Sunday, May 31, 2009

Interlude: The Metsiness of Picking our Heroes

That's Rusty Staub, Phil Pepe, and me. I'm the one who doesn't look like he's been part of professional sports for forty years.

For those of us who were Mets fans in the 70s, it's sort of a credentialing process to list all the horribly lopsided trades that define the beginning of the dozen years of downtime that ended only as the bad boys of the 1986 World Champion team began to arrive. I did eventually adopt Steve Henderson's batting stance in pepper games, though I never stopped rooting for Tom Seaver, even against my Mets. But I never warmed up to Mickey Lolich. No, he didn't pitch all that badly in the hour-and-a-half he was a Met, but he came in exchange for Rusty Staub.

I can't tell you exactly why, but I've always been partial to The Big Orange. I think it's because he was a very good player at a time very good players were understood to make a difference in team's fortunes. We're completely star-driven in sports today. I don't know that a Rusty Staub would receive the same respect in today's baseball.

My favorite story of my own rooting for Rusty Staub was very late in his career, in a long (16-inning?) game, when he was pressed into service as an outfielder (once a good defensive RF, Staub was at this point a pinch-hitter and occasional 1B). With no one left on the bench, the Mets switching positions after every batter to keep Rusty and his limited range in whichever outfield position was less likely to be hit to. Naturally, therefore, Rusty got to make great catch* late in the game - which the Mets did, of course, win. Everybody in my dorm who had their windows or dorms open that afternoon knew something great must have happened somewhere when Rusty caught that ball. There's a reprint of a columnists' take on that game here.

Another reason I'm a fan of Staub's is that he became what his teams needed when they needed it. When he came back to the mets for the end of his career, he made himself a premier pinch-hitter and mentor. I wouldn't mind if I could look back over my career - as an engineer, a husband, a project manager, a father - and have someone say about me that I became what I needed to be when it was needed.

Who knows exactly why our heroes are our heroes? For whatever it means, Rusty Staub is one of mine.

Which is why I've gotten so adrenalized and tongue-tied the two times I've met him that I could barely speak... but that's a story for a different time.

* - I imagine it was great - all the reports at the time seemed to think that, but I was listening on the radio.

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