I grew up in the era of Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, Al Leiter, and Robin Ventura. These were the Mets stars I worshiped. And yet there was one more Mets star from slight before my time that I grew up admiring: John Stearns, a catcher who played for the club for all but one game of his major league career from 1975-1984.
Around that same time that I was getting really into baseball, Stearns was the team’s bench coach and, later, the third base coach. As a child, my mom would take me to games fairly frequently—growing up in Fresh Meadows, Queens, a short 15-minute drive from Shea Stadium, helped—in what were the formative years of my Mets fandom. While I was there to catch a glimpse of Piazza and Fonzie, my two favorites players (along with guys like Jay Payton and Benny Agbayani), my mom was excited to see Stearns man the third base side when the Mets came to the plate.
Stearns was the bridge that connected my Mets fandom with my mom’s and for that, he will always hold a special place in my memory. The catcher, who passed away on Thursday after being diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer, was the star of a forgotten era of Mets baseball. My mom became a fan in 1977, right around the time Stearns’ career took off. I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, how bad the team was in those years. While I grew up watching a team that would make back-to-back postseasons (the first time they accomplished the feat) and one World Series within my first four years as a fan, my mom witnessed Mets teams that couldn’t even crack 70 wins during her first four years rooting for the Amazin’s. It’s a miracle her baseball fandom persisted.
It’s easy to be a star in a successful era of baseball, with packed stadiums of adoring fans and meaningful games to look forward to. It’s significantly more difficult to be a star on a cellar dwelling team. That’s what Stearns was and, for that, he sometimes gets lost in the shuffle among this franchise’s rich history. But Stearns played at a time when the Mets were more of an afterthought, and he gave it 110% every game. He was tasked with he unenviable role of succeeding another Mets All Star catcher, Jerry Grote, who caught for them during their first world championship team. And “Bad Dude” was more than up for it, a competitor through and through and a four-time All Star when the team didn’t give fans much reason to show up to the stadium. My mom would talk to me about waiting in the parking lot to meet players, getting photos and autographs, and how easy it was to get up close to their stars at the time. Stearns was one of those players, and it made her a fan for life.
One of the early memories I had of good Mets baseball was Stearns’ proclamation of “The monster is out of the cage!” when Piazza broke through in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals. It was, in many ways, the perfect encapsulation of the energy and excitement that Stearns had for the sport. It also was a perfect connection point between one star catcher to another, one less successful era of Mets baseball to one much more fruitful one. It became a rallying cry on the team’s journey to the World Series, and it introduced a new group of Mets fans to Stearns.
When the story recently surfaced of Stearns following the cancer diagnosis, I could see how sad it made my mother to see one of her heroes in this state. And yet, when he showed up at Old Timer’s Day, my mom texted me immediately to comment on how he looked but also to express how happy he was to see him again. I imagine other fans, like my mother, who grew up in those dark days of Mets baseball who were overjoyed to see one of their heroes one last time. Even for me, as someone who never watched him play, it was so good seeing a former Mets star in uniform again on the field, getting one last raucous ovation from an adoring fanbase. You could see the smile on his face. You can see it meant the world to him. It’s part of the magic of what something like Old Timer’s Day can do for a franchise.
We’ve lost a lot of stars like this over the past few years, and it never gets easier, but their legacies live on in the connections between parents or grandparents and kids, bridging eras of Mets baseball together and keeping the franchise’s history alive and well. I imagine that if I ever have children, I will be able to share memories of Piazza, Alfonso, David Wright, and Jacob deGrom with them down the line. I imagine it’ll be something very similar to the connection I felt watching Stearns around the Mets as their third base coach in my younger years.
Rest easy, Bad Dude, and thank you for all you’ve given the franchise, and for the joy you brought my mother during her early years as a Mets fan.