John Stearns was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 13th round of the 1969 Major League Baseball Draft at 17 years old, but he chose to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder instead. His older brother, Bill, was a late-round draft pick in 1971 and played in the New York Yankees organization, also as a catcher, but never reached the majors.
John became a two-sport star at Colorado and was drafted as a defensive back by the Buffalo Bills in the 17th round of the 1973 NFL Draft. When the Philadelphia Phillies made him the second overall pick in the 1973 Major League Baseball Draft behind pitcher David Clyde (who was out of the majors with arm problems at age 24), he chose baseball. Stearns was drafted just ahead of two eventual Hall of Famers, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield. Coincidentally, Stearns was also drafted ahead of Winfield in the NFL draft, as the Minnesota Vikings drafted Winfield in the 17th round six picks after the Bills drafted Stearns.
Stearns's professional career started with Philadelphia's Eastern League affiliate, the Reading Phillies in 1973, but did not start particularly well. After batting just .241 in double A, he was sent to the high-A Carolina League's Rocky Mount Phillies for 1974 and improved drastically. Mid-season, he was promoted directly to the AAA Toledo Mud Hens. Although his hitting statistics were not fantastic at Toledo, he was called up to the Phillies that September. On September 22, 1974, Stearns made his major league debut and picked up his first hit, going 1-for-2 off the bench.
Trade to the Mets
Stearns's first game with the Phillies turned out to be his last. With budding prospect Bob Boone firmly entrenched behind the plate for Philadelphia, Stearns became expendable. The Phillies struck an off season trade with the New York Mets to acquire ace relief pitcher and New York fan favorite, Tug McGraw on December 3, 1974. In return for McGraw, outfielders Don Hahn and Dave Schneck, the Mets received Stearns, outfielder Del Unser, and relief pitcher Mac Scarce.
With McGraw, the Phillies had two 101-win seasons and their first World Series championship. The Mets, meanwhile, had two mediocre seasons, then descended to the bottom of the National League for seven years. In his first season as a Met, Stearns spent 1975 as the backup catcher behind veteran Jerry Grote. Grote had been the Mets' regular catcher since 1966, including every inning of every postseason game for both the 1969 World Series champions and the 1973 NLCS champions. As Grote's backup, Stearns batted only .189 in 1975.
In 1976, Stearns hit poorly in limited time and was soon replaced in backup duties by lefty hitter Ron Hodges. Stearns was sent back to the Tidewater Tides and hit very well while Hodges struggled in the majors. He was brought back to the majors for September and continued his hot hitting. With 18 hits in his first 13 games back, including seven hits in two games, Stearns not only ousted Hodges, but even took over the starting duties from Grote for most of the rest of the season.
Mets' lone All-Star
Stearns made his Mets debut wearing number 16. For the start of the 1977 season, he and Mets center fielder Lee Mazzilli traded uniform numbers, and Stearns began wearing number 12. After his torrid finish to 1976, Stearns was the starting catcher for most of 1977, with Grote and Hodges relegated to backup and pinch-hitting duty. On August 31, 1977, the Mets traded Grote to the Los Angeles Dodgers for two players to be named later.
In June, Stearns posted two four-RBI games, including the only grand slam of his career. On July 1, his average stood at .314, with a slugging average of .554. With his good mid-season statistics and the Mets firmly in last place in the National League East, Stearns was chosen as the team's sole representative to the All-Star Game, catching the bottom of the ninth inning.
His second half was terrible, with a .125 average in August and .167 average in September. Although his final statistics were mostly at or below the league average, they looked very good compared to the rest of the team which lost 98 games and had the worst offense in the majors in 1977. His 25 doubles were tops on the team and 12 home runs tied Steve Henderson and John Milner for the team lead. Still, the most indellible image of Stearns for the season had to be when he became irritated at the Atlanta Braves mascot, Chief Noc-A-Homa, and chased him off the field before the game.
Stearns quickly became a Mets fan favorite for his defensive back-like hard physical play. On June 30, 1978, the Mets defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates with Stearns tagging out Dave Parker to end the game. Parker, who had run over two other catchers in the previous two weeks, suffered a broken cheekbone in the collision with Stearns. When the Pirates in-state rivals (also the Mets' own division rivals), the Philadelphia Phillies, next came to New York, they thanked Stearns for standing up to Parker.
Despite a poor average and only two RBIs in April, Stearns set career highs in home runs, RBIs, runs and total bases in 1978. He also led the team with a career high 25 stolen bases, and in the process broke the National League record for catchers, which had been held by Johnny Kling since 1902. (Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Jason Kendall has since set a new National League record for catchers). The Mets were again near the bottom of the National League, and with his slow start, Stearns was bypassed for the All-Star team, with Pat Zachry representing the Mets instead. The Mets finished with a National League-worst 96 losses.
Stearns got the 1979 season started for the Mets by getting into a bench clearing brawl in the fourth game of the season. With the Montreal Expos at Shea on April 11, Stearns and Expos catcher Gary Carter collided at home when Carter tried to score from first on a throwing error by Mets pitcher Pete Falcone. Right fielder Elliott Maddox made a perfect throw to the plate to get Carter. Following the play, a fight broke out when Stearns felt that Carter unnecessarily threw an elbow at him. Both benches and bullpens emptied, and both players were ejected from the game. The Expos won the game in extra innings 3-2.
Stearns set career highs in games played in 1979, but at age 27, it was his last season with 100 or more games. He also set personal highs in at-bats, hits and doubles. Although he struggled to get above .200, a good June resulted in selection to his second All-Star Game (although he did not play). The Mets finished 1979 with 99 losses, and 35 games behind the division champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Between 1967 and 1993, no season was worse for the Mets. Well out of contention in the second half, they experimented by playing Stearns at both first base and third base, as well as in the outfield, but he finished out the season back behind the plate.
1980 brought a new approach for Stearns, as he completely stopped hitting for power. In fact, he went the entire season without a home run—but his batting average started to rise. Instead of struggling to stay around .250, his average was mostly between .300 and .320 from early May through the end of June.
The football player in Stearns, however, was still evident. On June 12, 1980, two inebriated spectators jumped onto the playing field. While police were unable to catch them, Stearns grew frustrated and ran from behind the plate onto the third base side of the infield, tackling and subduing one of them. At Shea Stadium on July 4, 1980, Montreal Expos Rookie Bill Gullickson sailed a pitch over Mets first baseman Mike Jorgensen's head in the second game of a doubleheader. Jorgensen didn't appreciate this as he had been the victim of one of the worst beanball injuries in baseball history the previous season with the Texas Rangers, and motioned toward Gullickson his disapproval. Stearns, who wasn't even in the line-up for this game, charged out of the dugout and welcomed Gullickson to the majors by slamming him to the ground.
Stearns was selected to his third All-Star Game and even logged his first All-Star Game at bat, grounding out in the fifth inning. A three-hit, three-RBI game highlighted his July, but just a week later, on July 26, a broken finger on a foul tip ended his season. He was also on pace to hit over 40 doubles, which would have easily been his career high.
The injury that ended his 1980 season was the first of several injuries that would plague the rest of his career. Stearns started 1981 the same way he ended 1980: on the disabled list. After missing the first two weeks, he was eased back with pinch-hitting duty and play at first and third base. He finally started catching regularly again in late May and was hitting fairly well, when the 1981 Major League Baseball strike canceled two months of the season starting in mid-June. Play resumed in mid-August and Stearns finished with a respectable .271 average, but his run production dropped quite a bit from 1980 and he had only 14 extra base hits all season.
1982 appeared to be a return to Stearns's 1980 approach, as his average was again at or above .300 for much of the first half. He was again on pace for around 40 doubles and was even on pace for nearly 30 stolen bases. At age 30, Stearns was picked for his fourth All-Star Game. He continued hitting well after the break, but after a month, began suffering the effects of elbow tendinitis. He went on the disabled list in mid-August and only made three pinch running appearances the rest of the season.
The elbow injury that ended Stearns's 1982 season ultimately ended his career. In 1983, he was unable to start the season and was put on the disabled list in mid-April. Unable to throw, he played in only four games, all as a pinch-runner. In 1984, he spent some time with triple A Tidewater and logged only one big league game in the first five months. He was finally well enough to play in September, but only played sporadically. After the season, the Mets traded Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham and Floyd Youmans to the Montreal Expos for Gary Carter. Stearns became a free agent and attempted a comeback with the Winter League's Ponce Lions, until re-injuring his elbow. Another comeback with the Cincinnati Reds' AAA Denver Zephyrs in 1985 was going well, until he was hit by a pitch in mid-May. After one final attempt at a comeback with the Texas Rangers in spring training 1986, John Stearns retired.
Career-ending injuries did not keep Stearns away from baseball for long. In late 1986, he was hired as a scout and minor league instructor by the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1989, he was the New York Yankees' bullpen coach. He was then hired by the Toronto Blue Jays as the manager of the AA-level Knoxville Blue Jays for 1990 and 1991, reaching the post-season in the latter season.
Stearns spent 1992 as a Cincinnati Reds scout, and 1993 as an ESPN broadcaster. He returned to the Reds as the manager of their rookie-level team, the Princeton Reds, in 1994. The team won the Appalachian League championship and Stearns was named Manager of the Year. Afterwards, Stearns managed the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League and won his second minor league championship of the year. Stearns then spent 1996 to 1998 as a scout and first base coach in the Baltimore Orioles organization.
In 1999, Stearns returned to the New York Mets as an advance scout. He was then made the Mets' bench coach in 2000. He was dismissed after the season, but re-hired as the third base coach. 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 against the St. Louis Cardinals. 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.
After two years coaching the major league Mets, Stearns was let go, but hired as a scout for 2002. In 2003, he returned to the dugout as Manager of the Binghamton Mets. Despite a poor record with AA Binghamton, he was made the manager of the AAA Norfolk Tides for 2004. Stearns spent 2005 as a roving catching instructor for the Mets.
On January 11, 2006, Stearns cut ties with the Mets, and became a coach in the Washington Nationals farm system. He spent one season as manager of their triple A affiliate, the Columbus Clippers, and spent two seasons as manager of the Nationals' double A team, the Harrisburg Senators.
Stearns joined the Mariners as minor-league catching coordinator (2011) then served as a professional scout in 2012. On May 2, 2013, was named the interim manager for the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers after Daren Brown replaced third-base coach Jeff Datz at his position due to Datz's cancer diagnosis. Stearns was named the Mariners' third base coach for the 2014 season, but stepped down before the season began to recover from his surgery. He was replaced by Rich Donnelly.
Stearns' fielding percentage as a catcher was .985.
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- Ringolsby, Tracy (2000-10-12). "Piazza powers Mets". The Cincinnati Post (E. W. Scripps Company). Archived from the original on 2004-09-29. Retrieved 2007-06-16.
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Cite error: The named reference
- Johns, Greg (March 7, 2014). "Citing recovery, Stearns resigns as third-base coach". MLB.com. Retrieved March 7, 2014.
- Career statistics and player information from MLB, or ESPN, or Baseball-Reference, or Fangraphs, or The Baseball Cube, or Baseball-Reference (Minors), or Retrosheet, or The Ultimate Mets Database
|Baltimore Orioles first base coach
|Seattle Mariners third base coach
Resigned March 7, 2014