There’s really no way for me to confirm my favorite story about Rusty Staub, but I trust its source.
Staub died Thursday, fittingly on opening day of the 2018 Major League Baseball regular season. The New Orleans native was a pro ballplayer from the 1960s to the 1980s, achieving the rare dual status of all-star and the sort of oddball character who thrives on big league clubs, including the New York Mets, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Montreal Expos.
A Canadian newspaper summed up Staub thusly: “He had curly red hair, choked up three inches on his bat, wore his uniform pants high and ran like molasses in winter.”
His nickname while in Montreal was “Le Grand Orange,” owing to his red hair.
His New York Times obituary said, “A 6-foot-2 left-handed batter who weighed 240 pounds late in his career — by then he was a gourmet cook and a restaurant owner — Staub cut an unmistakable figure at the plate.” They meant home plate on a baseball diamond, but the other kind of plate would probably work just as well.
The Mets, one of his former teams, noted, “He was almost as well known for his philanthropic work as he was for his career as a baseball player, which spanned 23 seasons. There wasn’t a cause he didn’t champion. Rusty helped children, the poor, the elderly and then there was his pride and joy, The New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund.”
So, my favorite Staub story came from my friend Tom, who lived in the same New York City neighborhood as Rusty in the 1970s. Tom, as a precocious 12-year-old, rang up the Staub household one summer day with a request: Would Rusty give Tom and a couple of his friends a ride to Shea Stadium for that day’s ballgame?
When Staub balked at the idea of a bigtime ballplayer playing chauffeur to a bunch of neighborhood kids, Tom replied, Come on, Rusty, it’s not like it’s out of your way or anything.
Despite that compelling logic, Staub took a pass on my friend’s request.
I wanted that story to be true just as much as I wanted the tale of Sidd Finch to be accurate. The world was introduced to Finch on April 1, 1985.
Sports Illustrated described Finch as a hotshot prospect for the New York Mets who “may well change the course of baseball history.” He was a French horn-playing Buddhist and former Harvard student who had learned to throw a baseball more than 150 mph while hanging out with mystics in Tibet.
He had little interaction with other members of the team or even the management. Instead, he would merely offer wise sayings to the man charged with driving Finch around the Mets’ spring training facilities in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Today he said, ‘When your mind is empty like a canyon you will know the power of the Way,’” Eliot Posner was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, writer George Plimpton offered, “the Mets are trying other ways to get Finch into a more positive frame of mind about baseball. Inquiries among American lamaseries (there are more than 100 Buddhist societies in the U.S.) have been quietly initiated in the hope of finding monks or priests who are serious baseball fans and who might persuade Finch that the two religions (Buddhism and baseball) are compatible.”
Of course, Finch’s tale was an elaborate April Fools’ Day hoax by Sports Illustrated, what passed for fake news 30 years ago.
Staub, however, was the real deal.