Yale baseball coach John Stuper reflects on relationships as he walks away: ‘Awesome baseball family’

WEST HAVEN — John Stuper stood under the sun in foul territory behind third base Thursday afternoon as a white Ivy League flag at Yale Field was pulled toward the horizon by a stiff breeze.

He was asked about himself and about something ending, conversation triggers for him to spend nearly an hour speaking about others and something ongoing.

“People ask me what I’ll remember,” Stuper said, looking to the outfield. “It’s not wins and losses or championships. It’s relationships.”

Those will continue, of course.

Stuper, 65, is headed to Florida soon, though, having sold his Connecticut home while his next one is under construction in St. Petersburg. His 30-year run as coach and caretaker for a program that was established when Abraham Lincoln was president is down to a final weekend that will celebrate where the Bulldogs have been and where they are headed.

Harvard is the opponent for Saturday’s doubleheader, games to sandwich ceremonies marking Stuper’s retirement and the dedications of the George H.W. Bush ’48 Field and the Jim Neil ’76 Clubhouse.

As Yale Field officially becomes Bush Field, the stands of the facility, opened in 1928 and renovated over the past couple of years, will be sprinkled with some 75 former players — many of them having developed and maintained lasting bonds with Stuper, who will emcee the event and is intent on celebrating others much more than himself.

Senior Day festivities will take place Sunday during the finale. Yale (18-17) is wrapping up a season dedicated to the elder Bush and, upon the suggestion of captain Mason LaPlante, the 2020 and 2021 teams that had all or the majority of games canceled due to the pandemic.

“I don’t want anything overshadowed by me,” Stuper said.

Still, “Stupe” is at the forefront of many peoples’ minds.

“It’s been a complete honor to be on the field for his last season,” said junior pitcher Mike Walsh, who will start Saturday’s opener. “Every conversation you have with him, you learn a little bit more about baseball and life, how to carry yourself as a man.”

The men that the players of this university and program become is well documented.

“Yale considers itself an incubator for leadership,” Stuper said. “Obviously George Bush 41 and George Bush 43 are the two most prominent ones, but you’ve got captains of industry, general managers of big league teams, doctors and lawyers at the top of their field, a governor who could be president one day …”

Stuper is particularly close with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Class of 2001, a senior captain for the Bulldogs before moving on to Harvard Law School. DeSantis went on to join the Navy, serving in Iraq, and later became a Florida congressman. Now he’s considered an eventual Republican presidential candidate.

“I call him D when it’s just me and him,” Stuper said. “I call him Mr. Governor when other people are around.”

Craig Breslow, Class of 2002, pitched for seven teams over 13 years in the majors. He is now an assistant general manager and vice president for the Cubs. Craig Driver, a former assistant on Stuper’s Yale staff, is the Cubs’ first-base coach.

“I’ve told them, I love you both — but I still hate the Cubs,” said Stuper, who won a World Series as a 25-year-old rookie with the Cardinals in 1982.

Mike Elias, a pitcher and a 2006 graduate, is now Orioles general manager.

“I got him his first job as a scout with the Cardinals and I said, ‘If you become a GM, I’m going to be your assistant to the GM who does nothing and gets paid 300K,’” Stuper said, laughing. “He said, “Fine! Fine!’ He’s going to be here Saturday. Maybe I’ll talk to him about that.”

See the pattern here?

Stuper is fun and sarcastic, making the most of the mundane moments the sport is built around. He’s also a no-nonsense baseball guy with basic tenets of demanding only that players show up on time and work hard. He has found and offered great levity for 30 years but he is serious, too, offering the structure that success in baseball requires.

“Stupe is a guy who impacted not just my career, but my life,” said Breslow, who grew up in Trumbull. “Things could have gone differently had he not taken an interest in me and put me on the path I’m currently on. I think about that all the time. College is a formative time. The friends you make, the relationships you develop, the lessons you learn, they stick with you for a lifetime. And Stupe very much shaped that for me and my teammates. Stupe just has this engaging personality and charisma, and he cares so deeply about his players and Yale.”

Teddy Hague, a grad student and first baseman from Amity who is playing on a torn left ACL, said, “Stupe has always believed in us, which is the best thing a coach can do. He’s had a tremendous impact on my life.”

Yale baseball has enriched Stuper’s life. His wife, Pam, is Yale’s former field hockey coach. She is now the executive director of the U.S. Field Hockey Foundation.

“Married right on campus,” Stuper said. “Guess who videoed our wedding? Ron DeSantis.”

Pam Stuper resigned from her Yale position in December 2021, around the same time her husband had his fifth tattoo inked on his right biceps. “YALE BASEBALL,” it reads. “1993-2022.” Stuper’s contract had expired in 2021 and he had signed another one-year deal. He knew 2022 would be his final season.

Stuper has a Cardinals logo tattooed on his left shoulder. Extremely patriotic, he has a tattoo of an eagle flying over an American flag on his back. The “Wounded Warrior Project” tattoo on his chest marks his long support of that organization and his friendship with a soldier.

The other tattoo, Stuper’s first, features the initials KB and NG around a Yale logo, honoring Class of 2005 players Kyle Burnat and Nicholas Grass, who were killed in a 2003 car crash. The Burnat-Grass Complex hitting facility sits beyond Bush Field’s left field wall.

Yale’s all-time winningest coach, Stuper’s career record is 551-626-4. His teams have won four Ivy League championships, two in the past four years, and twice appeared in an NCAA Tournament regional.

“I don’t second-guess my decision,” Stuper said. “Thirty years is a long time. I think the program needs some new leadership, some new blood. Am I going to be sad? I’ll miss the kids. But you can’t coach forever, nor should you.”

Stuper said this season has felt like any other — until about 10 days ago.

“You can really see the finish line now,” he said. “My wife asked me how I was doing and I was like, I don’t know. I’ve never been through this. I know it’s the right decision, but when you invest half your life to a place — I’ll be sad.”

There is no postseason on the line this weekend. Yale is in fifth place in the Ivy, one game behind Harvard. Still, Stuper is being ushered into retirement by one of his favorite teams.

“It’s been an absolute 30-year honor,” Stuper said. “Yeah, I played in the big leagues. But I’m from a small town in Western Pennsylvania, 12,000 people, so for me to be at, in my opinion, the greatest university in the world and go out on my own terms, it’s special. I never treated these guys as just academics. There’s a difference between smart guys who happen to play baseball and baseball players who happen to be smart. I coach them like baseball players.”

Now he’ll keep in touch from Florida. Stuper, a certified personal trainer, says fitness is his only passion outside of baseball, which will keep him busy throughout the summer. He will return to St. Louis at least three times — for a fantasy camp, a 40-year World Series reunion, “and, believe it or not, a bobblehead night.”

Stuper has always been easily excited, playful. He glows when talking about the upcoming Hall of Fame induction of friend and mentor Jim Kaat, and about getting to know members of the Bush family — George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, in particular. Both died in 2018.

A year earlier, the Bushes invited Stuper and players to Kennebunkport, Maine, to celebrate the team’s 2017 season, which ended with two NCAA regional victories and a record 34 total. On the ride, Stuper realized it was Barbara’s 92nd birthday. Stuper had flowers delivered and the team sang “Happy Birthday.”

Five years later, it’s time for Stuper to head south. No need for his signature winter coat.

“Players make fun of me because I get cold easily,” he said. “We ordered the wrong color — it’s black — like a dozen of them. The equipment guy was like, ‘I’ve got to send these back.’ I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ It says ‘Yale Baseball’ on it. I’ve been wearing it the last five years. It’s the warmest jacket in the history of jackets. So I decided I was going to pass it down.”

To whom, though? Players floated the idea of a contest — a John Stuper impersonation contest. Walsh won by stealing Stuper’s glasses and wool knit hat from his office and pretending to be Stuper calling pitches from the dugout.

“Walsh is from Chicago,” Stuper said. “He put the jacket on. I said, ‘That thing will laugh at Chicago winters even on the lakefront.’ I joke with them and they joke with me. I’m glad I can have that relationship with them and still have their respect. I’ve been part of an awesome baseball family and I will be for life.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst