In 1975, Rusty Staub had his best season ever for the Mets, batting .282/.371/.448 with 30 doubles, 19 home runs and 105 RBI.
Then, in the offseason, for reasons few fans could understand, the Mets traded Staub to Detroit for veteran left-handed pitcher Mickey Lolich. Actually, the trade was Staub and AAA pitcher Bill Laxton for Lolich and AAA outfielder Billy Baldwin.
I remember thinking that maybe this guy Baldwin was some super-prospect (he wasn’t) because otherwise, this trade was hard to justify.
Trade Staub? Maybe not unthinkable, because the Mets thought they had his replacement in the much younger Mike Vail. But for Lolich? Was that the best they could do ?
Mike Vail came to the Mets as a minor league throw-in in an otherwise inconsequential swap of utility infielders with the Cardinals. But Vail quickly established himself as a superior hitter at the AAA level, and he was an immediate sensation when the Mets brought him up. His 23-game hitting streak made fans and team officials think they had found a future long-term fixture in right field.
With Vail in the picture, maybe they thought Staub could be a valuable trade commodity to a team that had a solid starting three in Koosman, Seaver, and Matlack, but needed an established 4th starter.
In his heyday, Lolich was the Tigers’ pitching star of the 1968 World Series, but by 1975, he was still a workhorse, but a 35-year old, terribly out of shape workhorse who had lost 39 games in his last two seasons and didn’t figure to get much better. Would a change of leagues return Lolich to glory?
Well, Lolich went 8-13 for the Mets in 30 starts and was soon departed, while Staub continued to be a productive hitter for years. Fortunately, Rusty returned to the Mets a few years later and he became baseball’s premier pinch-hitter.
And as for Vail? He injured his ankle playing basketball in the off-season, leaving a gaping hole in the Mets’ lineup. And when he returned, he never lived up to his potential with the Mets, although he hung around with a few other teams for a while as a 4th outfielder and pinch hitter.
The 1976 Mets finished 86-76 with neither Vail or Lolich making many positive contributions. Could the Mets have been a legitimate contender if they had kept Staub ? We’ll never know.
In his 23 year career as a major leaguer, Staub collected some gaudy offensive numbers including 2,796 hits, 1,225 walks, 499 doubles, 296 home runs and 1,449 RBI. He retired with a career slash of .279/.362/.439 and a 129 OPS+.
Rusty’s only postseason came in 1973 with the Mets, where he led the team with a .341 average, .413 on-base and a whopping 1.096 OPS in 11 games with four home runs and 11 RBI.
After a serious health scare in 2015, Rusty is doing fine now and continues to participate in many charitable endeavors for the families and victims of 9/11 and first responders. He had the privilege of tossing the first pitch during this year’s Mets home opener and will forever remain one of the team’s most beloved players.