Former Falcon first, only to be drafted by Major League team
April 3, 2008
Baseball season is getting into full swing, and with UW-River Falls entering its sixth year without a varsity team, it can easily be forgotten that there was once a baseball program here to be proud of.
As Falcon baseball slips further from memory, a look into the past can help keep it alive.
One of their strongest seasons was 1996, when they went 11-1 in conference play and were led by starting centerfielder Randy Stearns.
“We had a very good team and a lot of depth,” said former UWRF baseball coach Craig Walter in a telephone interview. “[Stearns] gave us some extra juice because he could run so well.”
Many talented players came and went at UWRF, but Stearns was unique in that he was the only one to ever be drafted by a Major League team.
Stearns grew up in Bloomer, Wis. and played baseball, football, basketball and track.
“Track was always my favorite because I could only place the pressure on myself to perform well,” Stearns said in an e-mail interview.
He was recruited out of high school for all four sports, but decided to go with baseball and football in college.
“I thought it was the sport I could have a chance to turn pro in,” he said.
He ended up attending Northern Illinois University on a scholarship and was named to the Freshman All-American team in baseball, but was splitting his time between baseball and football.
To focus on baseball, he transferred to Triton College (River Grove, Ill.) after his freshman year at NIU. Triton has an outstanding baseball program that has produced several Major Leaguers, including Minnesota Twins’ Hall-of-Famer Kirby Puckett.
“[Triton was] excited to have me come and play and it was there I learned all the aspects and fundamentals of baseball,” he said.
Stearns said he expected to be drafted after he had a strong year at Triton, but it did not happen. He was playing for the Menomonie Eagles that summer when he met the Falcon head coach at the time, Craig Walter, who convinced him to come to UWRF.
“I was worried about not being seen by scouts at such a small school, but he assured me that if I was good enough they would find me,” Stearns said.
Stearns once again had an excellent season. He led the team in most offensive categories, including batting average (.447), home runs (14), stolen bases (19) and hits (59).
Upon arrival at UWRF, Stearns immediately stood out.
“I think we all immediately recognized that he was an amazingly fast guy, easily the fastest player in the conference,” former Falcon pitcher Dan Tschida said in an e-mail interview.
Walter said he remembered Stearns’ speed in the first game of the 1996 season, played at the Metrodome, when Stearns hit a long fly ball to left field.
“He ran so well, by the time that ball landed he was already at second base,” Walter said.
Stearns started the 1996 season off slow, but he went on a tear when conference play began.
“Stearnsy went something like 15-for-16 with a few walks and a couple of bombs in our first four conference games against UW-Stout and UW-La Crosse,” Tschida said. “It was really one of the most impressive streaks I had ever seen.”
Stearns’ play was finally rewarded when he was taken by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 12th round of the 1996 amateur draft, and 358th overall.
After the draft, he was assigned to the Dodgers’ affiliate in the short-season Northwest League, the Yakima Bears, a team that was managed by current Minnesota Twins’ hitting coach Joe Vavra.
“My first year in Yakima was completely a great experience,” Stearns said. “[Vavra], the other coaches and my teammates made it a blast.”
The Bears went on to win the Northwest League Championship, and Stearns had a solid year, batting .257 with 17 stolen bases, playing left field.
Stearns went on to spring training in Vero Beach, Fla. with the Dodgers in 1997.
He proved his speed in Vero Beach, winning a 60-yard dash against all the players in the Dodger organization.
“I got a gold watch for that one,” Stearns said.
He also rubbed shoulders with some of the stars of the time.
“Having spring training at Vero Beach with all the big leaguers and being able to see them everyday was pretty cool,” Stearns said. “Listening to Mike Piazza and Eric Karros speak on how to act like professionals and the other things that we need to be careful of.”
After spring training, Stearns was scheduled to be playing for the Dodgers’ affiliate in San Bernardino, Calif., but was switched at the last minute and sent to the Savannah, Ga. club instead.
“The coach [in Savannah] didn’t know my name, my position, which side I batted from or anything,” Stearns said.
The first half of the 1997 season he only played on the off-days, backing up the starting centerfielder.
“They would rest him on days when a left-handed pitcher started for the other team because he hit lefty and I’m sure they didn’t want to hurt his statistics, so I was the one who bit the bullet,” Stearns said. “Being a left-handed hitter myself, things were beginning to come clear.”
He improved in the second half, batting over .300, but it was not enough to erase the first, and he ended the season with a .226 batting average.
The Dodgers dropped one of their minor league teams after the 1997 season. Stearns was given his release as a result because they no longer had as many roster spots available.
He is currently back in Bloomer, has been married for 11 years with two children, and works in construction.
“I thought hard and long about getting on with another club, but realistically I never thought I would get to the big show,” he said. “With a baby that was due two days after I was supposed to be at spring training, I decided to let the dream go and find a new one to follow.”