Met Icon’s Death Sobers Opening Day

Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs leadoff hitter, owner of 5 lead-off home runs among the 7 he hit in spring training, opened the regular season with a bang by hitting one over the right field fence in Miami off Jose Urena. It opened a 3-run first to which Urena contributed the hard way, hitting three Cubs, as Marlins owner Derek Jeter sank in his seat.

Somehow, the Marlins got back into the game to make it 5-4, before Anthony Rizzo ripped a 2-out bomb into those same seats to make it 6-4, Cubs in the sixth; the Cubs eventually won, 8-4.

George Springer became the Show's first man ever to hit home runs on back-to-back Opening Days and the first defending World Series champion to hit an Opening Day bomb. Giancarlo Stanton, on his first regular season day as a Yankee, became the first Yankee to hit two Opening Day home runs since ... Joe Pepitone, in 1963. And, on a day Noah Syndergaard became the second Met to strike out 10 in his first five Opening Day innings (he also surrendered a pair of 2-run homers, but hung in to win with a little help from his bullpen friends), the Mets beat the Cardinals, 9-4, on manager Mickey Callaway's first regular season day.

But in Citi Field otherwise, the season opened with a whimper. Mets icon Rusty Staub died of multiple organ failure in a West Palm Beach hospital at 73 on Opening Day morning.

The only player to have 500+ hits with four major league teams (the Astros, the Expos, the Mets, and the Tigers), Staub was renowned as much for his charity as for his ability to drive baseballs and run them down in the outfield, and he was one of the most beloved men ever to wear a Mets uniform. It was Staub who created the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Childrens' Fund after he retired as a player in 1985.

The fund has raised tens of millions since for the families of first responders who have died on duty. When the Mets played their first game following the 9/11 atrocity, Mets players, coaches, and manager Bobby Valentine donated their day's pay to the fund. It began, Staub once said, when he was sitting in his old restaurant with a friend who worked as a bonds trader, and the two men heard a police officer with whom Staub was friendly was killed on duty, leaving his wife and three children behind. "Someone," said Staub, whose uncle was a police officer also killed in the line of duty, "needs to do something about this."

So he did.

A kid who debuted with the then-Houston Colt .45s at 19, Staub was a six-time all-star, a student of the game, a solid if inconsistent power hitter hitter who earned his first all-star gig in the year he led the National League in doubles. Picked by the expansion Montreal Expos, he became their first bona-fide star. (He earned the nickname Le Grande Orange in tribute to his youth in New Orleans's French quarter and for his learning French when he went to the Expos.) Dealt to the Mets for Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen, and Ken Singleton, Staub made three of his all-star teams in Expos silks and hit a career-high 30 home runs with them in 1970. As a Met, he finally got a stab at championship play.

A year after joining them, Staub helped them to their out-of-nowhere National League East title in 1973 and was a wrecking machine in the League Championship Series, hitting 3 bombs in the first four of that testy set to send the Big Red Machine home for the winter. In Game 4's 11th inning, Staub and his shoulder were separated while he made a spectacular outfield catch. It cost him Tom Seaver's Game 5 pennant winner and Game 1 of the World Series. Perhaps stubbornly, Staub returned to action in Game 2. He still managed to hit 1 out, drive in 6, and hit .426 as the Mets lost in seven games to the Oakland Mustache Gang.

That performance endeared him to Mets fans forever. Two years later, Staub became the first Met to drive in 100+ runs in a season, his 105 standing as a club record until Darryl Strawberry broke it with 108 in 1990.

Staub was an engaging clubhouse presence who lightened loads for numerous teammates and a hard-nosed contract talker in the reserve era's dying years who was good enough at it, and committed enough to the Players Association's aims, that he was traded several times in his career. He was one of the only Mets able to loosen up tightly-wound slugger Dave Kingman, whose early experiences with the Giants seared the tall missile launcher into moodiness. He later did his best to keep such talented but troubled Mets as Strawberry from letting life and baseball's often contradictory inside cultures distract, divert, or destroy them. He could do only so much.

The Mets traded him to the Tigers after 1975 season for veteran left-handed pitcher Mickey Lolich. Lolich pitched respectably in 1976 as the Mets continued the skid that would sink them until the early-to-mid 1980s but lost 1977 to injuries. Staub in Detroit made his final all-star team and became the first American League player to play all 162 games in a season as his team's designated hitter.

After one more quick tour in Montreal and a stop in Arlington, the Mets brought him back in 1981, possibly as much to be a mentor to the younger players beginning to seep onto the team and return it to excellence as for his bat, which age had now reduced to pinch hitting. Staub became one of the game's premier pinch swingers and even tied a Show record with 25 pinch runs batted in 1983, the season in which he also tied a National League record with eight straight pinch hits.

"I've never met anyone like him," said Ron Darling, who came to the Mets during Staub's second tour and helped pitch them to the 1986 World Series title a year after Staub's final season. "I think that that's unusual. Where everyone ends up being just about like everyone else, he was not that guy. He was a Renaissance kind of man. Ballplayers tend to like to fish and hunt, whatever they do. There are a few guys that do everything. And Rusty was good at everything."

Staub later ran a popular New York restaurant (he was a self-taught gourmet cook), became a Mets broadcaster for a decade following his retirement, and was as known for his erudition, his knowledge of wine (a passion he learned from original Expos owner Charles Bronfman and shared with his Hall of Fame Mets teammate Tom Seaver), and for the voluminous book he kept on every pitcher he'd ever faced — going as far back as early 1960s Cincinnati ace Joey Jay and Pittsburgh stalwart Bob Friend.

"He let me look through it," says Keith Hernandez, his Mets teammate from 1983-85, who also proved a key on that 1986 World Series winner. "It went back from the '60s and the '70s into the present. I said, 'Let me have this book.' He goes, 'No.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'You didn't earn it.'"

After Staub retired, he gave Hernandez the book. Long a Mets broadcaster, Hernandez still has the book. New York has plenty by which to remember Staub, none more ennobling than the charitable group that helps those whose family members die on duty as first responders at such as 9/11.

That means just a little more than any clutch hit or clutch play, and Staub made plenty of those, too.

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