Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 29, 2018

On Opening Day, Remembering Le Grand Orange

At 12:43 Thursday afternoon, Ian Happ stepped into the batter’s box at Marlins Park. Miami right-hander Jose Urena fired the first pitch of the longest season, a 95 mile per hour four-seam fastball that the Cubs center fielder sent flying over the right field wall for the new campaign’s inaugural home run. Chicago added two more first-inning runs without benefit of another hit, as an obviously unsettled Urena hit three and walked two of the next seven batters before finally inducing a ground out from opposing hurler Jon Lester to end the inning. The Marlins managed to make things interesting for a time, knotting the score at 4-4 through three innings and trailing by just a run through six. But the Cubs plated three more in the top of the 7th and Chicago manager Joe Maddon made liberal use of his bullpen to lock down the Marlins’ bats the rest of the way.

If the first pitch homer was a surprise, the final score of 8-4 was not. Most preseason predictions placed Chicago atop the NL Central while pegging Miami as very likely the worst team in the majors. Odds are that the joy Cubs fans felt on Thursday and the anguish of their Marlins counterparts are emotions that each group will feel many times over the next six months. By the time Opening Day ends as opening night out on the west coast, fans for twenty-six of the thirty big league franchises (two games have been postponed by weather) will have experienced an equal allotment of the high and the low, as the Great Game begins its annual march.

Amid the excitement and the pomp, along with the ceremonies and the first plate appearances, this Opening Day is also tinged with melancholy. Hours before Ian Happ wasted no time spoiling Miami’s home opener, word came that Rusty Staub had passed away early Thursday morning at the age of 73.

In a career that spanned more than two decades, Staub played first base and right field for five different teams, including two stints each with the Montreal Expos and New York Mets. While he broke into the majors with Houston and wore the uniforms of the Tigers and Rangers as well, it’s the former Canadian franchise and the one in Queens that are most closely associated with Staub.

Born in New Orleans, Daniel Joseph Staub was nicknamed Rusty before he left the hospital, thanks to a nurse who was taken by the wisps of red hair on the infant’s head. When he was traded from the Astros to the fledgling franchise in French-speaking Montreal, Staub was an instant fan favorite known as “Le Grand Orange.” While he played less than four seasons for the Expos, from 1969 through 1971 and then for the second half of 1979, Staub was a three-time All-Star on a team that sorely lacked marketable talent. Having grown up in the francophone culture of the Big Easy, he was a natural fit in Montreal.

The gregarious Staub also took readily to the bright lights of baseball’s largest stage when the Expos traded him to the Mets. After years of playing with mediocre teams, he also finally made it to the postseason in 1973. While New York finished just three games over .500 at 82-79, that was good enough to win the NL East. The Mets beat the Reds in the then five-game LCS, three games to two, and were poised to win the team’s second championship after taking an identical lead over the Oakland A’s in the World Series. But the last two games of that Series were back on the west coast, and New York never again led over those final eighteen innings. While the Mets “You Gotta Believe!” year ultimately ended in disappointment it was not for lack of trying by Staub. He hit .423 in the Series, with eleven hits and six RBIs.

Staub was one of four players whose numbers were retired by the Expos, and he was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1986, just one year after his career ended. After his playing days he leveraged his fame for philanthropy, founding both the Rusty Staub Foundation and the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. The former is active in fighting hunger and providing college scholarships, while the latter raised and distributed more than $112 million in assistance after the 9/11 attacks.

He never topped eight percent of the vote during his time on the Hall of Fame ballot, and Staub never argued that he belonged in Cooperstown. He was a very good ballplayer, but not a Hall of Famer. But legends alone don’t win pennants. They need very good ballplayers, often several, to prevail over the course of the longest season and then through the crapshoot of the postseason’s short series. In his long career Staub put up numbers worthy of that role.

He remains the only player to collect 500 or more hits for four different teams. He hit his first home run as a teenager wearing a Houston jersey, and his last as a 41-year old Met, a time-traveling feat matched only by Ty Cobb, Gary Sheffield, and Alex Rodriguez. His 2,716 career hits are impressive but not extraordinary; but when one adds his amazing number of walks – 1,255 – along with reaching base 79 times by being hit by a pitch and 115 times on a fielding error, Le Grand Orange reached base 4,165 times. Which is the point of the game, isn’t it?

Aside from Staub, of the 43 other players who have crossed the 4,000 times on-base threshold and reached Hall of Fame eligibility, all but Pete Rose with his lifetime ban and four players tied to steroids now have busts on the wall in upstate New York.

The difference of course is Staub’s plate discipline and his outstanding walk total. Getting a free pass has never been treated the same as a hit. The guess here is that Rusty Staub, ever the outgoing player who fit in no matter what uniform he was wearing, wouldn’t complain. He was content to be a very good player, a very good teammate, and a very good friend to the fans. The kind of ballplayer who should be remembered on Opening Day.

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