BASEBALL: Ahead of final season, Stuper reflects on his baseball journey and 30 years at Yale
In an interview with the News, the winningest coach in Yale baseball history recounted his time in the MLB and his road from community college coach to the Ivy League.
Courtesy of Yale Athletics
After 30 years at the helm of Yale’s baseball program, John Stuper is set to retire at the end of the 2022 season.
Stuper, whose retirement was announced by Yale Athletics last month, is the winningest coach in Yale baseball history with a total of 533 wins, including 267 against Ancient Eight teams. The Pennsylvania native has four Ivy titles and a pair of NCAA Regional appearances under his belt and has had 37 of his Bulldogs selected in the MLB Draft.
“Coach Stuper gave me the opportunity to play baseball at the greatest university in the world, and my family and I will forever be grateful for that,” Oakland Athletics pitcher and Yale baseball alumnus Kumar Nambiar ’19 said. “Stupe has always believed in me as a pitcher, even when others didn’t, and he is a huge reason I am pitching professionally.
Nambiar’s favorite memories were not on the field, he said, but when Stuper “[shared] stories about the players at Yale before me,” he said.
“There are countless remarkable people that he recruited and coached over his tenure, and those stories prove how special Yale baseball has been over the last three decades thanks to Coach Stuper,” Nambiar said.
Contributions on and off the field
Stuper’s contributions to the Yale community are not limited to baseball. According to pitcher Quinn Cleary ’23, the team often assists with other varsity programs, including field hockey, volleyball, soccer and hockey, doing a myriad of tasks as student employees in a tradition that Stuper has established during his time as head coach. Out of all the sideline contributions, however, the Yale baseball team’s field hockey ball chasing skills are unrivaled.
In interviews with the News, four different field hockey referees described Yale baseball’s ball chasing skills as the best in the NCAA. Yale baseball captain Mason LaPlante ’22 was one of the players who chased field hockey balls at games this year.
“When I showed up here my freshman year we had already established [chasing balls at field hockey games] as Yale baseball culture… There’s a really high standard we hold ourselves to,” LaPlante said. “A couple of years ago, we had a group of four guys who were invited to chase the regional between Harvard and Princeton. And then this year, four of us, and I was one of the guys this year, we went down to New Jersey for the Rutgers vs. Liberty regional.”
According to Cleary, there was even discussion of sending the Yale baseball ball chasers to Ann Arbor for the national championship.
Coach John Stuper is married to former Yale field hockey head coach Pam Stuper, who announced that she was leaving in December to accept a position with the USA Field Hockey Foundation as Executive Director leading all fundraising initiatives, ending a 17-year run with the Blue and White.
The Stupers first met at Yale, quickly becoming friends before getting married on campus. The ceremony was filmed by former baseball player and now governor of Florida Ron De Santis ’01. The Stupers have coached at Yale for a combined 47 years.
“I think [the Yale baseball program is] just an extremely welcoming group of players, families, parents, alumni,” Yale assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Andrew Dickson said.
“The thing that stands out to me the most was when I had first accepted the job [in 2020] to come [to Yale] I hadn’t even moved yet, I was kind of in the process, and once Coach Stuper had let the team know the amount of texts that I got from every single player on the team reaching out and just welcoming me meant a lot because that doesn’t happen everywhere,” Dickson explained.
The generosity of the Yale baseball family was showcased in 2019 when former volunteer assistant coach Ray Guarino was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. When Yale baseball alumnus Joseph Lubanski ’15 found out about Guarino’s condition that May, he contacted teammate and former captain Richard Slenker ’17 to set-up a GoFundMe page to help their coach.
In less than 24 hours, the Ray Guarino Yale Baseball Cancer Fight Fund raised over $21,000, and by July of that year the page had raised $100,695 from 858 unique donors.
“It was just something that I think really any Yale baseball player would do,” Lubanski said about setting up the GoFundMe page in an interview with the News last year. “I think it would have happened eventually. Ray-Ray’s impacted so many of us, and he’s a big part of all of our lives even though we might not be on campus everyday anymore on the daily basis that we used to. The response kind of speaks for itself of who he is and what he’s meant to the program and the families he’s touched along the way.”
The origins of Stuper’s baseball journey
Stuper’s path to leading the Yale program was anything but straightforward.
Stuper was raised in Pennsylvania and took on his father’s love of baseball. His father, he said, was a coal miner who declined a professional baseball contract in order to support his wife and kids. Despite the long days at the mine, Stuper’s father was never too tired to play catch with him.
“I get the biggest kick when my players come back and introduce their wives to me, or their kids,” Stuper said. “And I just look at them and I go, ‘I remember you as an absolutely clueless 18-year-old freshman.’”
In high school, he had a 3–4 record as a pitcher and “nobody was really interested in him,” according to Stuper. That was until Stuper met then-Butler County Community College baseball coach Tom Beckett. Beckett, who would later serve as Yale’s athletic director from 1994 to 2018, turned Stuper “from a boy into a man” and started him on the path to baseball stardom. In two years with Beckett, Stuper went 25–3 and started getting attention.
After transferring to Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Stuper played for one year before being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 18th round of the 1978 MLB Draft.
After a self-described “horrible first season” with the Pirates, Stuper was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. But his struggles did not stop there, as he had a rough start in Double-A ball with the Arkansas Travelers. But on August 5, 1980, Stuper’s manager had a talk with him.
“Here’s how he pumps me up: we’re in Shreveport, Louisiana and he goes, ‘I don’t have anybody else, you’re going to have to pitch the most.’ Awesome,” Stuper said. “So then he proceeded, when he went to give out the lineup cards at the beginning of the game, to have an argument with the umpire and got thrown out. So the umpire’s pissed at anyone that’s wearing an Arkansas jersey… And somehow I went out to pitch a four-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts, went the whole nine innings and came back into the clubhouse and [the manager] was shocked.”
From there, it all seemed to click for Stuper. By the end of the year, he had made the Cardinals MLB 40-man roster. After a string of winter ball games in Mexico, Stuper arrived at the Cardinals’ Major League spring training camp and “almost made the team” due to his midseason form thanks to all the innings he had thrown in 1980. According to Stuper, he was told by the Cardinals manager that despite not making the team he would surely be back in a couple of months to help the big league club. But after throwing 276 innings in one calendar year Stuper’s arm had “nothing” and failed to impress in his first year in Triple-A ball.
At the end of the 1981 minor league season, Stuper took the winter off to rest. Despite having a suboptimal spring training with the big league club, he got off to a 7–1 start in Triple-A, making two shutouts. On June 1, 1982, Stuper made his first career MLB start with the St. Louis Cardinals. Beckett was on a three hour call that day with his former boss, the Butler Community College athletic director, listening to a description of the game because he hated watching, according to Stuper.
“So that was 1982,” Stuper said. “Big year in my life.”
Stuper won the World Series with the Cardinals later that year and was an integral part of the championship team. He started games two and six of the series against the Milwaukee Brewers, winning the latter.
Becoming a coach
During the offseasons, Stuper would head back to Butler Community College to help out. At some point, he said, the “coaching bug” spread to him. After finishing up his playing career, Stuper went back to Butler Community College and coached for five years.
Stuper would later get a call from Hall of Fame catcher and fellow Cardinal Ted Simmons asking if he wanted to be a pitching coach with St. Louis. After two years of coaching with his former team, Stuper went to a clinic in Pittsburgh that he attended every year. There, he met then-Yale softball coach Kathy Arendsen.
“So she came into the coaches’ hospitality room, and I [could] tell that she didn’t know anybody,” Stuper said. “Since I was kind of a veteran of this clinic I went up and started talking to her… So we started talking about Yale and she said, ‘You know the Yale baseball job is open — if you know anyone who might be interested you let me know.’And I said, ‘Well tell me about it.’ And so she went on to extol the virtues of Yale and how great the kids were. I said ‘I’m interested.’”
Stuper got the job. During his first season in 1993, the Bulldogs won 33 games, a school record which he then bested in 2017 with 34 wins.
Two years after joining the Bulldogs, Stuper’s “second father” Beckett took the athletic director job. Stuper joked that he got Beckett the AD job which he held for 24 years.
“It’s been a 30 year privilege,” Stuper said about his time at Yale.
And now, during his final season, Stuper hopes to lead his team to another Ivy League title with a team that ranks first in the 2022 Ivy League baseball preseason poll.
Stuper’s last regular season game, scheduled for May 15, is a home matchup at the newly renovated Bush Field against Harvard.