The Mets did not seem to have any clearer idea of what to do with Stearns than the Phillies had. Though voted the outstanding rookie in New York's 1975 spring camp, he played only 59 games with the Mets that season. "My game was hurting and they had me at backup catcher—at age 23," Stearns says disgustedly. Then, midway through the 1976 season, Stearns took his future into his own hands and asked to be sent back to the minors. The Mets agreed, and he hit .310 in the International League. Team officials were so pleased by his performance that they traded Jerry Grote, perhaps the best defensive catcher in baseball, to Los Angeles and turned the job over to Stearns for the 1977 season.
For once a Mets' decision did not backfire. Stearns is hitting better than most catchers (.269) and with some power (15 homers and 70 RBIs). His arm is respected, and for good reason: he has thrown out 40% of would-be stealers. Only Jim Sundberg of the Rangers has thrown out close to 50%. And Stearns may lead the league in true grit. On June 30, in the season's most resounding crash, Pittsburgh's 6'5", 235-pound Dave Parker attempted to bowl over Stearns, who was blocking the plate with two out in the ninth and the Mets ahead by one run. Parker wound up with a broken cheekbone and spent 15 days on the disabled list. He still dons a football-type face mask every time he gets on base. After making the tag, Stearns flew 10 feet through the air, hung on to the ball and played the next night. No wonder his teammates call him Bad Dude.
His nickname reflects his cockiness and lack of tact as much as his physical toughness. Last week, for example, a passed ball was called on Stearns. He turned around, hands on hips, and glared up at the official scorer in the press box. The next night Stearns glanced around the last-place Mets' clubhouse. A couple of dogs were chasing each other, knocking down chairs. An obscenity was scrawled on the blackboard. "What we need," growled Stearns, "is hitting, pitching and fielding."
Stearns can be equally rough-edged on the field. Behind the plate, he drops more balls than he should. At bat, he uses his body too much and his wrists too little. Even on the bases he sometimes acts as if he were blitzing the quarterback. He once tried to steal home with two outs and a two-strike count. "As a player, I'm just scratching the surface," he says.
Jerry Koosman, dean of what passes for the Mets' pitching staff, is more optimistic. "He's shown as much improvement as any catcher I've known," says Koosman, "especially in his aggressiveness and thinking. He still tries to catch pitches in the dirt instead of blocking them, and he sometimes replays his last at bat when he gets behind the plate instead of concentrating entirely on catching, but he's going to be a good catcher."
In the future, will catchers be more like the agile Stearns? "I don't think so," says Torre. "They may start off with speed, but their muscles get knotty as they get older." Stearns, in his contrary way, disagrees. "It's true that there aren't many of us who run well," he says. "The best are guys like Bench and Simmons, big strong men who can hit with power. But the game's always changing. As it evolves, why can't it evolve for the better?" He pauses, savoring the thought. "I can improve on the breed."