At the risk of giving a hint as to my age, I admit that my first baseball hero was Rusty Staub, who passed away in the early hours of Opening Day.
Montreal Expos RF Rusty was the first baseball hero for many Canadians. I learned many baseball lessons through him.
After losing only 5 of their first 9 games in May of that first 1969 season, the Expos went 0-for-the-rest-of-the-month. The losing continued on until the first week of June, stretching to 20 games in total. Every day, I would anxiously check the linescores (they didn’t even print box scores then) in the Toronto Star to see if they had won. I was disappointed on 20 straight occasions, setting me up for learning to deal with a youth of sporting disappointment (I was a Toronto Maple Leafs and Argonauts fan as well).
Rusty was the beginning, middle, and end of the Expos offence. In his first three seasons with the team, he didn’t play less than 158 games, walked more than he struck out, and posted OPS+ marks of 166, 139, and 148. He was the Expos All-Star rep every season.
Seemingly at the height of his career, the Expos did the inconceivable, and dealt Rusty to the Mets for three prospects. I was crushed, but the experience was my Introduction to Baseball Business 101: teams don’t intentionally try to break your heart (they can do that unintentionally easily enough), and when they can exchange what they view as a declining asset (the rumour was that Rusty’s hands were going) for three promising pieces of a future puzzle, they tend to do it. That trio of futures (Tim Foli, Ken Singleton, and Mike Jorgensen) would have the Expos in a pennant race two years later, hanging in until the final weekend. That pennant, of course, was won by Rusty and the Mets.
Staub was highly marketable, and not just for his bat. His trademark orange hair stood out on a ball field, earning him the nickname “Le Grand Orange des Expos.” He was the star of the CBC’s Wednesday night Expos telecasts, the only televised baseball fans could watch aside from NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week. My mom, who had hair of a similar hue to Rusty’s herself, bought me an Expos colouring book, and I gave the Rusty picture the flaming orangest crop of hair you could imagine.
When the Expos reacquired Rusty during their first “real” pennant race in 1979, it was like coming back to your hometown after a lengthy absence and discovering that your favourite diner had re-opened. And his return was something of a passing of the torch to my next favourite player, a speedy young September call up by the name of Tim Raines.
I came to love baseball because of Rusty. I learned to live with losing, and how to deal with the crush of having your favourite player traded.