Monday, 9 April 2018

RUSTY STAUB: LE GRAND ORANGE, JE ME SOUVIENS

That title is a little bit misleading. I never saw Rusty Staub play for the Expos in person; his two stints in Montreal didn't coincide with my one. Staub was the Expos' first real star: he was bright, handsome, hit for power and learned French (though from New Orleans he didn't speak the Cajun variety). By the time I lived in Montreal,, Staub was playing for the Mets, and I saw him on TV-- the Mets had traded for him in 1972. That was a powerhouse trade, with the Expos collecting Mike Jorgensen, Tim Foli and especially Ken Singleton for Staub.  The Expos got good value, but the Mets got someone who helped put them over the top in 1973. Staub played with in injured hand most of the season, then separated a shoulder in the playoffs, where he hit three home runs as the Mets beat the Reds for the National League title. He played six of the seven games of the World Series in right field despite being not really able to throw the ball, and hit .423 as the Mets lost 4-3 to Oakland.

It's always hard to trade the face of your franchise, but Staub went on to play a similar role in New York. He was born in New Orleans, and he seemed to personify that easy going personality and love of life we think of when we think of the Crescent City. Everybody seemed to like him, not just the fans, and for years they still talked about him in Montreal, and still do, even although his first run was only three seasons.

Oddly enough, Singleton became the same sort of local hero in Montreal Staub had been, just as likeable, though in his own different style; eventually he would be a broadcaster for the Expos (as Staub was for the Mets) and now he is in his final season covering the Yankees.

It was in Montreal Staub was nicknamed 'Le Grand Orange', because of his hair, for the same reason he was nicknamed Rusty (his given names were Daniel Joseph). It's funny that after Montreal he spent four seasons with the Mets and five with the Tigers (as well as a final stint of five more years with the Mets), both teams whose uniforms featured orange that matched his hair.

Staub was a bonus baby for the expansion Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros), but he did get one year in the minors at class B Durham before the Astros brought him up. He was only the second 19 year old rookie to play 150 games in a season. He didn't do all that well, but by the time the Astros traded him to Montreal he'd been an All-Star two years in a row, though hitting only 16 home runs in the two years. The Astrodome was a nightmare for hitters.

I recall Bill James pointing out something interesting about Staub's career. James was always making the point that statistics need to be taken in context, and one of the major contexts in baseball is the nature of your home field. Staub, like Joe Morgan or Jimmy Wynn, was already a fine hitter when the Expos got him: but Parc Jarry was a much better hitting environment than the Astrodome had been. He then played in a great pitchers' park for the Mets, and a great hitters' park for the Tigers. He demonstrates through his Win Shares system that Staub's value remained remarkable consistent even as his stats seemed to get better. And that his biggest year in Detroit wasn't as good as any of those.

Staub had a long career, by virtue of those years on on-the-job apprenticeship in Houston, and his final years with the Mets, where he was a fine pinch-hitter and useful bench player. James rated him 24th among right fielders, just ahead of Pedro Guerrero, in his Historical Baseball abstract, but that was 17 years ago. Interestingly, that's just behind Singleton at 18th and the Expo great Andre Dawson at 19th.

Staub's value is increased by his long career: James runs an interesting comparison of his 356 win shares compared to Joe Dimaggio's 385. But Joltin Joe played in only 13 seasons: he had some time in the Pacific Coast League, so arrived in New York a more finished product at age 21, and he also missed three seasons to the war, so the two are not as close as the career win shares would indicate. Besides Guerrero, the guys immediately behind Rusty are Rocky Colavito, Jack Clark, Roger Maris and Gavy Cravath: that's a pretty strong group.

Staub started two charities which were huge successes, one his own educational foundation, the other for New York police and fire fighters' widows and families.  He also owned two restaurants in New York and was a great cook himself (more of that New Orleans tradition). Tall and graceful at the start of his career, by its end he was more like Boog Powell than Jim Gentile. He died on this season's opening day, of a heart attack. The Mets had a moment of silence for him. Were there still an Expos team in Montreal, that silence might have extended beyond a moment.

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