John Stearns’ life in baseball covers more than 40 years. Before taking over as the Rainiers’ skipper on May 2 he had been a roving catching coordinator, coached, scouted, been a four-time Major League All-Star, managed three minor league championship teams, was Minor League Manager of the Year in the Appalachian League and had done some broadcasting for ESPN. Now 61, Stearns sat down recently with Tacoma Weekly baseball correspondent Karen Westeen to discuss his long and storied career.
TW: You took over as manager here on May 2, after being Seattle’s roving minor league catching coordinator for two years. How did you find out about the promotion?
JS: I was in High Desert, and I got a call that I was needed because the Mariners’ third base coach, Jeff Datz, was sick. I had about two days to get ready to go up. I coached third one night in High Desert, then went to Seattle. When I got up there I found out that Datz wasn’t going to be able to coach that day, so they threw me out to coach third. Then they decided to call up Rainiers’ manager Daren Brown to coach third and send me down to manage the Tacoma team. I didn’t have a problem with that. It was really a whirlwind for about a week. The hardest part was trying to learn the signs, since every team has a different set. When I came down here they were on an eight-day winning streak and that didn’t put any pressure on me.
TW: You know catchers well, but you’re coaching a whole team now. What did you do to learn about the pitchers and position players on the team?
JS: It took a while. I’m just getting to know a lot of our kids. We’ve had a lot of turnover since I’ve gotten here. Several guys have gone up to Seattle, a lot have come down to our team, it’s an ongoing learning process. Even though I had been in this particular job in the past it’s a little bit of an adjustment period for me to get back to managing because I hadn’t been doing that at all for the past three or four years. It’s coming all together now, I’ve got a nice staff here helping me out and we have a good team. We tried to make sure the players were here on time and played hard. If we do those two things we should have a good club all year here.
TW: How would you describe the make-up of this team?
JS: We have a really good Triple-A team here, a lot of guys down here with big league experience, some talented players on the infield and outfield. The kind of team that if we just come out and play the way we’re supposed to we should win 60 percent of our games, which means you’re usually in the playoffs. I think we’re capable of winning six out of 10. Our goal as coaches is to develop these kids for the Major League team and by doing that try to win and get us into the playoffs.
TW: Now that you’re not roving does your family get to come here to be with you?
JS: (The Stearns have three grown sons.) My wife and I live close to West Palm Beach, Fla. Generally she would be up but she has a full-time job in the health care business. If she can get off for two or three days she might come up, but we’re used to this. One good part of my job is that I am home for four or five months in the offseason.
TW: You were drafted in 1973, while you were a senior at the University of Colorado. Did you finish college?
JS: I went to college for four years. I needed three classes for a degree and before I knew it I was in the big leagues, and I’ve been in baseball ever since and I never went back and got my degree.
TW: You were a two-sport athlete in college. What was the other one?
JS: I went to college on a football scholarship and played defensive back. (Back) then, 195 pounds was a decent size. I was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, but after I was drafted in the first round of the baseball draft by the Phillies I decided to go with baseball.
TW: Of all the different jobs you’ve done in baseball is one of them your favorite?
JS: The favorite part of the jobs is being in the big leagues. I’ve coached first, third, bullpen and bench in the big leagues. Everybody in baseball wants to be in the big leagues. Being a big league coach/manager is actually the ultimate goal. So if you reach that goal you’re lucky. I’ve been lucky enough to be there five or six years and I’ve been in the Major League playoffs four years, all the way through the second round, which is one round beneath the World Series. In 2000 I was in the World Series as a coach with the Mets when we played the Yankees in the subway series. We got beat in five games and finished second.
TW: You’ve been around so many teams in so many different positions. Who are some of the favorite players you’ve worked with?
JS: I’ve worked with some pretty good guys – Mike Piazza from the Mets stands out. I coached for the Reds one year and had Barry Larkin, who was a pretty good guy. I was first base coach for the Orioles when Cal Ripken was there. It’s just a parade. What’s most gratifying is when you send a kid to the big leagues for the first time. I had the unbelievable pleasure of sending David Wright to the big leagues. He fainted on my shoulder when I told him. It was a life-long dream. He was only 20 years old. That’s good stuff.
TW: What do you like to do during your offseason?
JS: I wake up in the morning and jog about a mile to a fitness facility. I have a workout routine that I follow with weights and different machines. Then I jog back home. By that time it’s 9:00 in the morning and I get ready to play golf. I play golf about five days a week in the wintertime.
TW: Have you played on any of the courses around here?
JS: We played a few rounds here. The courses I’ve been on are just tremendously great. I should find out which ones they are so I can name them.
TW: What’s been the highlight of your career?
JS: Just getting to the big leagues was the biggest thrill, since I never played on a championship team. In my rookie year (with the Mets), I was 23 years old and was the backup catcher. About a month into the season, I came out to the park one day. We were playing the Cincinnati Reds and I was in the lineup. Tom Seaver was pitching for us. I went out for the first inning to warm him up with 30-40,000 people in the stands. After I warmed him up I threw the ball down to second and got ready to flash the sign for the first pitch. I looked up and the guy getting into the box was Pete Rose. I can still remember saying to myself, “How did you get yourself in this situation?” After the first couple of pitches I was fine. Catching Seaver was easier than catching someone else because you knew where the ball was going to be most of the time.