The day was September 18, 1983, and the Baltimore Orioles were in the thick of a pennant race. Tied 9-9 with the Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore had just rebounded from a 7-2 deficit. Just weeks after being called up from the minors, rookie catcher John Stefero stepped to the plate and hit a liner to right field to spring Glenn Gulliver for the go-ahead RBI. The O’s won in thrilling fashion.
The next day, Stefero faced familiar territory. Tied 7-7 with the Brewers in extra innings, the catcher slapped a two-out single into right field for the game-winning hit.
The Orioles went on to win the World Series that year, and those two moments are just a few that Stefero remembers fondly.
You could say that Stefero had a flair for the dramatic. He spent 11 seasons between the majors and minors — a member of the Orioles, Montreal Expos and affiliates of the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs — playing on six championship teams before an elbow injury sidelined his career.
Now the year is 2016, and Stefero is playing for a different team: Brown’s Toyota of Glen Burnie.
“I don’t live my life holding onto my baseball career,” said Stefero, the general manager and president at the Toyota dealership. “I cherish everything I accomplished. But you have to move on.”
And so Stefero did move on. After working part time as a salesman while rehabbing his injury, he hung up his cleats in 1990. In automotive sales, he ascended the ranks, just as he did in the minor leagues.
On the outset, baseball and automotive sales are two vastly different professions, but Stefero sees parallels between the two. Instead of managing a pitching staff, adapting to the pitching styles of Jim Palmer and Scott McGregor, he now manages 140 employees, putting them in the best position to succeed.
“I have a team concept,” said Stefero, who lauded his former baseball managers like Grady Little and Earl Weaver for their mentorship skills. “It took me a while to get the right people in place. What’s different here than some of the other dealerships is that everyone works together instead of against one another. And when I address people, I say ‘us’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘me.’”
The team concept is as important now as it was when Stefero was suiting up on the diamond. The former catcher still watches the game with an analytical eye. He approves of some recent rule changes, such as one intended to prevent injuries from collisions at home plate. But he doesn’t think that would change his mindset or approach. “As a catcher, the goal is to block that plate at all costs,” Stefero said. “If it costs you your career, it costs you your career.”
As for his own career, Stefero keeps remnants from his playing days: a 1983 World Series ring with the Orioles, and marks along his hands, where, over time, he suffered 18 broken fingers.
There are also fond memories. He was MVP of the Bluefield Orioles in 1979, brought up in 1983 because Weaver sought a left-handed hitter to replace Joe Nolan, who was sidelined with a broken toe. Despite his game-winning theatrics, Stefero still places his debut among his greatest accomplishments.
“I think if every baseball player told you the honest truth, their best moment was when they realized their dream of playing in the big leagues and walking the runway on Opening Day for the first time,” Stefero said. “Less than 1 percent of players make it.”
Customers still ask Stefero about baseball, what he thinks about the Orioles’ playoff chances. Even now that he’s off the field and focused on Brown’s Toyota, the former catcher still strives to call the game.
“I think with everything – whether its sports, personal life or job – you always want to leave on your own terms,” Stefero said. “Unfortunately, I had to quit [baseball] because of injuries, but a player’s goal is to not be released or fired. It’s the same thing here. I come to work every day and say, ‘I did the best I can,’ just like when I played baseball.”