In the 1973 Amateur Draft, right after the Texas Rangers selected the highly regarded and ultimately ill-fated David Clyde with the first pick, the Phillies used the second selection to take catcher John Stearns out of the University of Colorado.
The next two picks both turned out to be hall-of-famers, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield. Since Bob Boone was just starting what would turn out to be a long tenure as the Phillies’ #1 catcher, it’s a little hard to understand why they would have taken Stearns over Yount and Winfield.
Stearns, of course, never achieved anything close to HOF level, but after being traded to the Mets, he had a pretty good career. He might have fit in even better with a contending team, but the Mets were awful during Stearns’ entire tenure as catcher, while the Phillies with McGraw as bullpen ace and Boone as catcher were perennial contenders in the ’70′s and early ’80′s.
The December 3,1974 trade that involved Stearns and Tug McGraw was an interesting one. McGraw had some shoulder trouble during the 1974 season, and the Mets had some doubt whether he would return to form. So, trading McGraw along with two nondescript outfielders for Stearns, one of the best young catching prospects in the game, Del Unser, an experienced center fielder and well-regarded leadoff hitter, and Mac Scarce, a lefty specialist who looked like a cinch to win a spot in the bullpen, seemed almost like a no-brainer.
The “Dude”, as he was called, wasn’t quite ready for big league duty, but by 1977, he replaced Jerry Grote to become the team’s number one catcher and despite a string of injuries, was good enough to represent the Mets in the All-Star game four times.
The funny thing about that is his best season came in 1978 and Mets fans felt he was an egregious All Star snub. Stearns delivered a 5.1 WAR season for the Mets, and in 563 plate appearances he slashed .264/.364/.413 with 15 home runs, 73 RBIs, 25 stolen bases and only 57 strikeouts. Not a bad year for a catcher, especially in that era.
The 1978 Mets Yearbook cover boy was solid all-around with exceptional speed for a catcher being his trademark. But he never really became a big star and certainly wasn’t in the class of Yount or Winfield.
Also, Stearns was injury-prone leading to a lot of missed time and ultimately a shortened career, and in retrospect, his numbers weren’t all that good, although they were better than what most of his teammates produced.
Stearns will be remembered as a hard-nosed, hustling player on some terrible Mets teams. Unser and Scarce were both disappointing, so the trade will ultimately be remembered as McGraw for Stearns. Essentially, Stearns was “replacing” a true Mets’ hero and one of the game’s great personalities, and it was kind of unfair to put that onus on him.
After his playing days were over, John Stearns would return as a coach and minor league manager for the Mets. Like so many young players who came to the Mets in trades, the fans had high hopes for him which were never quite fulfilled, but Stearns was solid and did put in a few good years with the team.