By Jeff Freier on March 10th, 2010 2:52 PM
We all know about the great athletes in New York sports history – Babe Ruth, Tom Seaver, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Namath, Mark Messier, Walt Frazier – and even the busts – Ed Whitson, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Stephon Marbury, Scott Gomez. But what about the slightly-to-highly-above-average athlete? The kind-of-great but not all-timer? They may not have been Hall-of-Famers, but they were All-Stars, fan favorites, cogs on a championship team or maybe even just pretty darn good. They’re the little brother that didn’t hog all the attention. But they’re certainly worth talking about and remembering. So when do they get their due? Well, now they will. Here is a series of the not-quite-legendary in New York sports history.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Mets were in the habit of trading away their young talent for, well, basically nothing. Amos Otis for Joe Foy. Nolan Ryan (and a few others) for Jim Fregosi. And they did it again when they sent Ken Singleton to Montreal (with Mike Jorgensen and Tim Foli). But this time, they got something of value in return. They got Daniel Joseph “Rusty” Staub. Already a five-time All-Star with Houston and the Expos, and a legend in his three years in Montreal (he learned to speak French and in return was given the nickname Le Grand Orange by the natives), Staub became an instant fan favorite in Queens. Younger fans may only remember him as a portly pinch hitter (or real young fans may not remember him at all), but in his first go-round with the Mets (1972-’75), he was the team’s best position player.
The New Orleans native’s first season with the Mets was derailed when he was hit by a pitch thrown by future teammate George Stone, which broke his hand. But the next season, 1973, was a magical one for both Staub and the Mets. They Ya Gotta Believed their way to first place, and then upset the Big Red Machine in the playoffs. The Mets right fielder only had three hits in the series but he sure made his presence felt. Those three hits all happened to be home runs (and he had five RBI’s). In game four, in the 11th inning, he made one of the great catches in Mets history (which is actually saying a lot), when he made a running catch, robbing Dan Driessen of an extra-base hit, crashed into the wall and separated his shoulder. That didn’t stop him from playing in the World Series against Oakland, though. He starred at the plate, hitting .423, with 11 hits, a home run and six RBI’s. He won game four for the Mets, when he homered off Ken Holtzman. And he did it all while having to throw underhand while out in the field because he couldn’t lift his arm over his head. If the Mets would have won game seven, he most likely would have been named the Series MVP.
In 1975, Le Grand Orange became the first Met to drive in 100 runs in a season (105). And unfortunately, it was his last year with the team (until his return six years later), because the Mets did it again. Another bad trade. Whether it was because the team felt he was getting old and wanted to pave the way for rookie sensation (and ultimate bust) Mike Vail, or whether they didn’t want to pay him, or if it was payback for Staub’s refusal to go on a trip to Japan the previous winter, the team sent him packing to Detroit (with Bill Laxton) for over-the-hill, husky pitcher Mickey Lolich (and Billy Baldwin). Mickey Lolich? Are you kidding me? The Mets already had Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack in their rotation, so they traded their best player for a 35-year-old fourth starter (who hated New York so much, he retired after one season with the Mets to open a doughnut shop back in Michigan, only to come back a year later with San Diego). Staub went on to drive in 100 runs in two of his next three seasons.
After starring in the American League (Detroit and Texas) and a brief return to Montreal, Staub came back to New York in 1981, signing as a free agent. In his last five seasons, he mainly played the role of pinch hitter (if he would have stayed in the AL as a DH, it was certainly possible he could have reached 3,000 hits). But what a pinch hitter he was. 1983 was a historic season for him. He tied the NL record with eight consecutive pinch hits. He tied the major league record with 25 pinch-hit RBI’s. And he established the major league record of 81 pinch-hit appearances. In his heyday, Staub was an excellent fielder and had a rifle for an arm. But by the mid ’80s, he rarely saw time on the field. In one memorable game in April of ’85 against the Pirates, the game dragged into extra innings and, with the Mets running out of players, Staub had to play the outfield. Manager Davey Johnson had the 41-year-old switch between left and right field, depending on whether a lefty or righty was at the plate. The years and pounds had taken their toll on Rusty, so he ran between the two positions in order to avoid fielding the ball. In the 18th inning, with righty-hitting pitcher Rick Rhoden batting, the ball sliced into right field, but Staub ran in to make a shoestring catch. And the Mets went on to win the game, 5-4. He retired after the 1985 season, just missing out on winning the World Series by one year (1973 was the only time he reached the postseason).
Rusty Staub is the answer to a few trivia questions: Who are the only three players to hit home runs when they were teenagers and in their forties (Staub, Ty Cobb and Gary Sheffield); who is the only player to have 500 hits with four different teams; and who is the first player to play 162 games exclusively at DH. Staub played for 23 seasons, and he finished his career with 2,716 hits, 292 home runs, 1,466 RBI’s, a .279 batting average, .362 OBP and .431 slugging percentage. In nine seasons with the Mets, he posted a .276 average, .358 OBP, .419 slugging percentage, belted 709 hits, hit 75 homers and drove in 399 runs. He was a six-time All-Star (but never with the Mets). His #10 was retired by the Expos, and he’s been enshrined in the Mets and Texas Baseball Hall of Fames.
Preparation, practice and dedication were the hallmarks of Rusty Staub’s career. He had a short, compact swing and was called a pure hitter by the likes of Duke Snider and Ted Williams. He was a true student of the game, and was a master at stealing signs and knowing the opposition pitchers inside and out. But he was more than a baseball player. He, of course, had in interest in gourmet cooking, and owned his own restaurant, Rusty’s, on the Upper East Side, in the ’70s and ’80s. And since his retirement he’s been a true humanitarian. He started the Rusty Staub Foundation and the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund, and has raised millions of dollars for both. Rusty Staub was a professional, he was classy, he was an outstanding baseball player and he was big enough of a person to have two nicknames.