They came out of the rain on Fifth Avenue and out of the '60s and '70s and '80s and up the steps and into St. Patrick's Cathedral to say goodbye to Rusty Staub, who became a prince of his city, who was not just a baseball star in New York,
They came out of the rain on Fifth Avenue and out of the '60s and '70s and '80s and up the steps and into St. Patrick's Cathedral to say goodbye to Rusty Staub, who became a prince of his city, who was not just a baseball star in New York, but a hero to the families of cops and firemen long before Sept. 11, 2001. This was a day, then, almost a month exactly after Rusty's death, about a life well lived.
It wasn't much of a baseball afternoon, because of the weather. But somehow it became a baseball day at St. Patrick's, where for a little while you looked at the side aisles and the side pews, both sides of the most famous church in this country, and imagined this holy place being turned into the bleachers at Shea Stadium in the old days, where they used to think Rusty Staub could roll out of bed in the middle of winter and hit a line drive.
He will be remembered in so many ways, Daniel Joseph Staub, now that his body, which had endured a lot these past few years (including a heart attack on a flight from Dublin to New York City), finally shut down in Florida not long before the first pitch was thrown on Opening Day. He will be remembered as the ballplayer who collected 500 hits with four different teams and who, when he finally made it back to old Shea, became one of the best pinch-hitters in the business. He will always remembered by those NYPD families and those FDNY families, for whom he raised millions. And he will certainly be remembered for the country of hungry people he fed, this man who loved good food and good wine and once owned Rusty's restaurant on Third Avenue, about a mile north of St. Patrick's and just a little bit east.
"No one ever did more in this city, and with more heart, than he did," Mark Messier, the great old hockey player, said before the bagpipes began to play outside and the memorial Mass for Rusty Staub began.
But in New York, for all the good works that he did and was doing until the day he died, for all the money he raised and the people he fed, he will also, and always, be remembered as a Met.
Here, on the right side of St. Patrick's was Patrick Nolan, wearing his blue Mets warmup jacket, taking a little time off from his job in midtown Manhattan, walking over to one of the capitals of his city to pay his own last respects to Rusty Staub.
"He was a good man, a good Catholic, a great New Yorker," Nolan said. "And, boy, could he hit."
Rusty Staub came close to winning a World Series with the Mets in 1973. He came back to the Mets at the end of his career and just missed winning the World Series that the Mets won against the Red Sox in 1986. Then Rusty became one of those guys who somehow became as famous after he retired as he was when he played. They called him "Le Grande Orange" when he left Houston to play for the Montreal Expos. But the life that was celebrated on Wednesday afternoon, for a New Orleans kid who became such a wonderful, consummate New Yorker, was about the grand possibilities of his adopted city.
"You could never say no to Rusty when he asked you to help somebody out," the old Mets relief pitcher, John Franco, said at the back of the church. "The reason was simple: Because he never said no to anybody. One of the only baseball regrets is that I never got to be his teammate, even though I felt like one the first time I ever met him."
The owners of the Mets, Fred and Jeff Wilpon, were in the church on this day and so was Rob Manfred, the 10th Commissioner of baseball. There was so much baseball in this great church, and so many memories. In his homily, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan looked out at the congregation and said, "He was some ballplayer."
Sullivan smiled and told people he was from the Bronx and said, "He played on four teams and he couldn't come to the Bronx and help out my team?"
And that got a smile out of Lt. Michael Stack of St. James, Long Island, and Ladder 176, Brownsville, Brooklyn, N.Y., because Stack is a Yankees fan himself. But he still considers Staub, in death and life, a member of the amazing and enduring and remarkable family of the FDNY. Stack's father was a FDNY Battalion Chief who gave his life in the service of his department and his city on 9/11.
"All anybody's gotta do is read about the things [Staub] did and the people he helped," Stack said, standing in the back of the church as Msgr. Sullivan was about to give his homily. "And what's always gonna be meaningful to the people in our department is that Rusty did what he did before the planes hit our buildings. And what he did is something that will always be passed on."
But still baseball ran through this cathedral and through this Mass and through this day. Right before Timothy Cardinal Dolan would pass through all the blue uniforms and white vestments in the back of St. Patrick's, just as the bagpipes began to play "Amazing Grace," Loretta Sehlmeyer, who once worked at the Russian Tea Room in the city, stood at her pew in the middle of the church. She was a Mets fan growing up. She was a Rusty Staub fan. She used to write him letters. He once sent her a black-and-white photograph of himself, with a note on the back, thanking her for those letters and her support, written in orange script, of course.
Sehlmeyer brought the photograph, now in a small frame, to St. Patrick's on Wednesday afternoon.
"I couldn't miss this," she said.
So they honored the memory of Rusty Staub on this day, a very good ballplayer who found greatness in a life of charity and service once he retired after the 1985 season. They did this at St. Patrick's. They did this at a place that sometimes feels as old as its city, a place that for an hour or so on Wednesday afternoon, felt like old Shea Stadium, and even made all the old saloon faces you saw inside that church feel young again.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.