Five hours before the first pitch Thursday night at Cheney Stadium, the rooms adjacent to the Rainiers’ clubhouse reflected the vagabond nature of pro-baseball lifers.
In the manager’s office, Daren Brown shook hands and exchanged best wishes with the occasional player who sauntered down the hallway. Brown had gotten called up to be third-base coach for the Mariners – the team he served as an interim manager in 2010. A promotion to the big-league club is usually a joyous event, but Brown’s reaction was tempered: He’s filling in for Jeff Datz, who has taken medical leave for cancer treatments.
“It is kind of a tough situation,” Brown said. “I consider ‘Datzie’ a good friend and a great guy. For me, it’s about going up and doing the best job I can do, and let him get healthy.
“Nobody knows the timetable on it,” continued Brown. “I’m excited to go up and help. At the same time, our thoughts are with Jeff on trying to get better.”
In the office next door, meanwhile, John Stearns chatted with his new colleagues in preparation for his first game as Brown’s replacement. Stearns was in Tacoma, he knew that much, and he was inheriting a first-place team with a 17-10 record. He knew that, too.
More technical details would have to be learned on the fly.
“It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind,” said Stearns, who began the week as the Mariners’ minor-league catching coordinator. He was then asked to coach third base for High Desert, the organization’s Single-A affiliate in the California League, before working in the same role for the Mariners at Safeco Field.
There are easier tasks than memorizing three different sets of baseball signs in five days, but Stearns is used to the challenges of a here-today, we’ll-clue-you-in-tomorrow occupation.
“I’m a rover,” Stearns said, efficiently describing a career that might be the equivalent of actor Kevin Bacon: If you’ve never run into Stearns – at the plate or on the football field – it’s likely you know somebody who has.
A Denver native, Stearns was a two-sport legend at the University of Colorado: A hard-hitting catcher in the spring, a harder-hitting safety in the fall. His nickname – “Bad Dude” – applied in all seasons.
The Bills took Stearns as their 17th-round draft choice in 1973, a few months before the Phillies made him the second overall selection of the baseball draft, behind star-crossed high school pitcher David Clyde and ahead of Hall-of-Famers Robin Yount and Dave Winfield.
After the Philllies traded Stearns to the Mets in a deal that sent reliever Tug McGraw to Philadelphia, the catcher was named to two All-Star games. Fearless and ever ready for a collision, he’s remembered for the football mentality he brought to baseball.
When Stearns took a throw for a bang-bang play at the plate, he backed down from nobody. Once in a while, he even initiated the confron-tation, such as that time he chased down Braves mascot Chief Noc-a-Homa in front of the visitors’ dugout and tackled him.
Stearns fiery attitude extended beyond the baselines. He said what he thought to reporters, with a candor that was rare and refreshing.
At 61, Stearns likes to think that his “Bad Dude” persona has mellowed over the years.
“I’ve grown up a little,” said Stearns, who over a 39-year career in pro baseball has assembled a résumé thick with experience at every level.
You name it, he’s done it, either as a manager, coach, instructor, scout, roving coordinator or broadcaster. He’s worked in the minor leagues from coast to coast – “I’m at about 1,500 games,” he said – along with Winter League in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and the Fall League in Arizona, and the big leagues.
Stearns is familiar with the sort of phone call he got Thursday, when the Mariners informed he was needed elsewhere. Brown, somewhere on the front nine of the Tacoma Country & Golf Club, heard a similar request.
“I really thought it would be easy playing golf today, because the big-league club was off,” he said. “I didn’t play very much after that because the phone was ringing for a bit.”
Brown packed up after the ninth hole and took a cab to Cheney Stadium. It was 11:30 a.m., about the same time the former “Bad Dude” catcher arrived.
Despite owning one of the coolest nicknames in baseball history, Stearns hears it with a sheepish wince.
A Sports Illustrated writer was assigned to write a story on the national-championship potential of Colorado’s 1970 football team, and Stearns, a sophomore who hadn’t yet played a down – freshmen were ineligible in those days – admitted that he liked a the sound of a newfangled hyphenated-adjective that was all the rage on campus. The writer took the nickname and ran with it.
“So ‘Bad Dude’ has followed me ever since,” he said. “I mean, here we are in Tacoma, Washington, 43 years later.”
Yup, here we are: Daren Brown on his way to Toronto to join the Mariners on their road trip, and John Stearns in Tacoma, where an entire adult life spent inside baseball enabled him to adapt, at a moment’s notice, to another job in another town.
He lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., but from the casual way the smiling Stearns mingled among his new colleagues Thursday, his permanent address seemed moot.
He had shown up at Cheney Stadium. A gorgeous lawn was prepared for a baseball game between the Rainiers and the Tucson Padres.
He was home.