Friday, August 14, 2009

Rusty Staub: The Zisk Interview

For those of us who came of age watching baseball in the 1970s, Rusty Staub was one of those guys who you’d love to have on your club. Staub was a player who approached the game tenaciously and worked hard to make himself better year in and year out. He was an excellent hitter (one who is the answer to a great trivia question, as you’ll see below), a decent fielder and late in his career he became one of the top pinch hitters in all of baseball. But most importantly, he had an awesome nickname from his time playing for the Montreal Expos—Le Grand Orange. Staub has a little less of his trademark orange hair now, but his no-nonsense approach to the game lives on in a book he did with New York sportswriter Phil Pepe titled Few and Chosen: Defining Mets Greatness Across the Eras. In it Staub picks the top five players at every position throughout the Mets 47 year history. I had the pleasure of chatting with Staub about the book, the origin of his outstanding nickname, and how to get ready for my next appearance as a pinch hitter.

SR: The idea for doing a book like this seems like it’s something that could be hatched over happy hour amongst a bunch of Mets fans. How did the idea for this book get started?

RS: Well, Phil Pepe called me and said he done this type of book with some other people on other teams. I know he did Ron Santo on Chicago and Brooks Robinson in Baltimore—there were other teams where he did stuff. I think the Brooklyn Dodgers, or the Dodgers, he used Duke Snider and Bobby Thompson did the book with him on the Giants. He came to me wanting to do the book about the Mets. And I said yes for two reasons. One, not only is he a close friend, he’s a terrific writer and two, I knew I could trust him. I thoroughly enjoyed studying all the stats and making the selections. We talked long and hard about different things. And I’m very pleased with the outcome of what we have done here. I don’t expect 100% of the people in Met land to agree with me, but it was my choice and I took it and I’m very proud of it.

SR: Coming up with the list of players for each position, what were the criteria that you went through? Was it more stats-oriented or more of what you had seen and what Phil had seen? How did you balance between the two?

RS: Well, Phil wrote the words as I spoke them. The truth is, if you just wanted a stat book, they wouldn’t need me. I put a lot of thought into what a person meant to the ballclub. I mean, I picked Buddy Harrelson as the best shortstop. Now Jose Reyes might be a Hall of Fame player, if he doesn’t let the off the field stuff get in his way and he doesn’t get injured as often as he’s been. He’s already been on the DL more times in his career than I was in 23 years. The truth is, Buddy Harrelson meant everything to that ballclub. He was the core of the defense. Any pitcher that had him at shortstop was thrilled that he was there. And he learned how to help offensively by walking and bunting and hit-and-running and all the little things that you do. He always placed himself defensively exactly where he needed to be. He anticipated, he knew what was coming. He worked hard with the pitchers. Having been around him as long as I was, he was my pick. Somebody else can pick whoever they want. Again, it’s not just about stats, it’s what you meant to that ballclub in that era. And I know there are differences of opinion all the time, and may they continue. Let people argue as long as they want. But these are my picks, and I’m very pleased with the people I picked.

SR: Well, books of sports lists are basically done to start dialogue between people so they can talk about there favorite sport.

RS: That’s what’s great. I’m sure there will be people going, “How could he pick so and so?” Well, I picked it for my reasons. Again, if you just wanted to do a stat book, we would have put all the stats down and titled it New York Mets Stats.

SR: What was the hardest position for you to pick? I would think catcher might have been close, since you have one guy that’s in the Hall of Fame (Gary Carter) and another guy that will be going into the Hall of Fame (Mike Piazza).

RS: No, that wasn’t the most difficult. Second base was probably the most difficult. Mike Piazza, his total stats with the Mets dwarf Gary’s. I mean Gary had a Hall of Fame career for the Montreal Expos, then came and played five seasons for the Mets. The first couple were brilliant seasons, they won a world championship. All of that was great. But if you look at cold hard facts, Piazza was way past Carter. He almost doubled the stats of Gary in the same amount of time for the Mets.

SR: Now why was second base so difficult?

RS: Well, after analyzing stuff I picked Jeff Kent as number-one. Other people probably feel that other players could be there on top, like Felix Milan. And there’s Gregg Jefferies, and Wally Backman and Tim Teuefel—I put them in as a sort of quinella at the end because they were so good together.

SR: Well of course—it was a great pairing.

RS: But Jeff Kent had the best stats of any second basemen in the history of the Mets, even though he was only a starter for three full seasons. And he was tough. He played hard, he played hurt. He wasn’t the most gifted second basemen but he worked very hard. And he really worked hard on making that double play. As it was, the Mets wanted to move him to third and he didn’t want to move there. And the Mets eventually traded him, which was not the best decision they ever made.

SR: Yeah, if you included the list of Top 5 worst trades in Mets history, I’m sure that would be on there.

RS: I know. And even with the trade, he still had incredible stats with the Mets. He’s got more home runs and more RBIs, and only Felix Milan has more hits than him. But of course, Felix also played longer. And you know, Gregg Jeffries had some pretty good statistics too, even as he went on to not play consistently for the ball club over a long number of years. He had a fine career, that young man. But he struggled here. Things could have been better here. I’m not sure that everything was handled the best for him the way projected him as the next coming. They put too much on him with a veteran team, and I don’t think that was a plus for him.

SR: Now this book goes through all of the positions. But one you did leave out, the position you probably would have been number-one as, was pinch hitter. You were known as an exceptional pinch hitter in your time with the team. So can you take me through your mindset as a pinch hitter and how you’d prepare yourself to go in and pinch hit?

RS: Well, number-one, I tried to get my body temp up if there was any chance for me to hit. I mean I’d jump rope, I’d hit the ball off the tee, and I’d run up and down the runways. I liked to have my body temp up. I wanted to be perspiring when I went up there, like you would be if you were playing. The anticipation, the study of the pitchers you were going to face, that all had something to do with it. As was having a game plan. I talk to young hitters now and I say, “What’s your game plan when you go up against this guy?” And they say, “Well, I’m going to try to get a good pitch to hit and I’m gonna hit it.” And I’ll say, “So you’ve never considered what he’s done to you in the past?” And they’ll say, “Well, no.” I mean, this is a profession. I studied it professionally. If the guy starts you out with a breaking ball every time, why would you look for the fastball? If a guy got two strikes on you and always threw a certain pitch, why would you not anticipate that pitch? You can’t guess. That’s the biggest problem. I think the biggest difference between a really, really good hitter and a guy who has talent is that the guy that’s a really, really good hitter doesn’t get himself out as often as the guy who just has talent.

SR: Now a couple of weeks ago you were an answer to a trivia question Keith [Hernandez] and Ron [Darling] were working. The question was who was the only player to have 500 hits with four different clubs? And Keith said something interesting when they gave the answer—he said that he was surprised that you were only with Expos for just three and a half seasons and that he thought it was more. Why do you think people still have vivid memories of you as an Expo even though you weren’t there as long as you were with the Mets?

RS: Well, it was the first time the game went out of the country. I became Le Grand Orange. I hit well, I threw well, I played well in my time there. The fact that there was now a team in Canada was of note to start out with. I meant a great deal to the franchise at that time. I worked a lot in the off season trying to promote the ballclub throughout the province of Quebec. And it worked to such an extent that we had this young Expo club and we had 75,000 children enrolled in it after the first year. And after the second year we had 150,000 children. I was also a representative of a national bank and I ended up traveling across the country. And I was really part of what the team was doing in Canada. I felt very proud to be helping baseball be spread there. And whatever came with that, the pluses and the minuses. I think studying French and trying to do some of the television shows and answer some questions in French meant a great deal to the people that were there. You can’t factor in what that kind of stuff means to the people that you’re playing in front of.

SR: How exactly did your nickname come about?

RS: It was Ted Blackman. He was an English writer up there. We had lost a lot of games in a row. And I had a great day against the Dodgers I think, I can’t remember for sure. But Ted Blackman used the—they used to call me Big Orange. And he’s the one who put le in front of grand orange. Normally in front of a vegetable or a fruit they put la in French. And he actually made the statement, “If you think I was going to put a feminine article on his name, you’re crazy.” (Laughs) So that’s what it was. That’s why there’s no e at the end of grand. Technically in French, it should be a la grande, with an e, orange. So Ted did it, and it exploded. From the first time it came out —I’ve never seen anything take off like that.

SR: Do people today still call you that?

RS: People say Le Grand Orange all the time to me.

SR: You’re also known for owning restaurants and being someone who appreciates fine cuisine, so I need to ask if you sampled any of the places to eat at Citifield?

RS: I’ve been out to Citifield many times, as I still work for the ballclub in kind of an ambassadorial role. So when I’ve been out there I have tasted food from many of the places, and it’s excellent. And I must say the comments from people on the food have been as good as I’ve ever heard about stadium food ever. I mean, they’ve got some great restaurateurs there. Danny Meyer has four places. Drew Nieporent has a wonderful restaurant there. These are some of the best restaurateurs in the city of New York, and what they have done there is terrific.

SR: Could you have ever imagined ballpark food getting to a place where it’s reviewed by the food critic for the New York Times?

RS: From the origins of baseball, no. But where life has been taking everybody, you could see that baseball was trying to do things that were going to make things better for the fans. Better food, people seemed to always want that. I mean, they always wanted their hot dog, or hamburger or popcorn, which seems to have taken over for Cracker Jack. But now they’ve got sushi! I mean, you name it and it’s there at a ballpark. It’s part of the game-going experience now.

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