Saturday, July 18, 2020

Rusty Was One of the Greats

In the spring of 1972, I was getting ready to begin my fourth season as a fan of the New York Mets. The incredible rush of the 1969 Miracle Mets had been eclipsed by the disappointment of the oppressive mediocrity of the following two seasons. The Mets had finished in third place both years with identical 83-79 records. The pitching, other than Tom Seaver, had slipped a bit, and the offense was still pretty bad. The two stars of the position players, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, were seeing their careers slowly eroded by injuries.

The start of the 1972 season was delayed by the first baseball strike, which lasted from April 1 - April 13. It ended when MLB agreed to an increase in pension payments and the introduction of salary arbitration. To make matters much worse, Mets manager Gil Hodges died of a heart attack after a round of golf on April 2 and was replaced by Yogi Berra. To a young fan like myself, it felt like the world was falling apart.

It was in the midst of the chaos of the strike and the void left by Hodges' sudden death that the Mets traded 3 young players - OF Ken Singleton, SS Tim Foli, and 1B Mike Jorgenson - to the Montreal Expos in exchange for RF Rusty Staub.

The 28-year-old Staub was already a 9 year major league veteran at the time of the deal. He began his career as a 19-year-old with the expansion Houston Colt .45s in 1963. After struggling for a couple of years, Staub had become an excellent player for Houston, being selected to all-star teams in his last 2 seasons there. But Staub wasn't a favorite of manager Harry "The Hat" Walker, and Staub was traded to the Montreal Expos before their 1969 inaugural season for Jesus Alou and a 33-year-old first baseman named Donn Clendenon. Clendenon had played for Walker in Pittsburgh, and felt that he was racist, so he refused to play for Houston and retired instead. The Expos sent other players to the Astros to complete the trade, causing Clendenon to unretire and return to the Expos. He would, of course, later be traded to the Mets, helping them to a title.

As for Staub, he thrived in Montreal. Away from the monstrous dimensions of the Astrodome, Staub's offensive numbers picked up, and the Montreal fans embraced the New Orleans-born Staub as the club's first star. Staub embraced the city, learning to speak French, and was named an All-Star all 3 seasons he played there.

Staub was very happy in Montreal, and cried when he learned that he was traded to the Mets. Still, Staub got off to an excellent start for the Mets, batting .313 in early June when his wrist was fractured by a pitch thrown by Atlanta's George Stone, who would be traded to the Mets and become a key member of their 1973 team. He tried to play through the pain, but ultimately required surgery and missed a large chunk of his first season in New York.

The 1973 season saw Staub still suffering from some injury problems, but he played 155 games and slashed a respectable .279/.361/.421 for the Mets. He had 15 HR and 76 RBI for that light-hitting club, and also scored 77 runs and drew 74 walks. The thing I remember most about Staub from that season was just how markedly different his at bats were from the rest of the team. Staub always seemed to have a high quality at bat, never getting himself out. He had little protection in the batting order, as Cleon Jones was diminished by injuries and John Milner was a raw 23-year-old. Everyone else in that lineup was mediocre or worse.

For a young guy like myself, just really starting to pick up on the nuances of baseball, Staub was like a masters-level class in being a professional hitter. The difference between Staub and the rest of the Mets offense was stark. He quickly became my favorite position player.

Staub was a key contributor down the stretch for the Mets in August and September of 1973 as the last place Mets caught fire and overtook the mediocre clubs ahead of them to win the NL East with 82 wins - one less win than the 83 they totaled in 3 third place finishes the previous three seasons.

They went in to the NLCS against the 99-63 Cincinnati Reds as decided underdogs. They lost the first game behind Seaver 2-1 as their offense could only manage 3 hits, one of them from Seaver. They evened the series in Game 2, thanks to a masterful 2-hit shutout from Jon Matlack. Staub homered in the fourth against southpaw Don Gullet to give the Mets their first run in an eventual 5-0 win.

Game 3 featured a nasty fight between Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson that turned into a huge brawl. It also featured plenty of fireworks from the Mets' RF:




Staub's pair of dingers powered the Mets to a decisive 9-2 victory.

Known primarily as a hitter, and not fleet of foot, Staub was underrated as a fielder. Rusty played the field with intelligence and fearlessness. The Mets would lose Game 4 in extra innings, but Staub did all he could to keep the Mets in the game with his defense:



Staub separated his shoulder on the second catch, forcing him out of Game 5 and hindering him for the rest of the playoffs. The Mets would win the decisive game 7-2 behind Seaver, as the offense finally supported the future Hall of Famer with some runs.

Rusty showed his guts in the World Series against the A's. He had to make his throws from the outfield underhanded, but still hit .423 in the series, with 2 doubles, 1 home run and 6 RBI.

In 1974 the Mets dropped back to fifth place, but Rusty had a solid season. In 1975 the Mets managed to climb back over .500 and finish third, while the 31-year-old Staub contributed his finest season as a Met. He slashed .282/.371/.448 with 19 home runs, and became the first Met to have over 100 RBIs in a season with 105.

The Mets were heading down into the darkest period of their existence, but Rusty was lucky enough to escape it when the Mets traded him to Detroit that winter for a washed-up Mickey Lolich. It was primarily a money saving move by the Mets.

Staub made the All-Star game his first season in Detroit. His final full season as a regular was 1978. The 34-year-old Staub slashed .273/.347/.435 with 24 HR and 124 RBIs. He finished 5th in the AL MVP voting.

Staub was traded back to Montreal during the 1979 season. They traded him to Texas the following spring. He had a fine season in Texas, batting .300/.370/.459 over 388 plate appearances

He signed as a free agent with the Mets before the 1981 season. The Mets used the 37-year-old as a bench player and part-time coach. He became quite a weapon for the Mets as a pinch hitter. From 1981 - 1985, Staub accumulated 702 plate appearances, hitting .276/.350/.391 with 13 HR and 102 RBI, primarily coming into games cold as a pinch hitter.

In 1983, the 39-year-old Rusty tied a major league record for consecutive pinch hits:




1983 was his finest season in that second go-round with the Mets. He batted .296/.371/.426 with 2 HR and 28 RBI. 25 of those RBIs came as a pinch-hitter, which also tied a major league record.

One of my great regrets as a Mets fan was that Rusty didn't get the chance to play for the 1986 World Champion Mets. The MLB clubs decided to cut down the rosters to 24 players before the 1986 season, and the Mets couldn't afford to give a roster spot to a 42-year-old who could only contribute as a pinch hitter.

Rusty Staub meant an awful lot to me as a Mets fan. His first time around with the club he was by far the best position player on the club, and he just played the game so intelligently and with guts and passion. His numbers in that stretch from 1972-1975 weren't overwhelming, but you had to see the guy play to understand how good he was. He had little protection in that lineup, and was always the hitter that opposing pitchers didn't want to see in a key situation.

In 1975 he was on the same Mets club as Dave Kingman. That was the year that Kingman hit 36 home runs while managing on on base percentage of only .284. I was 16 years old that year, and learning the difference between putting up some big numbers and being a really good professional hitter. 45 years later I still revere Staub, but hardly ever even think of Kingman.

There have been some really great players who have played for the Mets over those years. Very few of them were better all-around players than Rusty Staub. One of the greatest gifts to me as a fan was getting that second chance to root for Rusty when he came back to the Mets at the end of his career. It was more than just nostalgia, he was still a real contributor to those teams.

Rusty proved through all of his great charitable works after his career was over that he was a really fine person, too. For a guy who played so much of his career in other places, Staub is still revered in New York City, and rightfully so. He wasn't just a ballplayer, as a human being he was the whole package.

Thanks for stopping by and allowing us to share some memories with you today. Please stay safe, be well and take care. Come back soon.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

3 comments:

  1. When they brought back Kingman in 1981 he insisted on being the First Baseman which meant that Rusty (who signed with the Mets as a free agent that winter) was only used as a pinch hitter.

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    Replies
    1. For the life of me, I don't know why they brought Kingman back. I guess they just hoped he would sell a few more tickets while they were rebuilding

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  2. you mentioned Rusty's charity work. I remember the New York Police and Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund Foundation, Inc., which Staub founded in 1985; that charity has distributed over $150 million, and, as I recall, 100% of the contributions went to the recipients, unlike many large charities where huge amounts are skimmed off, with Rusty and his fellow members covered all the costs and overhead. I also pleasantly surprised to find out that Keith Hernandez has gotten involved with that charity. two good ballplayers and two good guys. a shame they hadn't played all of their careers with the Mets.

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