TORONTO – John Gibbons didn’t have a long major-league playing career, appearing in just 18 games across two seasons with the New York Mets. He didn’t accomplish much during that span, according to his Baseball-Reference page, but there is one memorable exploit that doesn’t register in the statistical records.
Gibbons went to his first hockey game. Courtesy of Rusty Staub, the former big-league star who died on Thursday at the age of 73.
"I really liked Rusty," said Gibbons, the Toronto Blue Jays manager, prior to his club’s opening day contest against the New York Yankees at Rogers Centre. "He was always good to me."
At one point during Gibbons’s rookie season in 1984, the Mets travelled to Montreal, where Staub had previously become a fan favourite during three-and-a-half seasons with the Expos. The NHL’s Montreal Canadiens also happened to be hosting the New York Islanders in the conference finals.
"The first hockey game I ever saw," recalls Gibbons. "He got a bunch of tickets. It was a playoff game, it was Canadiens-Islanders at the old Forum … So, I get to see my first hockey game and then later, that next week, we went and saw [the Islanders again] in Nassau Coliseum."
The Canadiens took a two-game lead to open the series, but promptly lost four straight and were eliminated by an Islanders team led by Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. New York eventually fell to the early-year dynasty Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup, but still managed to captivate Gibbons and his generous, veteran teammate.
Staub, a right-fielder with plenty of pop in his bat, played 23 seasons in the majors, earning six all-star appearances. He’s remembered fondly for his time with the Expos, starring for the club during its inaugural season in 1969 while hitting .302/.426/.526 with a team-leading 29 home runs.
"Rusty Staub was our country’s first major league superstar," said Scott Crawford, Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame director, in a press release. "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."
The New Orleans native was nicknamed "Le Grand Orange" by Montreal fans for the red hair he brandished during his playing days. He also curried favour from the fan base with his attempts to learn French and was eventually inducted into the Canadian Hall in 2012.
The Expos traded Staub to the Mets in 1972 and the next year he became a World Series hero in New York. Towards the end of his career, he evolved into a pinch-hitting extraordinaire.
"Might have been the best in baseball at that time," recalls Gibbons.
But the Blue Jays manager will remember his late friend for much more than on-field accolades.
"Rusty had a huge heart," he said. "He owned a couple restaurants down in Manhattan. He’d invite players to go and have free meals there. That was kind of cool. He was a great man and a great baseball player. It’s a sad day for baseball."