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Remembering former MLB star Rusty Staub

MLB.com @MikeLupica

ST. PETERSBURG -- There are so many things about Rusty Staub being remembered today, by anyone who ever played baseball with him, knew him or even met him once. He will be remembered for a personality every bit as big as he was, which was just as outsize as his heart.

Everything finally began to shut down on him a few months ago, and he went into a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla., then died on Opening Day. More than a half-century after he first made the big leagues, a season finally starts without him.

ST. PETERSBURG -- There are so many things about Rusty Staub being remembered today, by anyone who ever played baseball with him, knew him or even met him once. He will be remembered for a personality every bit as big as he was, which was just as outsize as his heart.

Everything finally began to shut down on him a few months ago, and he went into a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla., then died on Opening Day. More than a half-century after he first made the big leagues, a season finally starts without him.

He will be remembered as Le Grande Orange, of course, from when he was such a baseball star in Montreal in the 1970s. He will always be remembered as a wonderful ambassador for the New York Mets after his retirement at age 41 (the guy who had gotten his first hits in the big leagues as a teenager was still getting them in his 40s). But of all the things being remembered about Rusty Staub's kindness and inherent decency today, start with the fact that he could really hit. He would like that.

Video: STL@NYM: Mets broadcasters pay tribute to Staub

Rusty had more than 500 hits with four different teams -- Houston, Montreal, New York and Detroit. He knocked in nearly 1,500 runs in his career. He was the first Met to knock in 100 in a season. Yeah, he could hit.

"It was," Ron Darling said to me in Port St. Lucie a few weeks ago, "a sweet swing. From an even sweeter man."

By then all of Rusty Staub's friends, a group that would have once been big enough to fill old Shea Stadium and could fit Citi Field now, had begun to accept the fact that Rusty was never coming out of the hospital in Palm Beach. He never did. So he barely made it to one more Opening Day, and never made it back to New York City, which he embraced from the time he got to the Mets from the Expos, and had been embraced back, almost as fully, for more than 40 years.

I told him one time that he understood and appreciated the big city from his first day in town, and that there was a gift involved to that, because not all athletes who got traded to New York teams did. He smiled and said what he said all the time, as much his catchphrase as anything else:

"Amen, brother."

Video: STL@NYM: Mets honor Staub, Charles, Morley pregame

He loved food, good wine and better conversation, and so it was inevitable that he once owned his own restaurant in Manhattan, on 74th St. and Third Ave. When my wife and I were first married, our apartment was two blocks away, on 72nd and Third. And when the 1986 Mets became as great a baseball act as New York City has ever seen, in the Bronx or in Queens, Rusty's was the headquarters for it all. You would walk in after a Mets game and there they would be, scattered around the room, Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Darling and Keith Hernandez. Always in the middle of the action there was Rusty, sometimes wearing a white chef's coat, always acting as if he were exactly where he was supposed to be. He was more than just an ex-Met, someone who was still playing at old Shea when the Mets made a thrilling run at the Cardinals across the summer of '85, and all the way to September. Rusty became the maître d' to that season. Or maybe just its mayor. It wasn't just Mets fans who loved Rusty Staub. So did the Mets.

Hernandez last visited his friend in his Palm Beach hospital last weekend. This is what an emotional Hernandez said at Citi Field on Thursday before the Mets opened their season against the Cardinals.

"It's a tough day," said Hernandez. "He was the one that got me to live in the city. When I came at the start of the season in '84, and I was single, he said, 'Well, you've got to live in the city.' He was the one that introduced me to the city and all it had to offer."

Roger McDowell, a proud Met '86er, was in his first season in the big leagues when Rusty was playing his last with the Mets. He is Buck Showalter's pitching coach now in Baltimore.

"This is such a sad day," McDowell said on Thursday when he got word of Staub's passing. "He was such a great human being, a giving man with a huge heart who genuinely cared about people."

Video: Darling, Hernandez remember former teammate Staub

Rusty Staub hit .333 for the Houston Colt .45s in 1967 when he was still a kid. He knocked in those 105 runs for the Mets in '75. When he was 34, he hit 24 home runs for the Tigers and knocked in 121. He finally returned to the Mets in '81 and became famous for coming off the bench in the late innings and so often figuring out a way to get one more knock, in one more big moment.

And there was even one last wonderful moment for him as an outfielder, on an April game at the start of his last season, when the Mets went 18 innings with the Pirates and the game went so long that Davey Johnson, the Mets manager, needed Rusty to go out to finish the game in the outfield.

Rick Rhoden, a pitcher who could really hit, was one of the pinch-hitters that day, and in the top of the 18th, Rhoden hit one down the right-field line, and there was Rusty running the ball down, running as if pulling a sled, somehow making a knee-high catch to save a run. It was one more moment for himself, and for Mets fans.

"I told people that was as fast as I could run," Rusty said one time, at a now-gone steakhouse on 63rd St. called The Post House. "That was a lie. It was way faster than I could run by then."

He was holding court again that night, at a table filled with friends. He did that a lot in the big city in his fine, garrulous time there. He is survived today by the New York Mets, and by that city.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.