Staub, Montreal have enduring connection
Le Grand Orange made a lasting mark on baseball in Canada
Rusty Staub was among those identified Tuesday as members of the 2012 class of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. No surprise there -- except that it has taken this long for him to be recognized and that he has been so recognized having played merely 3 1/2 seasons North of the Border. A tip of the cap goes to Daniel Joseph Staub, Le Grand Orange, as savvy a baseball man as there is, a chef of renown, a wine expert, a good guy and as popular an American athlete as there has ever been in Canada.
Rusty Staub was there, in Detroit, 36 summers ago to observe and marvel at the wonder that was Mark Fidrych. He treasures those experiences and memories to this day. He vividly recalls his Tigers visiting Minneapolis in the summer of '76, when the "Twins were really struggling. They were drawing about 3,500 a game when we came in there. Mark was going to pitch. They drew 35,000 that day."
All right, so he overstated the attendance; it was 30,425. But the point was made. The attendance spiked for one day because of the presence of one man.
Staub would experience a similar scenario three years and a few days later when Stade Olympique, the Montreal home of the since-departed Expos, was filled to its filthy orange umbrella on July 27, 1979, because of the presence of one man. Unlike Fidrych, the attraction wasn't a phenom, but merely a player. Unlike "The Bird's" situation of July 20, 1976, the attraction wasn't even likely to be in the starting lineup for either game of the Pirates-Expos doubleheader.
Yet, they came by the thousands that afternoon -- drawn by the prospect of two-for-the price-of-one admission, the opportunity to see the first-place Expos play one of the two teams tied for second place, a half-game behind them, and to welcome back the most popular professional athlete in Canada with all his teeth.
C'est Le Grand Orange.
Staub returned to the home of the Maple Leaf that day. It was like Teddy Ballgame coming back from the war. The Expos had reacquired him from the Tigers seven days earlier while they were on the West Coast. And the first game of the doubleheader against the Pirates was their first home game since the deal.
The Expos had been playing well -- and drawing well -- that summer. That night, though, they drew 59,260 people. And no small percentage of that gathering, the second largest in what became the franchise's 36-year history, had come to greet the Adorable Redhead. Staub had played three seasons with the Expos (1969-71), and in that relatively brief period, he had become the city's most beloved baseball figure.
His skills, his engaging personality, his conspicuously red hair and willingness to embrace all things Montreal -- and to travel Canada to preach the American game to a country not particularly familiar with it -- all that and more had distinguished him from most, if not all, other Expos.
Staub sold the game to a city, to a nation. He made stops in small burgs that required flights in small planes, no small chore for a man whose second-most evident physical characteristic is white knuckles. He spoke their language -- literally. He worked at it.
"It was embarrassing when an eight-year-old would say something in French, and I couldn't respond," Staub said on Tuesday. "I felt inadequate. I knew that for a great percentage of the population of Quebec, French was the dominant language. I tried like hell to learn it."
Staub did for baseball in Montreal what Frank Shorter did for jogging in America. He was/is to hockey's mecca what Tony Gwynn became to San Diego, what Cal Ripken became to Baltimore, what George Brett became to Kansas City. And each played for an extended period in one city and nowhere else. Staub's fandom in Montreal became comparable in three years.
Now he was coming back, almost eight years later and with the Expos in first place. When he entered the park that Friday in July of '79, he was well past what he thought had been his final au revoir. He had been a visiting -- and often hailed -- Met for four years. And he had played most of four subsequent seasons with the Tigers. Clearly, though, he was not forgotten.
Staub had played in one Expos game on the West Coast swing after the trade, pulling a leg muscle on July 21. He wouldn't play again for six days, until the first game in Montreal. But "there'd been a huge buzz for a week before they came home," Rich Griffin recalled on Tuesday. Now a columnist with the Toronto Star, Griffin was the Expos' media relations director in 1979. He recalls only two other baseball instances in Stade Olympique that were comparable to Staub's return.
When Staub finally took the field, it was to pinch-hit in the eighth inning. Kent Tekulve was the Pirates pitcher. But when the red hair and left-handed bat showed itself in the on-deck circle, Pirates manager Chuck Tanner opted to yank his right-handed closer in favor of left-handed Grant Jackson.
"It started when Rusty came out on deck," Griffin said. "It was the first chance the crowd got to see him, and they started cheering. Even after he was announced, there was a long time -- the pitching change and Jackson warming up. It kept getting louder and louder. Rusty didn't know what to do. He stood there. He took a couple of swings. It got louder. It was a great reception. They loved him."
And he loved them.
"There've been only a few times in my life when I've had to fight my emotions," Staub said. "I had an at-bat coming. It was an important part of the game. It was a little intense. I had to focus."
From what source does concentration come when 59,000 people are banging their seats -- they always did that in Montreal -- and cheering.
"I got a good pitch to hit," Staub said.
He recalls most pitches he saw in 11,229 plate appearances over 23 seasons. In this instance, he flied to right.
Disappointment was evident in his voice when he mentioned the result.
"But that whole at-bat ... it's one of the most memorable moments in my life," he said. "The affection they showed was overwhelming."
Staub, 67, played more seasons with the Mets (nine) than any other team. He still works for them, having served as a color commentator and goodwill ambassador for most of the last 20 years. He owned and operated two restaurants in Manhattan, and has a foundation that supports the widows and children of fireman and policeman of New York killed in the line of duty. He brings in millions, and is as high-profile a member of the baseball community in the Big City as anyone.
And he says this: "When they do the autopsy on me, they're going find a lot of New York. But they'll find [an] 'Mtl' on a little part of my heart. What I've had in Montreal, in Canada, [has] been a spectacular part of my life."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.