When the Mariners closed out their homestand on Wednesday night, the plan was for John Stearns to accompany the team to Toronto to continue his fill-in stint as third-base coach while Jeff Datz undergoes treatment for cancer. At least, that’s what everyone thought. Obviously, there was a late change of plans, because on Thursday the Mariners announced that Tacoma manager Daren Brown, and not Stearns, would be going to Toronto to take on the role of extra coach and third-base fill-in for Datz. Brown flew out Thursday night. Under this new plan, Stearns is instead taking over for Brown as manager of the Rainiers.
As fate would have it, I was scheduled to be in Tacoma anyway tonight to talk to Nick Franklin for a column that will run Sunday. So, naturally, I dropped into the manager’s office to chat with Stearns, who was marveling over the whirlwind course his life has taken this week. The upshot is that he’s very happy with his new gig. Stearns would go on to manage the Rainiers to a victory over Tucson tonight (Thursday) that extended their winning streak to nine. They have the best record in the PCL at 18-10.
“It’s good, because I’m going to be able to work with (Mike) Zunino and (Jesus) Sucre,” said Stearns. “Those are two nice prospects at my position. And also, I can help develop some players for our major-league team. I’m very, very satisfied and happy about coming down here.”
At the outset of the week, the 61-year-old Stearns, a four-time All-Star as a catcher with the Mets, was the Mariners’ minor-league catching coordinator. Then the M’s called him about filling in temporarily as the third-base coach, so he went to California to coach third for Class A High Desert in one game so he could get re-acclimate himself to the job. Stearns hadn’t managed since 2009 (not 2006, as I erroneously wrote earlier this week), so he wanted to work out the kinks before joining the Mariners. In the minor leagues, the manager also coaches third base, and Stearns estimates he’s done both in about 1,500 games. He arrived in Seattle on Monday and was surprised to be thrown right into action that night for a game against the Orioles after Datz felt ill. Stearns also coached third on Tuesday and Wednesday as the Mariners took two out of three from the Orioles.
So what happened between Wednesday and Thursday, when the Mariners’ charter flew to Toronto? Here’s how Stearns tells the story:
“When I went there (to Seattle), it wasn’t on a full-time basis. It was, ‘Datzy’s sick, somebody’s got to get up there.’ I was the guy. We didn’t know how long he was going to be out. Jack (Zduriencik) and Eric (Wedge) called me this morning. We met briefly this morning in my hotel lobby. They said they want to bring Brownie up and me down here. I’m fine with that. I’m totally fine with that. Brownie was with these guys in spring training, he knows the sign system, everything. It made more sense to me that that was the way it would go.
“I feel fortunate to be working for the Mariners, and whatever they need me to do, I’m available. That’s how I feel.”
Stearns’ last managing job was, as mentioned, in 2009 with Double-A Harrisburg in the Nationals’ organization. Now he’s at the helm of a team that features many of the Mariners’ top prospects, from Franklin and Zunino to Danny Hultzen (currently on the disabled list), James Paxton and Stefen Romero, as well as players who have been up in the majors already like Carlos Peguero, Alex Liddi, Carlos Triunfel, Eric Thames and Blake Beavan, and veteran Jeremy Bonderman, who worked eight shutout innings tonight, allowing just two hits.
“It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time,” Stearns said of managing. “I had three or four years off, but I’m back in there, and with the help of the staff here, I’m sure I can get back up to speed quickly. Same with third-base coach. I’m fine with that as far as positioning, game situations, outs. Learning the signs is the hard part. Now I’m on my third new set of signs in the last four days. So it’s pretty crazy. But I’ll get it straight.
“I’m glad I’m here. We have a lot of young prospects on this team. We really do. Actually, I’m excited. I’m excited about being down here.”
As for how long he will serve as Tacoma’s manager, “I have no idea what’s going to happen. Whatever the Mariners feel is best, I’m going to do that. I had a great job before all of this happened, catching coordinator. I was able to bring a lot of catchers a long way last year and this year. We’ve been getting some good work in. We have a lot of catching prospects in our organization. This is a job I’m comfortable with. I can get some work done here if we need to. I feel good about being here.
“What this whole thing is about is Jeff Datz. We’ve got to get him healthy, get him back in position on the major-league team. If that happens, and hopefully that will happen, I’m sure Brownie will come back here, and I will move back to catching coordinator. That all makes sense to me. Whatever they need to do right now under these cirmcumstances, it’s about Jeff Datz getting well, and we need to hold the fort until he gets there.”