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His Old Friend, John

On June 21, we remember John Stephenson as being the final out of Jim Bunning's perfect game, on that date in 1964.

On all other days, we tend not to remember John Stephenson's baseball career at all.

Today we do, and we reminisce about one of his two Mets walk-off moments, with a little treat for those who read all the way through.

Again it's the Dodgers that we're talking about, as the Mets opponents on August 24, 1965. It's a Dodgers team that would go on to be world champs, and yet somehow the Mets took three of the four games in this matchup (with Tug McGraw outpitching Sandy Koufax in the series finale). They took this one in the same Metsian fashion in which they took the game referenced in our previous post, with a three-run rally in the ninth inning. An error and two singles loaded the bases for the pinch-hitting Stephenson, who brought home all three runners with a double to right center field. That gave reliever Dave Eilers his first major-league win. Sorry to remove the drama and excitement, but there wasn't much of either for the Mets in 1965, so we've kept the description brief.

As for John Stephenson, he lasted in the big leagues until 1973, as a backup catcher. After retiring, he became head baseball coach at an NAIA school, William Carey College from 1974 to 1984 and Southeastern Louisiana from 1985 to 1990, compiling 557 wins. After that, he went back into pro baseball, working in a variety of coaching and managerial capacities in the minors with the Mets and making it back to the bigs for a stint as a bullpen catcher for the White Sox in 1991 and the Mets in 1992 and 1993.

Stephenson has since returned to Southeastern Louisiana to work as an assistant coach, where his team went 29-31 this season. Stephenson's bio on the team's website lists one other Mets distinction- he caught Nolan Ryan's first major-league strikeout, of Eddie Mathews, on September 11, 1966. Stephenson and Ryan have a long baseball relationship, dating back to when the Mets first signed Ryan, and had him work out at the Astrodome in Houston.

"It was me, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, (scout) Red Murff and him," Stephenson told us on Tuesday after acknowledging he didn't really remember much about his two walk-offs. "In those days, you didn't wear a chest protector, mask or shin guards in the bullpen. He was throwing a pretty good curveball. They told him to throw a fastball, but he didn't tell me. He hit me on the left side of my collarbone and I had to miss a week. Then, when the Mets traded him to the Angels, they had to make space on the big league roster, so I got taken off the roster and had to spend 30 days in the minor leagues.

"I ended up catching him quite a bit in California. Jeff Torborg and I both caught him a lot. Jeff caught his first no-hitter in 1973. Art Kusnyer caught his second because I had caught a game the night before. Nolan was very particular about his catchers and Kusnyer had never caught him. Nolan called every pitch that night. I did catch one of his one-hitters, against Boston. Carl Yastrzemski got a hit in the first inning. Nolan struck out the next eight guys (and ended up striking out 16). He and I are good friends now."

That's a pretty good story. So do us a favor. Next year, when you see a clip of the last out of Jim Bunning's perfect game, remember it.

True Metniks know...Five different John's have had a walk-off hit for the Mets (Milner, Olerud, Stearns, Stephenson and Sullivan). That's the most for any first name, technically speaking, in Mets history. Five Joe's have had a walk-off RBI, but Joe Foy's came via a walk and not a hit. Three Bob's had a walk-off hit, as did two Bobby's, but for the purposes of this piece of minutiae, we'll separate those two names. It's not like anyone has ever referred to one of those men as Bob Bonilla.


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