On Saturday, the Mets will distribute 25,000 bobbleheaded likenesses of Daniel Joseph Staub, which is not the same thing as actual likenesses — the resemblance is primarily hair-deep — and may not be enough for the club to satisfy the honoree’s stated wish that “everyone comes out and gets one.” Nobody likes to imagine Customers No. 25,001 and beyond going home emptyhanded.
Still, Rusty Staub Bobblehead Day is inspired stuff, probably the Mets’ boldest bobble choice in their 50th anniversary series. Rusty will be bubble-wrapped, boxed and presented to represent the 1970s Mets, which isn’t the player-decade linkage I would have made off the top of my non-bobblehead. My choice was Tom Seaver, but he got the ’60s and apparently you can’t make everything about Tom Seaver (though I can dream). Staub, however, is the worthiest non-Seaver candidate imaginable. Rusty was here for only four years of the ’70s, and only wore No. 10 for one of those years, but he was a huge impact player during the part of the decade when things were generally going well.
Rusty’s bat, dislodged from the Expos in April 1972, transformed the Mets once the strike-delayed season got underway, making the lineup dangerous and the team a 25-7 powerhouse. His broken hand — which he played with for two weeks — loosened the Mets’ grip on contention, but a year later, a recovered Staub helped lead the charge that resulted in the come-from-behind capture of the 1973 division title. Staub sacrificed his body to make a brilliant catch in Game Four of the NLCS against the Reds, played with searing shoulder pain in the World Series yet hit .423 against the A’s and finished the ’73 postseason with four roundtrippers. Two years later, he became the first Met to drive in more than a hundred runs, racking up 105 ribbies in 1975.
Then he was traded to Detroit for Mickey Lolich for no good reason. Not for no discernible reason — M. Donald Grant wanted him, his 10 & 5 status and his independent thinking out of the clubhouse — but certainly for no good reason. Frank Cashen blessedly brought him back as a free agent in the next decade, and Rusty Staub enjoyed the best second act any Recidivist Met  ever had, emerging from 1981 to 1985 as one of the game’s premier pinch-hitters and a budding contender’s gray eminence.
Or orange eminence.
The Rusty Staub of 1972 through 1975 is the one being toasted tomorrow, and the Rusty Staub of today was gracious enough to join the blogger corps on a Mets-arranged conference call the other night. Many fine questions were asked and many forthright answers were offered (read ’em here, courtesy of MetsBlog’s transcription ), but left out of the conversation is what an incredibly charitable force he’s been in this community since his playing days wound down. It was Rusty’s Foundation  for the families of firefighters and police officers lost in action that was at the fore of New York’s post-9/11 recovery efforts, and it’s Rusty who’s still front and center with his long-running group, hosting another of his annual picnics at Citi Field for its benefit on June 20. Rusty has been listed as one of the Mets’ ambassadors these last thirteen seasons, but the title is almost a formality. Nobody has represented the Mets or baseball better since we first got to know Rusty Staub four decades ago.
Yes, it’s been a long time, which is another thing about Rusty Staub that struck me as I sat on the line and waited for my turn to ask a conference call question. Rusty’s career stretched with the kind of longevity that would impress anyone this side of Jamie Moyer . He came up to the bigs as a Houston Colt .45 in 1963 under manager Harry Craft and he lasted, with distinction, through the Mets’ near-miss pennant race of 1985 under manager Davey Johnson.
Which is when it hit me that a guy who was playing major league baseball in 1963 once played for a manager who is managing in 2012.
When I was given my opportunity to query Ambassador Staub, I asked Rusty for his impressions of Davey, his final skipper in 1984 and 1985 when Johnson was in his first managerial gig, and the current pilot of the first-place Washington Nationals.
“We got along great. He knew as much about when to use me as anybody. I had respect for the way he handled the game. The whole team lacked a little bit of discipline — there’s no question about that. We all know what happened off the field with this team. This was a great group which probably should have won more. But he was very, very good on the field. He doesn’t need my OK to understand that because he’s done well every place he’s ever managed.
“He is his own guy, he goes about it his own way and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and that’s probably a good thing for a manager to be. I was happy for him [that] he got another shot in the big leagues, and […] the team is spending a little money on players and doing pretty good.”
If the Johnson Nats keep it up — which conflicts mightily with our contemporary parochial interests, but better them than the rest of the division on the off chance if it can’t be us — we can assume Davey will garner a great deal of attention for doing yet another heckuva job with yet another team. And he should. But though any 2012 success Davey Johnson has is a Davey Johnson story, there’s something about Rusty Staub’s presence at the beginning of Davey’s first chapter as a manager that tickles me no end.
• There’s a guy managing today who managed a player who first played 49 years ago (April 9, 1963, at Colt Stadium, his first hit coming off the Giants’ Jack Sanford in the sixth inning, leading Alvin Dark to bring in future Met Jack Fisher to face future Met Bob Aspromonte).
• There’s a guy managing today who managed a player who hit a home run in the Polo Grounds (July 16, 1963, top of the seventh, nobody on, cutting Al Jackson’s lead to 3-1 in a game the Mets won, 4-3, in walkoff fashion when Norm Sherry singled home Rod Kanehl in a ninth-inning rally set up when a pickoff attempt of Hot Rod went awry at first; the first baseman was…Rusty Staub).
• There’s a guy managing today who managed a player who first played when John F. Kennedy was president (and Barack Obama had just turned 20 months old).
• There’s a guy managing today who managed a player who first played before the Mets ever won a World Series…which was accomplished when that same guy managing today hit a deep fly ball to left field at Shea Stadium on October 16, 1969.
On that last point, the Davey-Rusty duo isn’t exactly alone. A little checking on Baseball Reference, which is as valuable for a curious baseball fan as Rusty’s bat was to Davey’s strategizing 27 years ago, reveals there are three managers active who once managed players whose careers commenced in the 1960s. From longest ago to most recent (relatively speaking), they are:
1. Davey Johnson and Rusty Staub (debuted 1963), Mets, 1984-1985;
2. Bobby Valentine and Nolan Ryan (debuted 1966), Rangers, 1989-1992;
3. Davey Johnson and Mike Torrez (debuted 1967), Mets, 1984;
4. Bobby Valentine and Toby Harrah (debuted 1969), Rangers, 1985-1986;
5. Davey Johnson and George Foster (debuted 1969), Mets, 1984-1986;
6. Jim Leyland and Jerry Reuss (debuted 1969), Pirates, 1990.
From there, a couple of handfuls of early ’70s debuts can be found on the respective all-time rosters of the three veteran managers who helm the Nats, Red Sox and Tigers today. Davey’s other charges who were playing while Richard Nixon was in his first term include Larry Bowa, Dick Tidrow and Tom Paciorek. Bobby V had Paciorek, too, along with future Met pitching coach Charlie Hough, while in Texas.
The three aforementioned managers have truly endured. Leyland endured without pissing too many people off, which explains why his MLB managerial gap — seven years between Colorado and Detroit — wasn’t quite as long as Valentine’s (a decade) and Johnson’s (eleven years). It also indicates managers who are old now once managed when they were pretty young. Although Leyland has had the air of death-warmed-over about him ever since he started steering the Pirates’ ship at the age of 41, he’s nearly nine months younger than Staub. Johnson, who managed his first Mets game at 41, is Rusty’s senior by only about fourteen months. Bobby V was hired away from Davey’s staff by Texas a few days after his 35th birthday.
The Davey-Rusty spread, though nearing a half-century, isn’t a record. It’s probably not all that close to being one. Just for comparison’s sake, in 1935, while running the show as Brooklyn’s second-year skipper, Casey Stengel managed Cooperstown-bound Dazzy Vance , who commenced his major league career in 1915. Thirty years later, at the end of his Met tenure, Casey nurtured rookie Tug McGraw, who would pitch in the big leagues from 1965 until 1984. That puts the Stengel player span, from Dazzy’s introduction to Tug’s finale, at 69 years.
And that’s not necessarily the record, either. Consider that Connie Mack was a player-manager with the 1894 Pirates and managed a shortstop by the name of Bones Ely , who broke in with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League (not to be confused with the Bison-populated Mets of today’s very same National League) in 1884. In 1947, during the twilight of Mack’s fifty years managing the Philadelphia Athletics (owned by the ever-versatile Connie Mack), he brought up young Nellie Fox, whom he traded to the White Sox two years later for the not nearly as immortal Joe Tipton. Soon on his way to the Hall of Fame, Fox lasted clear to 1965, when he finished up as a Houston Astro, a teammate of…yup, Rusty Staub. That makes the Mack player span, from Ely to Nellie, a formidable 81 years.
I’m guessing that’s the record for this sort of thing. And I’m guessing anything involving Connie Mack won’t ever be surpassed for longevity (not even by Jamie Moyer). But Davey’s probably going to be able to give Casey a run for his Dazzy-Tug money down the road. Remember, he’s managing a pretty bright prospect named Bryce Harper, who is the same age in 2012 that Rusty Staub was in 1963. If 19-year-old Harper doesn’t altogether flame out, he’s probably a decent bet to be playing well into the 2020s, maybe into the 2030s. Davey isn’t likely to be his manager then, but Johnson will rightly have him on his permanent record, same as he has Staub. We could be talking by then, if we’re still around, about the Davey span, from Rusty to Bryce, closing in on 70 years.
Which is really just an excuse for us right now to be talking about Rusty Staub’s bobblehead. As the man himself said, everybody should go out and get one.