Stearns was drafted out of the University of Colorado by the NFL Buffalo Bills, but signed with the Phillies as their first pick in 1973 (number two overall). Traded to the Mets in 1974, by late 1976 he was their first-string catcher. He was an adept bunter and line-drive hitter, and in 1978 stole 25 bases – a league record for catchers. But his all-out “football attitude” play led to injuries that began limiting his action. He broke a finger on a foul tip in 1980, and, after representing the Mets at his fourth All-Star Game, was disabled with elbow tendinitis in August 1982. He played just 12 games his final two seasons. His older brother, Bill, was a catcher in the Yankee organization.