Rusty Staub of the Detroit Tigers is a creature of habits, routines and quirks. He believes they help make him a successful designated hitter. Everyone else thinks they make him a successful DH who is also a little, uh, weird. But, really now, what's so weird about traveling with your own bottled water, or taking a 90-minute nap before every game, or wearing one pair of gloves for batting and another for running the bases?
What really sets Staub apart from most other players is his hitting. The 34-year-old lefthanded swinger from New Orleans is in his 16th season and with his fourth team, and he currently ranks in the top five among active players in hits, doubles and RBIs. A rightfielder until he went to the Tigers from the Mets in 1976, Staub is now the consummate designated hitter. He hit .295 in 36 games as a DH (and .299 overall) in 1976. Last year he had the DH job full time and hit .278, leading all DHs in RBIs (101), runs (84) and hits (173). This season he has been even better. Staub leads all DHs with a .298 average (the league average is .254), well ahead of runner-up Jim Rice, who is batting .284 when DH-ing and .340 when playing in the outfield. Staub is even challenging Rice for the league RBI lead, trailing the Boston slugger 96-95. "We're like the tortoise and the hare," says Staub. "I can get one or two RBIs a game, but with his power Rice can get 20 in a week. He must have had some kind of physical problem, or we wouldn't be this close."
In truth, the tortoise has had problems of his own this year, particularly a sore back. Before each game Staub's back is rubbed with liniment, and he is strapped in a tight elastic corset. Nonetheless, he has played in all 114 of the Tigers' games, and has been conspicuously slump-free. Rusty's longest stretch without a hit is two games and he has failed to reach base via a hit or a walk in only 11 games. He has driven in 46 runs in the last 45 games, of which the Tigers have won 29. They now are in third place in the East, 10 games behind Boston.
"I'm a grind-it-out person," Staub says. "I've got to work harder than the next guy to get the same results. If I didn't realize that, I'd have been out of the game a long time ago. That's what I try to impress on the younger players: if you understand yourself, if you know what you can and can't do, then you've got a chance. You can adjust and compensate."
Staub learned the lesson the hard way. After just one season of minor league ball, he became a regular with Houston in 1963 and batted .224. In half a big league season the following year, he hit .216. He did not start to show his hitting prowess until the second half of 1965 when a hot streak lifted his average to .256. Over the past 13 years, Staub has averaged .290 and shown occasional home-run power (a high of 30 with Montreal in 1970, when he became known as Le Grand Orange and rivaled Jean Beliveau for popularity in Canada, and 19 so far this year). Staub would certainly be a career .300 hitter if he had just a little speed, but he comes out of the batter's box as if he were mired in quicksand.
"When I first came up, I saw myself as a long-ball hitter," he says. "I was a dumbnagle. After 2� years I finally said to myself, 'Hey, dummy, you want to go back to the minors?' No? Then hit to left sometimes.' "
This is only one of the techniques that Staub has tried to pass on to young teammates such as First Baseman Jason Thompson and Leftfielder Steve Kemp, both of whom also bat left. Kemp, whose .281 average is up 24 points from last year, says, "I'm a better hitter because of Rusty. He teaches you to hit your pitch. To make contact without trying to kill the ball. To stay in control." All of this is fine with Manager Ralph Houk, who says, "If a young player wants to learn how to hit, all he has to do is watch Rusty Staub."
It is the development of these young Tiger players that has made Staub the team's permanent DH, a role he regards with mixed feelings. "I told Ralph last year that I didn't like it and I didn't think I deserved it," Staub says, "but I also said I would try to be the best DH I could. Instead of fighting it, I'm assuming it. But I am smart enough to realize that by doing it now, it will add years to my career."
For Staub this is an important consideration because he figures he has a good shot at 3,000 hits. After getting a homer and a single Sunday against the White Sox, Staub was 674 short, but if he bangs out as many hits from 1978 to 1982 as he did from 1973 to 1977, he will make it before he turns 39. Says Staub, who has never had a 200-hit season and is not likely to come close to one, "If I stay injury free I think I can do it. That's why I work my tail off to stay in shape."
Staub keeps in condition year-round. He plays racquet ball and runs for 20 minutes almost every day during the winter. During the season he runs as often as he can before heading for the park, and then performs stretching exercises and does push-ups once he arrives. No wonder he needs a nap. Three times a week he does elaborate hand and wrist exercises after a game to tone his forearm muscles.