then his season slowed to a halt. Stearns hurt his right elbow while playing third base in July and re-aggravated it a month later. By late August he couldn’t do more than pinch-hit. By September, he was just a pinch-runner in a handful of games, ending the year with a .293 average.
Stearns had suffered a micro tear in a tendon in his right elbow. He underwent surgery and appeared in 4 games as a pinch-runner in 1983. That October, it was determined by the Mets’ medical team that the elbow hadn’t healed properly, and a second surgery was needed. He rehabbed a little in the minors in 1984 and came back to play in a few games in September. He batted .176 in 8 games. He and the Mets parted ways in the offseason, and Stearns signed as a free agent with Cincinnati for 1985. He tried to get himself back into playing shape in winter ball in Puerto Rico, but he re-injured his elbow and needed a third surgery in November of 1984. He played in 72 games with the Denver Zephyrs of the Pacific Coast League in 1985 and hit a respectable .264 as a first baseman. The Reds did not bring him to the majors, and after a failed attempt to join the Texas Rangers in the spring of 1986, he retired.
Over his 11-year career, Stearns slashed .260/.341/.375. He had 696 hits, including 152 doubles, 10 triples and 46 home runs. He drove in 312 runs and scored 334 times. Stearns stole 91 bases and, as a catcher, threw out 37% of baserunners. He had a career OPS+ of 102, and Baseball Reference credits him with 19.7 Wins Above Replacement.
In his final season as a Reds minor-leaguer, he tutored a young catcher named Dann Bilardello, who had been demoted by Cincinnati. The veteran gave the rookie some tips on how to avoid giving away at-bats. Stearns said it was the same adjustment he had to make as a rookie coming into the league. His ability to coach and mentor young players led to an extended post-playing career. He started work as an advance scout for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987 and a minor-league hitting instructor for the Astros in 1988. He then returned to the majors as a bullpen coach in 1989 for the Yankees. Stearns went on to manage in the minor leagues for the Blue Jays, Reds, Mets and Nationals and serve as a coach for the Orioles and Mets. He also worked as a scout and a minor-league coach. He threw batting practice to Garth Brooks when the country superstar “signed” with the Mets in 2000.for charity. After years of playing on sub-.500 teams, Stearns reached the World Series in 2000 as a Mets third base and catching coach. He was a minor-league catching coordinator for the Seattle Mariners in 2013 when Tacoma manager Daren Brown was brought up to join the Mariners staff; Stearns finished the season as Tacoma’s manager and was then named third base coach for Seattle in 2014. He had to step down from his role during spring training to recover from offseason hernia surgery. He was his last stint in a major-league uniform.
Stearns was elected to the CU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008 and is also a member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Tough as nails to the end, he made it to New York to attend Old-Timers’ Day on August 27 and caught up with some of his old teammates for a final time.
“John was such a key part of our staff. He had a unique way of lighting a fire under the guys,” recalled former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who had Stearns on his Mets coaching staff during their World Series run in 2000. “Every time we spoke by phone, he kept telling me he was going to beat this thing. That was John Stearns to a tee.”