Few baseball players attracted more nouns than Rusty Staub. Anybody can be described with adjectives. Most players are known simply as players, maybe identified by position. The late Daniel Joseph Staub, who died overnight in South Florida three days shy of his 74th birthday, had that part down cold: right fielder; first baseman; pinch-hitter deluxe. But he was so much more.
Raconteur. Bon vivant. Gourmet. Gourmand. Connoisseur. Philanthropist. Ambassador. New Yorker. Legend.
And, of course, Met.
Rusty Staub was born to be a Met. He had to be, right? He was a George Plimpton character who didn’t have to be invented. Entered this world on April 1, but nobody’s fool. Bare arms. Black gloves. Red hair. Lethal bat. A stroke that could not be easily neutralized. A big man in this town not once, not twice, but forever. Opened a restaurant. Opened another. Traded not on his fame but on his food. Provided ballast for a league champion. Mentored most of a world champion. Spent a decade talking about baseball in the broadcast booth. Devoted himself continually to the aid of others.
A 500-hit man in Houston, in Montreal, in Detroit and in New York. One city couldn’t contain this son of New Orleans, but we got the most of him. We got him when we needed him, in April of 1972. We needed him in our lineup and we needed him to brighten our outlook. We’d just lost Gil Hodges. Rusty told a story about Gil. Rusty told a story about everything, and you were always delighted to listen. The trade that was about to make the most vital of Expos a Met was in progress, but not yet official. Gil knew, but couldn’t say anything when he and Rusty crossed paths in church on Easter Sunday toward the end of Spring Training. Rusty had no idea what was up, but was touched by how much in the spirit of the day Gil was to be so friendly to him, a division rival.
In a matter of hours, Gil was gone. In a matter of days, Rusty was on his team. It was a blur of a time. The manager was taken from us, an All-Star was delivered to us, the game was on hold in deference to a strike. Then baseball came back and, quite suddenly, Yogi Berra and Rusty Staub were leading the Mets into first place.
First place didn’t last in 1972. Rusty was hit in the hand, and that was pretty much all she wrote. But he’d be healed by 1973 and, when he had enough healthy company, the Mets got well. Rusty and his teammates absconded with September. The rest of the National League East didn’t know what hit them. Then the Mets made off with the first half of October despite facing a universally believed better opponent. The believing was definitively on the Mets’ side then. Rusty Staub, too: a homer in Game Two; two homers in Game Three; the day temporarily saved when he crashed into the wall to make a breathtaking catch in the eleventh inning of Game Four. Cincinnati had the Big Red Machine. New York had Le Grand Orange.
He almost won us the World Series. Tried to do it on one shoulder. Batted .423 the only time he went to the Fall Classic. Led us through seven games. The Mets couldn’t beat the A’s in ’73 nor many opponents in general in ’74, but Rusty kept plugging, kept hitting, kept patrolling right, throwing out more runners than anybody else in the league from his station. And in 1975, Rusty grabbed the wheel, driving in more runners than any Met ever had before, 105. No Met was more popular. No Met was more clutch.
Then, because the ballclub he worked for had fallen ever more tightly into the grip of idiots, Rusty Staub was traded to the Tigers. The Tigers’ gain, to be sure. The Mets would keep making trades that baffled the mind and offended the senses. Rusty simply kept hitting. The Mets sadly kept getting worse.
Then we got him again when we needed him again. We always needed a Rusty Staub…make that the Rusty Staub. There was only one. He wasn’t as agile as he once was, but the parts of his considerable anatomy he used to swing the bat functioned just fine. Rusty was two or three rare breeds in one as soon as he settled in for his second Met term: that pinch-hitter you were sure you could count on; that Met who returned to the team and built on rather than detracted from our established memories; and a veteran presence that transcended the clichéd overtones attached to that phrase. Listen to Keith Hernandez. Listen to Ron Darling. Read Dwight Gooden’s autobiography. Rusty guided each of them through their first months and years in New York. He knew the town. He knew the sport. He knew what he was doing.
And he continued to hit. He passed 40 and homered, just as he had before he reached 20. That coupled him with Ty Cobb in the annals of baseball. One late April day versus the Pirates, when Davey Johnson’s options were severely limited, he asked Rusty to do more than bat. He played right and left and right and left — Davey tried to hide Rusty in extra innings from any encounters with fly balls. It almost worked. Rusty had to do some fielding. As with most everything he went after, he accomplished his task with élan.
Players come and go, in and out of lineups, on and off of rosters. Rusty made an indelible impression that only deepened. He may have been the de facto 25th man on the roster by 1985, but there was no forgetting he was waiting on the bench for one more call, one more swing, one more hit among 2,716 collected across 23 seasons. We chanted for him. We stood for him. We applauded him right up through his final at-bat in his final game, October 6, 1985. His groundout ended his career as well as the greatest season a Mets club that didn’t win admission to the postseason ever had. The Mets would keep climbing without him in their immediate ranks.
Still, we held on to him. The first place by a mile Mets had a day for him in 1986. His former teammates wore orange wigs and white visors bearing his restaurant’s logo. A couple of months later, he was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame, alongside Buddy Harrelson, in the first class devoted strictly to players. They were both born to be Mets. It just took Rusty a little longer to find his way home.
Rusty kept cooking in Manhattan. He kept talking in Queens. Eventually he gave up both gigs, but he remained around. He took care of the families of fallen cops and firefighters. There were a lot of people to take care of after September 11, 2001. Rusty’s foundation looked after each of them. His barbecues on their behalf at Shea and Citi were enormous annual events. His fellow MLB alumni benefited from his attention, too. And if you were lucky enough to meet Rusty during the three-plus decades during his retirement from playing baseball, you came away utterly enhanced by the experience.
He was Rusty Staub. He was something.