Known to everyone as "Bad Dude", John Stearns succeeded Jerry Grote's post as the everyday catcher beginning in 1977. He ended up becoming one of the best players during the down years of the late 1970s and by far one of the fastest catchers the Mets have ever had.
Stearns was acquired from the Phillies in the infamous Tug McGraw trade. As a former No. 2 overall draft pick, Stearns was the main player the Mets got, along with Del Unser and Mac Scarce, both of whom contributed next to nothing with the Mets.
Stearns became Jerry Grote's new backup in 1975 and hit just .189 in his first season with the Mets. In 1976, Stearns hit poorly again at the beginning of the season and was sent down to the minors, while Ron Hodges was called up. Stearns hit very well that year in the minors, while Hodges struggled. In September, Stearns was recalled and hit well for the month and even took over Grote's starting job, a position Grote had had since 1966.
In 1977, Stearns started off as the starting catcher, while Grote and Hodges shared backup duties. Grote was getting older and apparently, his time had come as he got traded to the Dodgers at the end of August. In this year, Stearns had a breakout season, batting .251 with 12 home runs and 55 RBI. He also made his first trip to the All-Star game. In June, he collected 4 RBI in a game twice and hit his only career grand slam. However, Stearns struggled in the second half, batting .125 and .167 in August and September, respectively. He also led the team with 25 doubles. But Stearns' most memorable moment that season was when he became annoyed and chased the Braves' mascot, Chief Noc-a-Homa, off the field before a game.
1978 was an even better year for Stearns. He batted .264 and set career highs with 15 home runs, 73 RBI, 191 total bases and 25 stolen bases. The 25 stolen bases set a new record for National League Catchers, which was broken in 1998 by Jason Kendall. Stearns though had a slow start and did not make the All-Star team in what was his career season.
That year, Stearns also made more headlines when he tagged out the Pirates' Dave Parker to end the game. Parker had previously run over two other catchers, but suffered a broken cheekbone in his collision with Stearns. Stearns became quickly well known for his intense style of playing, and was instantly a fan favorite.
In 1979, Stearns' numbers weren't as good, despite appearing in a career high 155 games. His average slipped to .243 and he hit just 9 home runs and drove in 66 RBI. This ended up being Stearns' last productive season and he did not appear in over 100 games for a season the rest of his career. He made the All-Star team again, but did not play. The Mets' season that year was so bad that manager Joe Torre decided to put Stearns at first base, third base and the outfield.
Stearns once again made headlines in another collision in April, this time with Expos catcher Gary Carter. A perfect throw nailed Carter, but Stearns began a fight after he thought Carter had unnecessarily elbowed him. Both benches and bullpens emptied, and both catchers were ejected in a game the Mets ended up losing 3-2 in extra innings.
In 1980, Stearns' power apparently disappeared. He did not hit a single home run all year, but raised his average to .285. Nonetheless, he made the All-Star team and even got into the game. However, at the end of July, Stearns suffered a broken finger on a foul tip, which ended his season. More injuries would later follow.
Stearns' short temper was evident yet again in two 1980 occasions. On June 12, two fans jumped onto the field. After security was unable to catch, Stearns got upset, ran from home plate towards the third base side of the infield and tackled one of the fans.
The second occurence happened on July 4, which happened to be the first fireworks night ever at Shea Stadium. A rookie Expos pitcher threw a pitch above Mike Jorgenson's head in the second game of a doubleheader. Jorgenson was the victim of a dangerous beanball incident in 1979 with the Rangers and did not appreciate the pitch he saw and motioned towards the pitcher with complete disapproval. Then, all of a sudden, Stearns, who did not start the second game after catching the first game, sprinted out of the dugout towards the Expos pitcher and welcomed him to the major leagues by slamming him to the ground.
Nothing as memorable would happen for Stearns after 1980. He started the 1981 season on the disabled list, and when he returned, he did not start regularly until late May. He then hit well until the mid-season strike. When baseball resumed in August, Stearns ended up batting .271 for the year, but his run production regressed with just 1 home run and 24 RBI.
In 1982, Stearns had a bounceback year, batting a career high .293, with 4 home runs and 28 RBI. He got selected to his fourth All-Star game and hit well to begin the second half. However, in mid-August, Stearns was bothered with elbow tendinitis, which outside of three pinch-running appearances ended his season, and ultimately his career.
1983 was a lost year for Stearns. Because he was unable to throw, he appeared in just four games, all as a pinch-runner, and spent almost the entire season on the disabled list. 1984 was not much better. That year, Stearns spent time in the minors for most of the season, before being called up in September and only playing occasionally.
After the season, the Mets realized that with Stearns' injuries, they needed an upgrade at catcher, which led to the Gary Carter trade. Stearns then became a free agent and tried to make a comeback in the Winter League, but he ended up hurting his elbow again.
Stearns ended up signing a minor league deal with the Reds for 1985. His minor league comeback was going okay, but after being hit by a pitch in May, Stearns decided to retire. After his playing days, Stearns stayed connected with baseball under various capacities, such as scouting and managing minor league teams. He was even a one-time ESPN broadcaster in 1993.
In 1999, Stearns returned to the Mets as a scout, and a year later, Bobby Valentine named Stearns his bench coach. That year, Stearns was best known for yelling "The Monster is outta the cage!" when Mike Piazza hit in RBI double in Game 1 of the NLCS. In 2001, he became the third base coach, and a year later, was reassigned as a scout.
Stearns then managed the Binghamton Mets in 2003 and Norfolk Tides in 2004 before spending 2005 as a roving catching instructor. He then cut ties with the Mets and has most recently become a Nationals' minor league manager.
Stearns is definitely one of the top five catchers to wear a Mets uniform, with the numbers he put up for some dreadful late-1970s Mets teams. His intensity and hard-nosed play helped him become a fan favorite and he was arguably one of the best catchers of his era. Had he been healthier in the 1980s, Stearns' overall legacy could have been even greater.