Esposito: Rusty Staub, 1944-2018

Sadly, another great former Met has passed.

Le Grande Orange, better known as Rusty Staub, passed away on the eve of Opening Day at the age of 73 due to kidney failure and other physical complications at a medical center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Just days short of his 74th birthday, Staub had been in ill health in recent years. He suffered a near-fatal heart attack on a flight back from Ireland in 2015, and was attempting to recover from pneumonia, a staph infection, and cellulitis when he passed.

Daniel Joseph Staub touched a lot of lives in his near 74 years, far more than those he entertained as a ballplayer in 23 major league seasons. He was a borderline Hall of Famer in many ways with significant on-the-field accomplishments, but his efforts as a humanitarian and benefactor to hundreds more has created a lasting legacy that endures beyond his baseball skills.

The Mets were just one of five teams in Staub’s career, but he will forever be linked to the organization, as he continued to serve as a broadcaster and ambassador in retirement.

“There wasn’t a cause he didn’t champion,” noted a statement by the Mets on his passing. “Rusty helped children, the poor, the elderly, and then there was his pride and joy – the New York Police and Firefighters Widows and Children Benefit Fund. A six-time All-Star, he is the only player in major league history to have collected at least 500 hits with four different teams. The entire Mets organization sends its deepest sympathy to his brother, Chuck, and sisters Sue Tully and Sally Johnson. He will be missed by everyone.”

Founded by Staub in 1986, the Police and Firefighters Fund raised some $11 million in its first 15 years on behalf those families affected when one of their own perishes on duty. Staub, who earned just over two and a half million in total throughout his 23-year career, hosted and served at hundreds of functions and meetings to raise those funds, and it will continue to serve those in need after his passing.

But it will also be from baseball that we cherish his memory.

In a statement from the Major League Baseball Players Association, its Executive Director, Tony Clark, recalled Staub as “one of the game’s great lefthanded hitters for 23 years. One of the ultimate competitors of his era. Only 12 players in our game’s history played more games than his 2,951. But he will also be remembered by the fraternity of players as a smart, tireless advocate on their behalf who helped build the MLBPA and stood at the forefront of the fight for player rights.”

Recognizing his charitable efforts, Clark added, “Rusty will be missed, but the legacy of his humanity and compassion will live on.”

Staub will forever own many marks and records. He was just the second major leaguer to hit a home run before his 20th birthday and after his 40th birthday, a unique combo that was first accomplished by none other than Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, and later equaled by Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.

In 1983, Staub tied a major league mark of eight straight pinch-hits and tied a major league record of 25 pinch-hit runs batted in that year.

For the Expos, Staub will remain their career leader in on-base percentage for players with at least 2000 plate appearances, since the franchise technically no longer exists – transferred to Washington, D.C. over a decade ago – and he was the first Expo to have his number, 10, retired in 1993.

For the Mets, Staub was their first player to knock in at least 100 runs, with 105 RBIs in 1975. This mark lasted until 1986, when Gary Carter tied it, and it was not surpassed until 1990, when Darryl Strawberry rang up 108 RBIs.

In 1974, he led the Mets in hits, RBIs, and at-bats.

And Staub was just the second – or first, depending on how you look at it – Mets player to be inducted in the team’s Hall of Fame in 1986. In alphabetical order, Bud Harrelson also was inducted on the same day, so yes, technically, Buddy was first.

“Rusty,” an obvious nickname stemming from his flaming red hair, was born and raised in New Orleans, but did not speak with a harsh Southern accent. With a soft-spoken gentlemanly demeanor, Staub was known for his cultured approach to life. A gourmet chef and a superb wine connoisseur, Staub became well known in New York City in retirement from his two highly regarded restaurants, one at 73rd St. and Third Ave. and one on Fifth Ave.

The burly Louisiana native – Staub stood 6’2” and weighed in about 200 pounds – was signed by the expansion Houston Colt 45s in 1961. He played 150 games for the new team in 1963, batting .224., and was there when the club became the Houston Astros in 1965.

The Astros traded Staub to another expansion club, the Montreal Expos, in January of 1969. And there was Rusty, playing right field in the very first official Expos game, in April of ‘69 – against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. The Expos won that wild first game, 11-10, in strong part due to Staub going 2-3 in six plate appearances, with a home run, two runs batted in, and three walks.

The trade from Houson was significant, because it was supposed to be for Donn Clendenon and Jesus Alou. But Clendenon balked. He refused to go to Houston. The trade had to be restructured, and the Mets, ironically, benefited from Clendenon’s obstinance.

Clendenon was later traded to the Mets, who became an instrumental factor in the team’s surge to their first pennant in 1969, and eventual World Series Championship. Without Clendenon, those Miracle Mets might not have made it to the top of the baseball world.

Staub became an icon Expo in Montreal, where he picked up his French nickname, Le Grande Orange. He also made it a point to learn French to communicate with the large portion of Montreal citizens and media that speak only French.

In April of 1972, the Expos traded Staub to the Mets – ironically, also an expansion franchise, albeit a decade after their formation – for three very good young players – Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen, and Ken Singleton. It was a good trade for both clubs, as all three new Expos became cogs in their lineup and of course, Singleton later went on to Baltimore, where he enjoyed a lengthy career.

Staub continued successfully in New York, locking down that right field position with his defense and offense. In his first year as a Met, Staub was batting .313 until June 3, when ironically, George Stone of the Braves – who later became a Met – fractured Staub’s right wrist with a pitch.

Defensively, Staub led the NL four times in assists, in 1969, ‘71, ‘74, and ‘75. And he led the league in turning double plays from right field three times – ‘71, ‘74, and ‘75.

He was instrumental in the Mets reaching the postseason in 1973, and overall batted .341, with four home runs and 11 RBIs in October.

Unfortunately, though, and this may have been one of the main reasons why the Mets did not win the ring in ‘73 and had to settle for losing to the Oakland A’s in seven games that year…in Game 4 of the NLCS against Cincinnati, Staub raced to the wall to rob the Reds’ Dan Driessen of an extra-base hit, crashing into the wall and separating his right shoulder.

He returned during the World Series, but he really wasn’t 100%, and that may have affected his performance. Anyone who has ever separated their shoulder will agree with this assessment.

In December of 1975, the Mets stupidly traded Staub to the Tigers for an aging Mickey Lolich. Sure, Lolich won three games in the 1968 World Series, and helped the Tigers get to the 1972 ALCS, but this was 1975.

Lolich went 8-13 for the Mets in ‘76, while Staub kept rolling along in Detroit, batting .299, with 15 homers and 96 RBIs that same year.

Staub eventually had 582 hits for the Tigers in his four seasons there.

In ‘79, the Tigers traded him back to Montreal , where he lasted a half-season. The Expos sent him to Texas during spring training in 1980, where he spent the year as a Ranger.

He became a free agent in October of ‘80, and guess who knocked on his door. The Mets re-signed Staub in December of ‘80, and he basically has been with the organization ever since.

By then, his specialty became pinch-hitting and filling in when needed in the field. There was a famous extra inning game where skipper Davey Johnson needed Staub to play the field but tried protecting the aging outfielder by flopping him between left field and right field for every batter, depending if a righthanded hitter or lefthanded hitter was up. But sure enough, the ball found Rusty and he made a great diving catch to save that out.

He caught a lot of outs. He saved a lot of games with his hitting and glovework. And he found his way into the hearts of millions of fans with his warmth, kindness, and generosity.

The world will miss Rusty Staub.

God bless you, Rusty.

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