For the Mets, 1978 was already shaping up to be a rough year by June 30. The team was dispirited, the fan base was dwindling and those that remained continued to pine for the banished Tom Seaver. The team’s hierarchy tried to salve the fans’ wounds by going out and signing free agents, something they had vowed never to do. Unfortunately, instead of signing Reggie Jackson or Bobby Grich, ownership brought in Tom Hausman and Elliot Maddox. After the traditional Opening Day win, they stumbled badly out of the gate and limped into Pittsburgh a dismal 13 games under .500 at 32-45.
At the opening of Mets’ training camp in Port St. Lucie, beloved owner Jeff Wilpon distributed t-shirts with the logo from the old “Underdog” cartoon to players and personnel. This reminded me – and others – of an attempt at motivation for similar Mets team, facing similar circumstances as this year. At the start of spring camp in 1979, the Mets’ emotional leader, John Stearns, handed out blue t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “WE CAN WIN!” in white block lettering. It didn’t help, but was emblematic of his attitude. Stearns was nicknamed “Bad Dude” – later shortened to the simpler “The Dude” — when he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies out of Colorado State University, where he played linebacker on the football team. That pigskin mentality never left, from his first training camp until he became a Mets coach. Yelling, clapping, encouraging, running everything out with abandon…that was Stearns’s stock-in-trade. He arrived in New York as part of the trade that brought Del Unser here prior to the 1975 season, fueled his fire at the feet of another passionate catcher, Jerry Grote.
The Pirates were just beginning to mount their challenge of the defending division champ Phillies. They were led by a resurgent Willie Stargell – Met killer of old – and fearsome slugger Dave Parker. The Pirates were in their bully phase, not yet a Fam-A-Lee: preening and woofing as they won, Parker being the main culprit. They saw the Mets as some easy pickin’s on a humid June night. The game started off surprisingly competitive, with neither team scoring through three innings. The Mets put a tough run on the board, courtesy of a double by pitcher Nino Espinosa, a base hit by third baseman Lenny Randle and a lazy sacrifice fly by shortstop Tim Foli. The Bucs knotted the score in the fifth, on a passel of base hits and stolen bases. In the seventh, it looked like the Mets were going down for the third straight game as the Pirates plated two more runs.
As Grote was saying goodbye, Stearns stepped into his considerable shoes and brought that searing intensity to the dish. “Hard-nosed,” was the way he was described. In one famous incident, he could tolerate the antics of politically incorrect Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa no longer. The Chief was doing his traditional war dance out near the mound before a game and was promptly tackled by The Dude, thus cementing Stearns’s reputation. He was pretty decent with the bat, enough so that he was the Mets’ lone All-Star game representative four times. He was the “face of the franchise,” to put a modern spin on it: he was his era’s David Wright. In a photo from the 1977 All-Star game – painful to look at to this day – the middle row of the NL stars starts off with Stearns, then Seaver, who’s making a point of some sort to Willie Montanez: Met present, Met past and Met future, all in a row. In 1978, he broke an ages-old record for stolen bases by a catcher. Scrappy dude.
The Mets clawed a run back in the top of the eighth on a bunt base hit by Randle, a soft single by Foli, and a ringing double by Willie Montanez. Dale Murray escaped a bases-loaded-one-out jam in the bottom half. The New York offense awoke in the top of the ninth. John Stearns doubled down the left field line, Ed Kranepool hit a patented pinch single, Randle tripled and Joel Youngblood and Steve Henderson contributed base hits and the Mets put four on the board.
It was his willingness to take one for the team that spelled his undoing. While taking grounders at third one day in 1980, he stepped sideways onto a couple of lying-around baseballs and completely twisted his right ankle, knee and hip. It took a long time to recover and he was never quite the same. He retired after seventeen desultory 1984 at-bats. He never lost his edge, though and was hired as Bobby Valentine’s bench coach in 1999, famously screeching “The monster’s out of the cage!” on a national TV broadcast after a slump-busting Mike Piazza home run.
Heading to the bottom of the ninth up 6-3, Murray got one out, surrendered base hits to Frank Taveras and Omar Moreno and a long triple banged off the right-center field wall by Parker. Bill Robinson then sent a medium fly-ball to Youngblood in right. Parker tagged and strolled/swaggered to the plate, carrying the tying run with him. Except that Youngblood fired a strike to Stearns, who tagged the preening Parker with a two-fisted uppercut tag to the left cheek. Parker crumbled in a heap and had to be carried off the field. He won the 1978 MVP, spending the rest of the year in football mask.
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