NEW YORK -- Before leaving Spring Training, Keith Hernandez visited Rusty Staub at the West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital where he was living out his final days. Hernandez choked up as he recalled the moment, the last time he saw Staub, his friend and mentor with the Mets.
"Obviously, this is a sad day for Met-land here," Hernandez said on Thursday morning, tears coming to his eyes. "Rusty's a very dear friend.
"He's just been a great friend. But he was in a lot of pain. So it's better. He's in a better place."
Staub, who passed away Thursday at age 73, was more than that to so many -- to the teammates who cherished him as a leader; to the police officers and firefighters he aided through his foundation work; to the baseball writers with whom he forged lasting relationships.
Yet to his teammates, Staub was simply a friend. Nothing less. By the time Hernandez joined the Mets in 1983, Staub was on his second tour with the team, a 39-year-old with an outsized clubhouse presence. Ron Darling recalled coming to the Mets that same year and being upset that general manager Frank Cashen would not allow him to live in Manhattan. Staub marched into Cashen's office and told him not only that Darling would live in Manhattan, but that Staub himself would keep an eye on the young pitcher.
"I've never met anyone like him," Darling said. "And I think that that's unusual, where everyone ends up being just about like everyone else. He was not that guy."
"He's a very contrasting person, a paradox," added Hernandez. "He could be as tough as hell and as soft as a mushroom."
Among those who visited Staub in his Florida hospital this month was current Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who owns an autographed Staub jersey that he bought at an auction "really out of respect for him as a person, more than even as a player." Like Hernandez and Darling, Alderson spoke Thursday of his admiration for Staub, acknowledging in particular the longtime philanthropist's community work. It was a cruel coincidence, Alderson noted, that Staub should pass on Opening Day, as gray skies hung dark over Flushing.
"Perhaps the overcast," Alderson said, "is an indication of how Mets Nation is feeling today."