Sunday, August 27, 2017

History and Mystery of the N.Y. Mets' Tackler, John Stearns

O.J. SIMPSON OR STEVE CARLTON? Pro football or big league baseball? Thirty-two or 32. That was the choice facing then 21-year-old John Stearns, a two-sport star at the University of Colorado drafted in 1973 by the NFL's Buffalo Bills and the National League's Philadelphia Phillies.

A UC Buffaloes defensive back, Stearns set a team record with 16 interceptions. As catcher for its baseball team, he'd led the NCAA with 15 home runs as a senior. The Bills, understanding he was leaning toward baseball, made him a 17th-round pick. The Phillies selected him second in the nation and that was that.

Stearns, still in his Phillies uniform,
 from the 1980 Who's Who in Baseball
A year later, Stearns arrived in the City of Brotherly Love for a brief sip of coffee: one game, two at bats and his first big league base knock before being dealt to the New York Mets as part of a package for reliever Tug McGraw.

There, within two years, he succeeded veteran Jerry Grote as the Mets number one catcher, a slot he'd solidly hold for just three years before a succession of injuries gradually wrecked his career

While the bold type will tell you Stearns made the NL All-Star team four times during his Gotham tenure, there's no official record of the former football star's on-field tackles and there were many.

The night in question
Seems Stearns, nicknamed "Bad Dude," never lost his defensive back intensity, at times venting his frustrations on Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-a-Homa, Montreal Expos pitcher Bill Gullickson and Pittsburgh Pirates perennial all star Dave Parker -- no tackle there, but a spectacular home plate collision in which the colossal outfielder came sustained a broken cheekbone and jaw.

The Mets backstop had a particular intolerance for fans running on the field and Shea Stadium security's inability to catch them.

Early in the 1982 season, as the Mets were trying to lockdown a victory over the defending World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers, two fans ran onto the the field in the 9th inning. One was caught as he tried to climb over Shea's outfield wall. The other led security on a chase across the infield, where an impatient Stearns slammed him to the turf. 

The New York Times reported the next day, "[Reliever Neil] Allen's work was interrupted when two fans ran onto the field. One was apprehended by security guards as he tried to scale the outfield fence. The other eluded guards to shake Tom Veryzer's hand before being tackled by Stearns, a onetime defensive back at the University of Colorado."

My May 15 1982 scorecard with the notation:
 "Penalty 12 Stearns, holding. 15 Yards
 1st Down, LA." 
So that happened. But it may not have been the first time, or even the second, or the last that some wayward Mets fan met the former college football star the hard way.

Earlier this year, the Centerfield Maz blog reported a similar event on June, 12 1980, also in a game against the Dodgers. But that's not the end of it.

The fan site lists every man who ever played for the Mets. Each of those entries includes a page where fans can log their own memories of that player. Stearns' propensity for open field fan tackles is mentioned there a lot, but no two fans seem to agree on the details.

Some say he was catching that day, others say he was manning third base. Some, including me, say it was an infield takedown, others say the outfield. At least two of the entrants corroborate the Centerfield Maz date, saying they were there too.

So here's my question, fellow Mets fans of a certain age:  
Just how many times did Bad Dude Stearns take down a runaway fan? 

Bonus question: Was one of them you?

Belated thought: John Stearns would know for sure. Anyone know where to find him?

Please enter your comments below. If you're new to this site, check out the roster of topics. Plenty here about the Mets and more.

Most importantly, thanks for reading.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Cali Coda: Kingman's Career Flickers Out in Phoenix

FOR DAVE KINGMAN, THE END CAME SUDDENLY, unceremoniously and ignominiously. When he played his last game for the Oakland Athletics in 1986, nobody eligible for baseball's Hall of Fame had hit as many home runs as him, 442, and been denied induction. And nobody had ever hit so many homers in a single season, 35, and not played again in the majors.

1979 -- Kingman's Peak
.288, 48 HRs, 115 RBIs
Surely, there would be another chance for the rangy slugger whose long-limbed upper-cut swing could seemingly send horsehide spheres rocketing into orbit. Besides, when he'd signed with the A's just two years earlier, Kingman had one of his best years, batting .268, blasting 35 homers and driving in a career-best 118 runs.

The home runs kept coming, precisely 100 over three seasons in the East Bay, but that's where the good news ended for the man variously known as Kong and Sky King. As the A's primary designated hitter in '86. he'd batted just .210 and, while he drove in 94 runs, he'd struck out 126 times and had an on-base percentage of just .255.

Kingman, who had a history of stormy press relations,  also sent a live rat, in a pink box, to a female sportswriter. Unamused, the A's fined him $3,500 and threatened to release him if he ever did something like that again. When his contract expired at season's end, Oakland opted to let Kong go, replacing him with another aging slugger, Reggie Jackson, who starred for the A's in the early 1970s.

Surely somebody was in the market for his occasionally electrifying displays of power. But Kingman -- turning 38 and just 58 homers shy of the 500 mark that could potentially punch his ticket to Cooperstown -- had no takers.

Before there were Arizona Diamondbacks...
His 16-year-career, bounding from the San Francisco Giants to the New York Mets, to the San Diego Padres, to the California Angels, to the New York Yankees, to the Chicago Cubs, back to the Mets then to the A's, appeared over.

But not quite yet.

In early July, he signed a minor league contract with his original team, the Giants. Sky King would DH and play first base for their AAA affiliate, the Phoenix Firebirds. There he'd try to rise from the ashes for one more shot at the bigs.

Kong's last call would last about three weeks, during which he'd bat just .203 -- against minor leaguers on the way up and retreads trying to prolong their careers just as he was -- with two homers and 11 RBIs. In 59 at bats, he fanned 12 times.

On Sunday night, Aug. 2, he played first base for the Firebirds as they took on the Los Angeles Dodgers' top farm club, the Albuquerque Dukes, losing 6-5. In what may have been his last at bat as a pro, against former big league reliever Pete Ladd, mighty Kingman struck out. Two days later, having not played again due to a toe injury, he exercised an escape clause in his contract and released himself.

No rising from the ashes on this night.

Except for this: It was later adjudged the the 86-87 off-season was one in a series where Major League Baseball's owners colluded to hold down salaries and deliberately avoided bidding against each other for free agents.

Though in retrospect, Kingman's career appeared to end on its merits, he was only in Phoenix because no big league team offered to sign a man who'd just finished second in the American League and third in the majors in home runs.

His Firebirds fadeout followed the conspiracy that consigned him there.

In 1995, eight years after his career was euthanized by Pete Ladd in the Arizona desert, arbitrator Thomas Roberts awarded Sky King $829,850 in damages.

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the eighth and last part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Devon White, Breakfast of Champions

CANNIBALISM CAN RUN THE GAMUT from tribal to survival -- think the Donner Party, or Alive! by Piers Paul Read --  to the sci-fi horror of Soylent Green.* It seldom comes up** in conjunction with baseball.

Breakfast of A.L. West Champions
Leave it to the California Angels to fill that void.

In 1987, the defending American League West champs had a new star. His name was Devon White, and he played one of the virtuoso glamour positions in baseball: centerfield, that place rhapsodized in song by John Fogerty. Centerfield, that verdant expanse manned by men like Tris Speaker and Joe DiMaggio, by Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

And now White, a 24-year-old Jamaican-born switch-hitting blend of defense, speed and some offensive pop who grew up in New York City, cheering for Mays and the New York Mets

Going into action on July 31, the Angels' newfound phenom was hitting a solid .284, with 18 homers, 22 steals and 64 runs batted in. That night, against the visiting Seattle Mariners, White would bat clean-up just behind the prior year's phenom, Wally Joyner, who'd finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting to the Oakland Athletics' Jose Canseco.

But how best to market the multi-talented Mr. White? The Angels solution was to make him a commodity. Big league slugger Dave Kingman once said athletes were pieces of meat. California went to a different trading pit and came back with cereal. On the cover of the Halo Magazine game program, they would sell their outfielder not as an image on a box, but as the food itself. White as Wheaties, breakfast of A.L. West champions.

Friday night, lights.
"The crunchy whole wheat flakes breakfast of the Angels," boasted the box-mocking magazine cover. "Power, speed, defense from 100 percent whole wheat."

Start your day right, with a bowl of Devon White.

Net weight, 170 lbs. Kind of big to lug home from the Kroger or Safeway, but a good fit for the fully-enclosed Anaheim Stadium shared then by the National Football League's Rams.

That night the Angels tattooed the Mariners, 8-2, before 32,471 people. White and Joyner hit back-to-back homers off Seattle starter Scott Bankhead in the third inning and after a Mark McLemore sacrifice fly scored Bob Boone in the fourth, Bankhead exited with Anaheim ahead, 4-0.

The Angels' nutritious outfielder finished the night 1-4, with that round-tripper and two runs batted in. He was also caught stealing because, well... it happens.

Allowed to play out the season without being devoured by teammates, opponents or fans, White finished with slightly soggier stats than that end of July snapshot: a .263 average with 33 doubles, 24 homers, 87 RBIs and 32 stolen bases. He finished fifth in A.L. rookie of the year balloting won by the A's Mark McGwire.

The original scoreboard,
exiled to the parking lot post-enclosure
California would tumble to 6th place in the seven-team division, finishing 75-87, ending the career of veteran manager Gene Mauch.

White played three more years in Anaheim, winning two gold gloves for defensive excellence and being selected to the A.L. all star team once before being traded to Toronto in a lopsided trade where the primary return was outfielder Junior Felix, who'd be out of the majors by 1995.

He would win five more gold gloves with the Blue Jays while making the remarkable seem routine, qualify for the all star team again and be part of two World Series winners, proving more champion than breakfast.

White won another title in 1997 as a member of the National League's Florida Marlins and retired in 2001 after spending his last year with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was 38. Today, he's the hitting coach for the Blue Jays' AAA affiliate Buffalo Bisons.

* Spoiler alert!
**Seldom, but not never.

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the seventh part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Go Ahead... Make My Sundae

TWO YEARS AFTER MAKING "CITY HEAT," Clint Eastwood told an entire town to cool it.

Clint Eastwood: mayor. ice cream vigilante
The place was Carmel by the Sea, on the south shore of California's Monterey Peninsula, a berg famous for its setting, its arts scene and -- for a time -- its prohibition on the sale of ice cream cones on its streets.

Eastwood -- an actor, director and Carmel resident -- changed all that in 1986 when he ran for mayor of the tiny coastal municipality and won. Then the man famous for playing Dirty Harry, decided to mess up the town.

He'd take out the ice cream ban.


To be sure, the reason behind the rule wasn't just some case of absurd nanny-state fastidiousness run amok. According to a contemporaneous Los Angeles Times story, the denial of an ice cream stand permit -- and all of the resultant publicity it occasioned -- was prompted by concerns about water consumption in a time of drought.

But that wasn't all Eastwood did. Sixteen months into his term, the New York Times reported, the actor-turned-mayor had, "provided more public toilets, built new stairways to the town beach and expedited previously stalled efforts to expand Carmel's library."

Still, Eastwood served just a single two-year term as mayor of the mile-square city, population 4,000 or so, before returning to the serious work of acting and directing.

During his tenure though, local artist Jim Miller had made up a commemorative poster, which then became the cover of the Carmel tourist guide. The poster's tagline, not included on the guide's version, promised, "Law, Order and Ice Cream."

The image of a bearded, six-gun wielding, western hat-wearing Eastwood, was apparently inspired by promotional art for films like A Fist Full of DollarsHigh Plains Drifter, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, but with a twist -- or more appropriately, a triple scoop -- vanilla or perhaps butter pecan ice cream cone in his left hand.

Do you feel like sprinkles today, punk?

Inside, the publication promising directions, maps and essential information, included not one but two articles on where to find ice cream, together with a conspicuously placed ad to underscore the point.

As the man said, "go ahead, make my sundae."

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the sixth part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

-- Follow me on Twitter

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Reggie, The Original Bash Brother, Comes Home

REGGIE JACKSON CAME HOME in the summer of 1987. Not to Wyncote, PA, where he was born 41 years earlier and grew into a prodigal multi-sport star at nearby Cheltenham High School, but to Oakland, CA, where that star became one of the biggest, brightest and brashest in the nation, while playin' for the Swingin' A's.

Between 1971 and 1975, he'd led them to five straight first place finishes, and from '72 to ''74, three consecutive championships, then he was gone, traded just before opening day 1976.

Reggie Jackson of the 1987 Oakland Athletics.
Now he was back, at the end of a career that saw him play for a total of 12 division winners, six pennant winners and five World Series winners (though an injury kept him out of action in the 1972 tilt against the Cincinnati Reds).

Home, after four American League home run titles and the 1973 AL Most Valuable Player award.

Home, after 14 All Star Game selections and two World Series MVP awards, the second of which came after he crushed the Los Angeles Dodgers, hitting three round trippers in three swings to close out the 1977 fall classic.

Home after a year in Baltimore, five in the Bronx and five more in Anaheim, playing for the argumentative Earl Weaver, the tempestuous Billy Martin, the calming Bob Lemon, the defiant Dick Howser and the luckless Gene Mauch. Home after playing for Charlie Finley, George Steinbrenner and Gene Autry.

Home as Mr. October, as the self-proclaimed "Straw that Stirs the Drink." Home as a candy bar.   "When you unwrap a Reggie Bar, it tells you how good it is," his Hall of Fame teammate Catfish Hunter once said. Now, in his final season, Reggie no longer needed to be the bonbon, the straw or even a main ingredient in the Oakland Athletic's potent cocktail, he just needed to be in the mix.

Managed by future Hall member Tony La Russa, the A's franchise was on one if it's periodic upswings, if not yet at its peak. First-baseman Mark McGwire, 23, was in the midst of a freshman campaign that would see him hit .289 with 49 homers and 118 runs batted in, winning Rookie of the Year honors. Behind him, 1986 AL Rookie of the Year Jose Canseco, just 21 and on his way to belting 31 round-trippers and driving in 113. Together they were The Bash Brothers.

McGwire, Canseco and Reggie, men who would combine for 1,608 home runs over their careers, together in one Athletics line up. Surely somewhere Jimmie Foxx was lacing his cleats.

Joining them: 1979 co-RotY shortstop Alfredo Griffin and 1981 AL batting champ Carney Lansford, starting pitcher Dave Stewart -- embarking on the first of his four consecutive 20-win seasons -- and Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley.

"I think the ingredients are all here for me to have a good year," Jackson, bash brother emeritus, said in one of two features about him in the game program for July 27, 1987, when his team hosted the California Angels at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.

The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum,
July 27, 1987

The A's, behind Stewart, cruised to a 6-1 win that night. Only catcher Terry Steinbach homered for the home team. Shortstop Gus Polidor struck a blow for the visitors.

Jackson -- batting sixth -- struck out four times (a drop in his MLB-record bucket of 2597 Ks, which still stands today). He ended the night hitting a discouraging .203. For the year, he batted .220 with 15 homers and 43 RBIs. In 336 at bats over 115 games, he struck out 97 times.

Though La Russa's squad would go just 81-81 that year, the table had been set, the appetite whet. Starting in 1988, the franchise strung together three straight pennants, repeating the feat accomplished by Jackson's A's of the '70s, and won the 1989 World Series.

Reggie finished his illustrious career with a .262 batting average, 563 homers and 1,702 runs batted in. He also had 18 round-trippers and 48 RBIs in 77 post-season games, 10 of those clouts in the series. He made the Hall in 1993.

The Coup

Two weeks before my visit, stop four on my California/ballpark tour, the Coliseum had hosted Major League Baseball's All Star Game, further proof the sometimes moribund A's, whose attendance had dipped to 306,763 for the entire 1979 season, were on the rebound. For those of us who care, the All Star Game program -- in this era before eBay -- was a trophy worth hunting.

The trophy
Mid-game, I chatted up one of the souvenir stand vendors about the ballpark -- better than its reputation -- and the stadium food -- more adventurous than I'd seen elsewhere -- and finally rounded to the subject of the A-S program.

He said he had none and directed me down the concourse, past the first aid station and through a door where I found myself in a souvenir stock room.

"Hi. Mike sent me," I told a woman behind the counter, feigning a casualness I didn't feel. "I'm looking for an All Star Game program."

She dropped back into the steel shelving behind her and reappeared moments later, program in hand.

"Do you work here?" she asked, looking me over.

"No," I replied.

"Five dollars," she said. I handed over the money, suppressed a smile and walked out. Quickly.

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the fifth part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive