The news of baseball icon, restaurateur, and philanthropist Rusty Staub’s passing a couple of weeks ago landed another piercing blow and supplied a further nail in the coffin of my youth. Almost forty-six years ago to the date, I heard a very different kind of news. My favorite team, the New York Mets, had acquired Rusty from the Montreal Expos. I was nine years old at the time. To say that I was ecstatic at the prospect of Le Grande Orange, as he was affectionately known in Montreal, donning a Met uniform would be an understatement. For my youthful exuberance knew no bounds in what were—for me at least—vastly simpler times.
The announcement of the blockbuster trade was especially uplifting in the wake of revered manager Gil Hodges’ untimely passing. Hodges had long wanted Rusty on his team and had, just before his unexpected death, given the trade his blessing. Some years later, I learned that the Met organization was widely criticized for announcing the Rusty Staub acquisition on the morning of Hodges’ funeral. But I was a wide-eyed kid then interested in baseball, not adult inside-baseball.
In retrospect, death was much less pressing and a whole lot more fleeting to me as a fourth grader. I do, however, remember the news crawl, which reported the passing of Gil Hodges, appearing on the TV screen. It was Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972, and I was staggered. Just as a pizza place on nearby Riverdale Avenue called the New Concept served up a mean Sicilian slice, death was a pretty new concept to me at the time.
Rusty Staub had been a much-loved member of the expansion team Montreal Expos during their first three seasons in existence. The adoration wasn’t only for his hitting prowess, which was considerable, but for Rusty's community-oriented commingling with fans as well. The man learned to speak French and was a indefatigable, redheaded, roving ambassador for the new team on the block. When he came to New York, he fast became a fan favorite, too, and played four seasons with the Mets before he was unceremoniously traded off to the Detroit Tigers for a rotund, past-his-prime pitcher named Mickey Lolich and a prospect who turned out not to be one. It was widely believed that the deal was consummated because of Rusty’s vocal participation in the Major League Baseball labor movement and—yes—potential free agency, which was the new reality. His eventual market worth was more than supreme skinflint M. Donald Grant—who controlled the team’s purse strings—was willing to shell out. Happily, Rusty returned to finish out his career with the Mets. By then the odious Grant—who had single-handedly destroyed a thriving, proud franchise—was living out the remainder of his years in the patrician lifestyle for which he was accustomed.
At a brief and emotional press conference, former teammate and close friend, Keith Hernandez, said that Rusty was now “in a better place.” Having been in intensive care for the last two months of his life—and in a lot of pain—no place was the better place. I was—once more—in a hospital emergency room this past weekend. As a visitor and observer—not a patient—I saw more than a few people in a very bad way. One was a psychotic woman who, apparently, was homeless and not unknown to the staff. Asleep one moment and wide awake the next, she had a major meltdown when she couldn’t find her cigarette lighter. Passersby were cursed out as she fumbled for a cigarette. Security guards warily stood by. The woman sobbed, raved, and wandered away from her stretcher bed on multiple occasions. A nurse came looking for her at one point to take an X-ray, but she was nowhere to be found. The peripatetic patient eventually returned and performed an Act II and an Act III of all of the above. All the while, I heard a perpetual wail from somewhere across the ER that sounded an awful lot like a cat. The repeated “meow” sounds turned out to be a cry of “help” over and over and over. As the days wear on and events play out, I think more often of the day when a better place will be no place. Queue up the news crawl!