For the first eight years of my existence, my dad raised me to be a New York Mets fan, believe it or not. Growing up in Brick, N.J., we would make one or two trips each summer to Shea Stadium to watch the Mets play, but I never really got into it. Strangely, though, my favorite player from those awful Mets teams in the mid-to-late 1970s was catcher John Stearns. More on that later.
But my dad grew tired of making the drive up to Shea from our house in Brick, which was located close to Route 70, an east-west state highway that extended all the way to Pennsauken, N.J. From there, one would merge for a short time onto Route 38, pick up Route 130 South, and then head on over the Walt Whitman Bridge to South Philadelphia. In other words, it was an easy 90-minute drive. Hence, my dad decided we were going to see the Mets play the Phillies at Veterans Stadium on Sunday, April 22, 1979.
Initially, I was upset — mostly because I was a temperamental 7-year old (I would turn 8 in July). But Shea Stadium was the only ballpark I knew and that’s where I wanted to go.
However, once we got to “The Vet,” something happened. First of all, compared to Shea, The Vet was spectacular (The Vet may have been a dump in reality, but Shea was — by far — the bigger dump.) Plus, there was the Phanatic! That was fun. And the Phillies had a pretty good pitcher on the mound that day…future Hall of Fame southpaw Steve “Lefty” Carlton. And I remember Pete Rose, in his first year with the Phillies, diving into the first couple of rows of seats along the first-base side to catch a foul pop. And for the first seven innings, Carlton and the Phillies were cruising along with a 2-0 lead going into the eighth. I immediately switched allegiances and became a Phillies fan.
That’s probably where the day went wrong for the Phils, as the Mets went up 4-2 in the eighth, when Carlton surrendered three runs before reliever Ron Reed gave up an unearned run in the frame. That would turn out to be the final score, but it didn’t matter…I had a new team.
(By the way, I didn’t remember all those details…most are courtesy of the great Retrosheet.org.)
And when we left the stadium, we wound up walking next to offices for the Eagles. I asked my dad who they were and he said they were Philadelphia’s football team. I asked about the arena across the street and he told me that’s where the Sixers and Flyers play. So, really, April 22, 1979, marks the day I became a fan of all Philly teams — and of sports, in general.
But Phillies baseball became my greatest passion that day. And, because I was at the game, I hadn’t yet heard the legendary broadcast team of Harry Kalas and Richie “Whitey” Ashburn calling the Phillies games…that was another plus of being a fan of the team.
Although my dad was still primarily a Mets fan, he began to like the Phillies, too, and we went back to The Vet a few more times that year — and for many years after that (my dad has pretty much become a Phillies fan these days…his days as a Mets fan ended when they fired Bobby Valentine as manager). The Phillies — after winning three straight NL East titles from 1976-78 — finished in a disappointing fourth place in 1979. Of course, in 1980, they became world champions of baseball for the first time in the franchise’s long history.
And that brings me back to Mets catcher John Stearns. As I mentioned, he was my favorite Mets player around 1977 and ’78. Since I wasn’t a big sports fan back then, I never looked at Stearns’ career statistics or history. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned that Stearns was drafted in 1973 by — guess who — the Philadelphia Phillies. In December 1974, he was traded to the New York Mets. The key player the Phillies received from the Mets in that trade? Relief pitcher Tug McGraw, who struck out Willie Wilson in the ninth inning to clinch the Phillies’ World Series title in 1980.
So, before I became a Phillies fan, my favorite player on the Mets turned out to be a former Phillie (Stearns played one game with the Phils in September 1974) whose trade allowed for the iconic image of Tug McGraw’s celebratory leap upon winning the 1980 World Series to become a reality.
I guess it was just meant to be.