For the love of Rusty

For many Canadians, the Summer of 69 was a hit song by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. For Montrealers, it was the start of a love affair between a city and a baseball team, one that lasted until 2004.

Until the Expos, baseball fans had never seen a major-league game outside of the U.S., and those fans were part of history. The team they called Nos Amours turned the city upside down, in two languages, and nobody was more responsible than Rusty Staub. He was labeled Le Grand Orange in a twist of fractured French (the word “orange” is feminine and “le” is masculine) and planted the seeds that grew for 35 seasons.

That 1969 love affair began before he hit his first pitch with an Expos bat. Traded from Houston, Staub flew to Montreal in January. Fans welcomed him at the airport, stopped him on the street, knocked on the window of his car. It was below zero, but warm and, while I was not yet in Montreal to witness it, this is a Distant Replay worth re-visiting.

Staub played three seasons with the Expos before he was traded for three blue-chip prospects — so trading “untouchables” for prospects is hardly a new trend. They were arguably Staub’s finest seasons: He never again hit 30 home runs, batted .300, nor came close to his .952 OPS, an unknown statistic in 1969 that had to be calculated decades later.

But it wasn’t Staub’s statistics that fuelled the love affair. He learned to speak French, admittedly with a Louisiana drawl but well enough to be interviewed in both French and English on Hockey Night in Canada, his personal “bilingual” highlight. He lived five minutes from Jarry Park, and fans regularly knocked on his door. He was a banquet regular each winter (his fee for public appearances was always $0).

In John Robertson’s book Rusty Staub and the Expos, Le Grand Orange said this about Montreal fans: “I cherish their respect. I’m not the best player, far from it, but I’m beginning to realize…there’s more to this game and to life than accumulating statistics. I want to get to know them, understand them, find a way to enjoy life the way they seem to. For the first time, I’m not just playing for personal satisfaction or money.”

Staub returned to Montreal seven years after he was traded, playing 38 games, most of which I covered. He was 35 — still polite, still capable and still their first love.