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It’s my “I was there moment” as a Mets fan.
A summer night during a dreary 1982 season when John Stearns absolutely lambasted an unruly fan who had run onto the Shea Stadium field and began gleefully jumping up and down on the pitcher’s mound after eluding cops.
I was 14 and there with my dad, my grandfather and my uncle, in lower level seats about 30 rows from the field. We were pretty much directly behind the Mets catcher, who had stood impatiently in his gear behind home plate before he pounced on the fan and delivered a perfect form tackle.
The crowd roared in approval. The one among us who was not surprised was my father, who quickly noted that Stearns had played defensive back for the University of Colorado’s football team. I don’t think I’ve seen my dad more excited at a baseball game.
I think of Stearns’ pitching mound tackle often, but especially today with the sad news of his passing from prostate cancer. He died at 71 Thursday night, less than three weeks after attending the Mets’ Old Timers’ Day at Citi Field.
I was at that game too. Frail, very thin and walking with a cane, he suited up in his Mets No.12 jersey on Aug. 27 and hit some solid groundballs during batting practice.
They practically had to drag him away from the batting cage. Forever the “Bad Dude.”
A lone bright spot for the Mets
Hard-nosed, gruff, blunt and a pretty good hitter, Stearns was often the lone bright spot on a New York Mets team that finished in last place in the National League East in five out of seven seasons from 1977 to 1983, and fifth out of sixth in the other two years. He was an All-Star four times with the Mets.
To further crystallize my memory of that time he tackled the fan, I Googled “John Stearns tackles fan” and learned he had done it before. In 1980, during a Dodgers game at Shea, he ran up the left field line to track down one of two buffoons from the crowd who had entered the field.
He tackled him too. And held him down until security guards arrived.
”The game was being delayed,” Stearns said, explaining his open-field tackle at the 1982 game I was at as a kid. ”And my pitcher was standing around losing his rhythm.”
For his spontaneous roadhouse policing efforts, he was named an honorary security guard at the stadium.
‘The Monster is Out of the Cage’
Long after his retirement, Stearns rejoined the Mets as a coach. He was the team’s bench coach in 2000 when they reached the World Series and lost to the Yankees in five games.
Early in Game 1 of the National League Championship series that year against the Cardinals, Stearns shouted repeatedly, “The monster is out of the cage, the monster is out the cage,” after a slumping Mike Piazza knocked in two runs by smashing a double.
Stearns was mic’d up for Fox and his gung-ho assessment of the Mets slugger was heard by a national audience. It became the rallying cry for the team during the remainder of the playoffs.
I hoped Fox would somehow dig up footage of Stearns’ tackles of the trespassing fans. I even tried to phone in the idea to a producer.
Years later, I had the opportunity to talk about the two moments — the fan tackle that I witnessed and “The monster is out of the cage” shout — with Stearns. I was the Brooklyn bureau chief at the New York Daily News and I had assigned a story about Danny Garcia, the first former Brooklyn Cyclone to play for the Mets.
Stearns, who coached Garcia in the minor leagues, was returning the reporter’s call. The reporter wasn’t around.
So, after I told Stearns that I’d give the reporter a message that he returned his call, the rest of our conversation went something like this:
“Do you remember during the playoffs when you shouted, ‘The monster is out of the cage’ after one of Piazza’s big hits?'” I asked Stearns.
There was no reply, or maybe I heard some type of grunt “uh huh.”
“Well, I remember thinking how cool it would be if Fox was able to find clips of you tackling a fan who had came onto the field during a Mets game in the 1980s,” I said, before the boy inside me blurted out, “I was actually at the game.”
Stearns, in a very serious tone, responded, “Are you writing a story about this?”
“Uh, no. I’ll tell Luis that you called.”
Though, now I am.
John Stearns, a beloved Met and always the franchise’s “Bad Dude.” May he rest in peace.