By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
8:36 p.m. July 27, 1979. Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
An electrifying crowd of 59,260 was crammed into every nook and cranny. Out of the dugout popped a pinch-hitter with orange-coloured hair. No introduction was needed by the public-address announcer.
It was a defining moment in Rusty Staub's short but much-beloved career with the Expos following a trade with the Detroit Tigers. The vibrating support was appreciation for his three solid seasons with the Expos from 1969 to 1971 when he was dubbed Le Grand Orange.
For what seemed like minutes, Staub stood outside the batter's box as the fans roared applause. He doffed his hat several times in appreciation before stepping in to face lefty Grant Jackson. Staub ended up getting under the ball with his swing and hit a sky-high fly ball to right field.
"That's the only time the crowds affected me as much during an at-bat in my career,'' Staub told me in 1996 about The Moment. "It was impossible not to get pumped. The fans entirely allowed what took place to happen. The fans just kept cheering. There was a lot of love shared between the fans and because of the time I had spent there earlier in my career. That made this night more special.''
Staub, 73, died shortly after midnight on March 29 at Good Samaritan Medical Centre in West Palm Beach, Fla, where he had resided for decades. He had been scuffling with kidney problems, a staph infection and dehydration. He had spent eight weeks in hospital. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reported that Staub was suffering from cellulitis, which evolved into a blood infection that resulted in a shutdown of his kidneys.
I visited Staub at the Good Samaritan March 9 and his condition had improved. He was able to look at me and hear what I had to say in a "no photographs, no interviews'' scenario but when I tried to see him March 19, a nurse told me "it's not a good day.''
Shortly before the 1980 season began, Staub was traded late in spring training on March 31 by the Expos to the Texas Rangers, mainly because he and the Expos' brass couldn't come to terms on a contract extension. He wanted a three-year deal worth $1-million, an arrangement that Tigers' GM Jim Campbell had somehow promised him before he was traded to Montreal. But all the Expos would do was a two-year deal that would pay him $225,000 per season.
"I said I was entitled to what I was owed,'' Staub told me about his talks with Expos owner Charles Bronfman and GM John McHale. "I told Charles the contract deal with Campbell was in writing. When I became a free agent after the 1980 season, I signed with the Mets and I was given the contract in writing when I was with Detroit -- three years for $1-million.
Staub was the Expos' franchise hero in their first three seasons. In 1969, he hit 29 homers, drove in 79 runs and batted .302. A season later, the numbers were 30, 94, .274. In 1971, the figures were 19, 97, .311.
The height of his popularity in Montreal saw the Bank of Montreal intervene to ask him to be an ambassador in Quebec during the winter of 1969-70. When the bank heard from many people across Canada about its Quebec program with Staub, BMO went even further and asked him to go across Canada during the off-season of 1970-71.
"They needed me to go across the country,'' Staub told me in the 1990s. "For a two-week period Monday to Friday, I went to cold country. And I mean, cold country, places like Regina and Saskatoon where it was 80-below with the wind chill.I remember going on Hockey Night in Canada that winter and I did interviews on both the English and French broadcasts.''
Bronfman said in an interview with me today that he had been a great admirer of Staub from the day he joined the Expos in the franchise's expansion year. Up until the day Staub died, the two had been pretty close.
"I was very fond of Rusty,'' Bronfman said. "He was a cut above everybody else. He was our first superstar. He was the heart and soul of the Expos. He was unique, a very decent character, a very, very decent human being. He was a humanitarian. He had two foundations. He gave of himself.''
Bronfman related the anecdote of when he and Staub crossed paths in a parking lot in West Palm Beach only two months ago.
"I had gone out for dinner at a restaurant and I was backing up and somebody told me, 'You almost ran over Rusty Staub,' '' Bronfman was saying, chuckling. "I got out and I said, 'Hey, Orange.' He was cursing and he saw me and he said, 'Oh, my god, Charles.' ''
Bronfman confirmed that Staub almost didn't join the Expos in the trade with the Houston Astros in early 1969. Donn Clendenon said he wouldn't report to the Astros, holding up the trade. In the end, Clendenon was allowed to stay with the Expos but only after GM John McHale visited Clendenon at a time when Clendenon had temporarily retired to work at the Scripto pen company.
"My first memory of Rusty is whether he would play for us or not,'' Bronfman said. "At spring training that year in West Palm Beach, there was a photo taken of Rusty in an Expos uniform with commissioner Bowie Kuhn, me, John McHale, Jim Fanning and Gene Mauch on the field. Rusty wasn't even officially with us yet. He was doing his own thing but that picture went around the baseball world and it really meant Rusty would be with the Expos.''
Following the 1971 season, the Expos traded Staub to the Mets in exchange for Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton, a deal that made a lot of sense for three seasons until the Expos swapped Singleton to the Orioles in the awful Dave McNally deal.
Staub's No. 10 was retired by the Expos in the early 1990s and he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012. With his statistics, it was a surprise that he didn't get more consideration on the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He finished with 2,716 hits, 499 doubles and 1,466 RBI. He is the only player in big-league history to amass more than 500 hits for four different teams -- Houston, Montreal, Detroit and the Mets.
"RIP my good friend and ex-teammate,'' former Expos reliever Jeff Reardon said in a Facebook post about Staub, a Mets' teammate from 1979-81 before Reardon was traded to Montreal.
"So very sad to hear this. Rusty was one of my favorite Astros when I was a kid. Rusty always played hard. He had the nickname Mr. Double,'' Astros fan Jay Sandefer told me.
Staub, Ty Cobb, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield are the only players ever to hit a homer in the major leagues before the age of 20 and after the age of 40. With the Expos, Staub played 518 games, collecting 531 hits, 81 home runs and 284 RBI.
"It’s very gratifying to be recognized as a special player, especially when the award is of such ilk," Staub said after he was selected to enter the hall in St. Marys, Ont. "For me, it’s even more special because of my relationships with so many people in Montreal, Quebec and all over Canada.
"I have shared some great memories of my career during the time the Expos introduced Major League Baseball to Canada. My first three years in Montreal were great times. To help establish our franchise all over Canada was one of the fondest periods of my career. I sincerely would like to thank the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for honouring me."
In a statement released today, Scott Crawford, the Canadian hall's director of operations, said: "Rusty Staub was our country's first major-league superstar. He may have only played three-and-a-half seasons with the Montreal Expos, but he gave his heart and soul to the franchise and to the city of Montreal.
"He immersed himself in the city's culture as much as any Expo and the fans loved him for it. It was evident when he returned to Canada for his induction into our Hall of Fame in 2012 that part of his heart still belonged to the city of Montreal and its baseball fans. Today is a sad day. We'll miss Le Grande Orange, but we'll never forget him.''
Staub is one of my top Expos' heroes of all time along with Dennis Martinez. Staub and I shared the same two given names: Daniel Joseph. That moment July 27, 1979 when Staub returned to the Expos is something I will never forget. I was there to witness an electrifying moment.