#16 – John Stearns: Bad Dude

Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #16, John Stearns:

The history of the New York Mets can be read a little bit like a history of medieval Europe: long periods of darkness punctuated by brief moments of transcendent greatness, which inevitably lead only into further chaos. There are great kings and important figures, but their reigns are short; they never make the playoffs more than twice. There are no Mets dynasties.

Looking at Mets history this way, the departure of the Giants and Dodgers from New York marks the fall of the baseball Rome, sending everyone into the first period of choas. This makes the great Tom Seaver into Charlemagne, the Miracle Mets his Holy Roman Empire, and Gil Hodges into Pope Leo III — Tommie Agee gets to be the Lombards, or something. My grasp on the Middle Ages is bad, such that I’m not going to belabor this metaphor much longer, but the breakup of this first Mets empire exiled Charlemagne to Cincinnati and plunged the team into another period of darkness. Not much is known about this time. Fantastical and impossible creatures are thought to exist, such as unicorns, griffins, and Lee Mazzilli. The lights remained out for several seasons, until Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez appeared and restored order, at least as much as Strawberry and Hernandez could restore order.

I think that would make Vince Coleman and Brett Saberhagen representative of the Black Death, and Mike Piazza’s arrival marks the birth of a Mets Renaissance, but we’ll trail off here before we have to figure out if Carlos Beltran is more like Hobbes or Locke.

Trapped right in the period of darkness between Seaver and Strawberry was the career of John Stearns, one of the obscured stars in Mets history. Among the franchise’s catchers, Mike Piazza is best, Jerry Grote reigned the longest, Gary Carter kicked off the Game Six heroics, and Todd Hundley endures as steroid era trivia; Stearns is left with comparatively little to claim as his own. He was a good player, but one trapped on unremarkable teams that have largely disappeared from recorded history, burying him along with them. The great generals of the losing side tend to be forgotten.

Does that make Stearns the most underrated player in Mets history? He has all the trademarks of being classically underrated, low batting averages, home run and RBI totals, a high percentage of his value coming on the defensive side . . . but it’s also hard to claim that a four-time All Star was underrated. I suspect Stearns is underrated only in the present — when people think of great Mets catchers, they think of Piazza, Carter, and even Grote, while Stearns is left as an afterthought, lost to the darkest period in team history. Ten years ago, I only knew him as the hitting coach who declared Mike Piazza, the monster, had gotten out of the cage.

Stearns shouldn’t be just that. He walked more times than he struck out, stole 91 bases, turned more double plays as a catcher than he made errors, and averaged 4.4 wins above replacement per 162 games played. (With the Mets, Mike Piazza averaged 4.5 wins above replacement per 162 games.) Stearns brought attitude, too, something detailed nicely by Joe Janish here. You don’t get to be called “Bad Dude” because you’re nice to puppies and small children. Which is not to say that he wasn’t nice to puppies and small children, of course. Stearns was a good player, and one of the NL’s better catchers for several years.

He is also a victim of unfortunate timing, cloistered away and forgotten like a dark age monk. Stearns and the late-70s/early-80s Mets are doomed to the part of the history book the teacher skips when pressed for time. It’s too bad, dude. (Hey! That’s his nickname!) John Stearns should be the second or third name out of anyone’s mouth whenever great Mets catchers are mentioned.

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