Here’s an Amazin’ Moment I won’t soon forget because it involves one of my favorite Mets of bygone days, Rusty Staub.
On Dec. 16, 1980, New York resigned Le Grand Orange for his second tour of duty with the team. He would spend the next five seasons with the Mets and retire in blue and orange.
In 1983, Staub tied the National League record for most consecutive pinch hits in a season with eight, and tied the record for most pinch hit RBI in a season with 25.
During his first go-round with the Mets, Rusty provided more in the way of consistent offense and heady play than fans had come to expect from a Mets team that relied primarily on the arms of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Tug McGraw and whatever offense could be scrounged from the day’s lineup.
In 1973, two years into their second decade of existence, the Mets had still not had a player produce a 100 RBI season. The team would make its second trip to the World Series that year, but would wind up second to last in the NL in runs scored with a paltry 608.
As a result, defense was a key component to go along with that vaunted pitching staff. In June of that year, the Mets were playing a series at Shea against the Dodgers. The Saturday game of that set (on June 9) was Old Timers’ Day and a good crowd was on hand. The offensive heroes for the day were Staub, with two doubles and three RBI, and Willie Mays who homered for the other run in what would be a 4-2 complete game win for Jon Matlack.
However, it wasn’t Rusty’s offense that made this game memorable for me, but his defense- specifically, his role in a play that took place in the top of the seventh inning.
By virtue of a pinch-hit double by future Met Tom Paciorek and a bunt single by Davey Lopes, the Dodgers had runners at the corners with no one out and Bill Buckner (of all people) coming to the plate. The Mets were clinging to a 3-2 lead at this point that looked to be in jeopardy.
Buckner was an up-and-coming young batsman of 24 at this time, but was coming off a season where he had hit .319 and shown a penchant for making contact. With Lopes dancing off first, Matlack made a successful pickoff throw and a rundown ensued.
Rundowns always make me nervous if it’s my team trying to execute one. We’ve all heard how, if properly done, only one or two throws should be needed to nail the runner. Invariably, as the number of throws involved in the play increases, so does the percentage that one will ultimately wind up in the stands, the dugout, or the outfield while the runner advances.
On this particular play the infielders involved, Bud Harrelson, Felix Millan, and John Milner, were no slouches with the glove but Lopes was fleet and managed to elude a tag. A number of throws were made, back and forth, with Paciorek looking for a chance to score from third.
Ultimately, with the middle infielders out of position, Lopes dashed for second, seemingly uncovered until…Rusty Staub, having run in from his position in Right Field, took the throw at second, slapped a tag on Lopes diving for the base, then fired a strike to the plate to catch Paciorek trying to sneak in with the tying run. Double play! Buckner flied out to center and the inning ended with no damage done.
As a mere 16 year-old at the time, my depth of baseball knowledge was not substantial, but I had been bitten by the bug at a young age and had read more about the game’s history than many of my peers. Nowhere had I come across an account of a similar play, which, while not the weirdest thing to happen on a baseball field, was without a doubt the most heads-up piece of fielding I had ever witnessed.
Rusty went on to play heroically in the LCS (three HR and a great catch where he badly injured his shoulder), and World Series that year (hitting .423 with a five RBI game while playing hurt). In 1975, he became the first Met to reach the century mark in RBI while setting a club record with 105. Management rewarded this by trading him to Detroit for a washed-up Mickey Lolich and fans were left to pin their hopes on Mike Vail. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out too well.
Regardless, Rusty’s place in the annals of Metsdom is assured, but is just that much more deserved, in my opinion, because of that nifty double play.