He was called a guardian angel and a beacon, a strong force for good and a good friend. He was described, too, as a man of great generosity, who was given much and wasn’t shy about giving it to others.
Rumor has it that Rusty Staub was a pretty good ballplayer, too.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, Staub’s friends and family filed into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan to remember a man and an athlete who, in many ways, eclipsed a prolific baseball career with decades of philanthropy. Known to a generation of fans as Le Grand Orange — an homage to the shock of red hair that helped build his larger-than-life persona as a Montreal Expo — the former Met died on March 29 at 73.
“He was one of the characters that really helped define our game and make our game great, and really part of American culture” baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, one of his friends, said. “He was a man of great generosity — a huge heart — and I think he’s part of a tradition that our players have followed for many, many years in terms of giving back . . . It was a sad day for baseball when we lost Rusty.”
On Wednesday, hundreds attended the memorial mass — many of whom knew Staub personally, along with a few fans in rain-slicked Mets jackets and shirts. Also present was a number of figures from the Mets organization past and present — the Wilpons, John Franco and Omar Minaya. Former Astros player and manager Larry Dierker was there, as was former Yankees pitcher Jim Beattie, and former Rangers captain Mark Messier.
Members of the FDNY, NYPD and Port Authority ceremonial bands filled Fifth Avenue with the sounds of mournful bagpipes — a nod, no doubt, to Staub’s work creating the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. The charity, which eventually helped a slew of families in the wake of 9/11, cemented Staub’s lasting relationship with his adopted city long after his retirement in 1985.
“He was such a good human being, it didn’t matter if he never got any hits, any runs scored, any RBIs,” said Ron Darling, who called Staub his guardian angel for the way he took care of young players like Darling, who made his major- league debut in 1983 during Staub’s second stint with the Mets. “All that was in his heart was to do good, to help people less fortunate and I think he’s a beacon for ballplayers today . . . [As players] we have such an opportunity to do good works. Some do, some don’t, and Rusty did it the best.”
Though he was battling a number of ailments, Staub ultimately died of a heart attack during his stay at a West Palm Beach hospital, his brother Chuck said. He left behind the off-the-field legacy — the Widows’ and Children’s Fund and also the Rusty Staub Foundation — as well as a career that spanned 23 years and two tenures with the Mets. He collected 2,716 hits with 1,466 RBIs.
But “baseball is what we do, it isn’t what we are,” said Lee Mazzilli, who was introduced to his wife by Staub. “Millions of New Yorkers may not even have known he played ball, because of his heart and what he did for policemen and firemen . . . ”
Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine fondly recalled the advice Staub gave him when Valentine started coaching in 1985: “Remember, you’re a good teacher, but no one cares what you know if they don’t know that you care.”
Mets public relations director Jay Horwitz added that “no one ever gave back to the community like Rusty.”
Stephen Dannhauser, chair of the Widows’ and Children’s Fund, said he couldn’t “think of a person who stepped up to a greater degree than this man.”