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CATCHING UP WITH ... Rusty Staub and the Dalai Lama

September 16, 2007

Free Press special writer Bill Dow caught up with former Tiger Rusty Staub. Staub, 63, works part time as a goodwill ambassador for the New York Mets but spends most of his time working with his charities.

How we remember him

Obtained from the Mets in exchange for '68 Tigers hero Mickey Lolich following the 1975 season, Rusty Staub was an offensive force and a fan favorite as he drove in 358 runs over 3 1/2 seasons in Detroit. In his first Tiger campaign, he patrolled rightfield, started the '76 All-Star game with teammates Mark Fidrych and Ron LeFlore, and batted .299 with 96 RBIs. He finished his tenure in Detroit as a designated hitter and in 1978 became the first player in baseball to DH in all 162 games. Affectionately nicknamed Le Grande Orange for his red hair when he was Montreal's first baseball hero, Staub played in 23 major league baseball seasons and retired in 1985 at age 41 as the only player to collect 500 hits for four teams. The six-time All-Star and Ty Cobb are the only players to hit home runs before age 20 and after 40.

After the Tigers

The Tigers traded Staub to Montreal in July 1979 for a player to be named later (minor league Randy Schafer) and cash. He finished his career with Texas and later the Mets for a second tour where he became one of baseball's great pinch-hitters. A noted connoisseur of fine dining, for 21 years he operated his restaurant, Rusty's, in Manhattan. For years, Staub has been a celebrated humanitarian. His Rusty Staub Foundation benefits youth and fights hunger. In conjunction with Catholic Charities, the organization operates eight emergency food shelters serving 650,000 meals a year. In 1986, he founded the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund that to date has raised $150 million. In 2005, Staub received a compassion award from the Dalai Lama.

In his words

On his years with the Tigers: "I remember Detroit with a smile on my face and I loved my time there. It's a great franchise, the people were wonderful and we had a bunch of great kids coming up like Fidrych, (Alan) Trammell, (Lou) Whitaker, (Lance) Parrish, and veterans I respected like (Mickey) Stanley, (Willie) Horton, and (Bill) Freehan. I enjoyed helping the kids become better players and good people."

On his successful adjustment to American League pitching: "The National League had a lower strike zone and the American League's was also wider. I moved up in the box and in a little bit, so no matter what they were calling I could still hit it. I liked Tiger Stadium because it had a nice dark hitting background, but that thick grass was horrendous. You could hit the ball into the seats OK, but driving it through the Tiger Stadium grass was difficult, to say the least. I told (Tigers general manager) Jim Campbell that 'You may be trying to protect your pitchers, but you're killing all these young hitters.' "

On his first year in Detroit during Mark (The Bird) Fidyrch's magical '76 season: "What Fidrych did and the way the fans took to him was one of the most wonderful things I have ever watched. Nothing was contrived about Mark, it was just him. How could you not love him? It's a shame that his career was shortened and it was a great disappointment to all of us."

On being traded from the Tigers: "Early on, I told Jim Campbell that I would not try to renegotiate any year I agreed to, but that if I did my job and the money was going in a positive way for the players, I wanted him to talk with me. After driving in 101 and 121 runs in '77 and '78, I said, 'Jim, it's time to talk.' He said, 'I'm not talking about anything.' In '79, I sat out spring training and the first month, and that was tough for me, but it was a challenge to my integrity. I knew when Sparky Anderson was hired (in June) I would have to go because for him it was 'My way or the highway,' and I was in the way of what Sparky wanted and I knew it." (Staub was traded a month after Anderson was hired.)

On why he became a philanthropist and humanitarian: "I tell people that there was a period of time that if I had gotten to the Pearly Gates I would have told St. Peter that 'I was a helluva hitter and could cook my ass off,' but I figured that probably wasn't a prerequisite to getting in, so I decided I better work on a couple of areas," Staub said, chuckling.

On receiving the "Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award" in 2005 from the Dalai Lama: "It was a mesmerizing day beyond belief, and I have never felt so honored in my life. Hitting a homer to win a game is exhilarating, but that exhilaration and adrenaline rush doesn't usually happen in real life and that's why so many athletes have a problem after their career is over. But this was a different kind of thing."

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