The Detroit Tigers know that All-Star Rusty Staub can hit, field and throw. The more pressing question at the moment among his teammates was: Can the best-known cook in baseball make a seafood gumbo?
The answer came from Tiger rookie pitcher Mark (“The Bird”) Fidrych. He spilled the gravy on his jeans, scooped giant shrimp into his mouth and expressed his appreciation (“Ummm, good”) to the dish much as he talks to baseballs.
Chalk up another satisfied diner to Rusty Staub’s lifetime cooking average—a record he has managed under vagabond conditions that would make most chefs hang up their hats. A 14-year veteran of the major leagues, Daniel Joseph Staub (“Rusty” describes the color of his hair) has played in Houston, Montreal, New York and now Detroit. Every time he is traded, he has to move $7,500 worth of cooking equipment and two floor-to-ceiling racks of vintage wines.
During the season he must of course fit his cooking into an erratic schedule of road trips, night games and public appearances. Though he keeps a good-sized off-season apartment in Houston, his in-season apartments are usually small and barely suitable for entertaining. (Rusty’s guest room in suburban Troy, Mich. contains 40 cases of bottled water from France, since he is skeptical of what comes out of the tap.) When he wants to cook, Staub is often forced to go to unfamiliar kitchens in restaurants where he is friends with the chef, or, in the case of his gumbo dinner for the Tigers, to the home of teammate Bill Freehan.
Staub, 32, began to appreciate good food as he was growing up in New Orleans. His mother was a formidable cook—Rusty still swears by her oysters Rockefeller recipe—and his dad specialized in barbecue. But their son really learned to cook out of necessity.
When he first signed with Houston (then the Colt 45s) in 1961, fresh out of high school, Staub received a $100,000 bonus. Most of that went into long-term investments and to pay off his parents’ mortgage and buy a car. When he began playing in Houston’s farm system, Rusty found himself taking home less than $200 a month, and could little afford “to spend $10 of that on a meal.” He was living with three teammates. “I hated cleaning up and doing all the household chores, so I did the grocery buying and cooking.”
As Staub progressed toward haute cuisine, his hitting improved enough to earn him promotion to the majors. When he was traded to Montreal in 1969, he won a new nickname—”Le Grand Orange,” for his size, 6’2″, 205 pounds, and his hair—and entree to the kitchens of Quebec’s finest restaurants. He was sent to the Mets in 1972 and continued to sharpen his cooking skills in Manhattan.
Staub’s guide to good eating in cities where he has played include Le Vert-Galant, Top of the Park, Ponte, El Faro and Antolotti’s in New York; Tony’s and Maxim’s in Houston; Little Joe’s, Ma Maison and Dario’s in Los Angeles and “brunch at Brennan’s, no matter what city it’s in.”
Surprisingly, in a profession where avocations tend toward macho hunting and fishing, Staub has taken little razzing. “Sometimes the fans tease me with, ‘Hey, Rusty, what’s cooking?’ ” he says. “But I can’t ever remember getting any garbage from other players.” An intense athlete—the Expos once set up a punching bag in a room off the clubhouse so he could take out his postgame frustrations—Staub says cooking has helped him on the field. He cites the 1973 World Series, when he was a standout despite the Mets’ loss to Oakland. “It was tough to go out between games because the crowds would drive you nuts,” he recalls. “So I stayed home and cooked. It took my mind off the outside pressure.”
Staub’s cooking style lacks the classic grace of his swing at bat. “I don’t worry about the little things and I never measure,” he says. “I’m a slob. How can you cook and be neat?” (He adds: “I’m a traditionalist. I think women should clean up the kitchen. I’m a pig, I guess, but that’s the only chauvinist left in me.”) A Staub sit-down dinner is served on his Wedgwood china complemented by Waterford crystal and sterling silver flatware. He also has a collection of 40 crystal wine decanters.
Staub is a $140,000-a-year bachelor with a reputation in baseball as a swinger. He scoffs: “I like and respect women but I don’t run from bar to bar to find a new one every night.” As for the future, he says it is “inevitable” that he’ll own a restaurant someday. He dreams of a place that would be half family-style, half elegant dining, but he does not believe in absentee ownership. “When I put my name on a restaurant,” he says, “I’ll be involved with the cooking, the menus, running the place.” And there’s a good chance the bill of fare will include a specialty he brought back from Canada. Duck au Grand Orange, anyone?