NEW YORK -- The hiss of the baseball as it left the hand of Juan Berenguer was an isolated sound on this February morning in 1981. And, invariably, the sound that immediately followed was that of the ball colliding with the catcher's mitt. Bats seldom interfered with the ball's flight. Someone pointed out that batting practice was a misnomer for what he was witnessing.

Berenguer threw as hard as anyone, and he had a gunslinger mentality. He enjoyed showing off his heat, even in BP. And he had pitched in Winter Ball, so he was in July. The overwhelmed Mets hitters had faced only coaches and pitching machines to that point in the spring.

Even Hubie Brooks, a gifted hitter, was no match for Berenguer's gas. He muttered "This isn't fair" as he exited the cage after a 10-pitch turn had produced a weak ground ball, three foul tips and six fruitless swings.

Joel Youngblood, Ellis Valentine, Mookie Wilson and Mike Cubbage followed, and the results were comparable. Cubbage laughed when he said "This is a non-contact sport."

And then Rusty Staub stepped in -- swing and a miss, line drive over shortstop, line drive into the L-screen protecting Berenguer, line drive to center field -- and he stepped out. "Let me know when the season begins," he said.

His teammates would have laughed if they hadn't been in shock.

Piece-o-cake. The line was that Staub could get up on Christmas morning and hit a line drive. And this was Feb. 24, and he had taken swings for a few days already. What's the big deal? His stroke was never more than a few hours away.

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Few Mets ever were confused with the Big Red Machine or the Pittsburgh Lumber Company during Staub's two runs with the Mets -- 1972-75 and 1981-85. But each had at least one genuine batsman, Staub.

His short left-handed stroke and knowledge of the opposing pitcher made him a reliable run producer as a regular and later as a pinch-hitter par excellence. And his uncanny ability to read an unfamiliar pitcher and "get" his pitches made him a valuable asset to his teammates.

His value to the Mets never was greater than in 1973. He contributed three home runs and five RBIs in 15 at-bats during the elimination of the favored Reds from the 1973 NLCS. And he batted .423 with six RBIs in the World Series against the A's, but only after seriously injuring his right shoulder in a collision with the right-field wall in Game 4 of the NLCS had made throwing impossible and compromised his swing.

Farewell Shea Stadium

Staub's prowess with a bat made him a favorite everywhere he played, particularly Montreal and Shea Stadium. He was Le Grande Orange when he played for the Expos. In New York, partially because of an American Express commercial he shot, he was The Adorable Redhead. Or just Rusty. He was a unique figure on the Shea landscape. When Wes Westrum, the Mets' second manager, uttered his wonderful malaprop -- "When they made him, the threw away the molding" -- he could have been speaking about the large orange.

Shea appreciated Staub's bat and his presence. The ballpark couldn't wait to see his distinctive head pop out of the dugout. The anticipation was for a line drive somewhere. His manager had the same vision. Davey Johnson always was aware of a hitter's resume against a specific pitcher. Yet he sent Staub up to bat against Phillies reliever Bill Campbell with the go-ahead run on second base on June 21, 1984. Staub had been hitless in 15 career at-bats against Campbell. Johnson's reason: "He's a .300 hitter, he's due." The result: Staub singled and the run scored.

Shea hailed his hit and him. "He's from New Orleans, he's played in Houston, Montreal, Detroit and Texas," Ron Darling said one day in 1985. "But he's a New Yorker."

The relationship was mutual. Staub loved the city. He always lived in it while most teammates made their summer homes Long Island or in Greenwich. He has operated two restaurants in Manhattan. His affection for the city rubbed off on Keith Hernandez, very much to the benefit of the Mets.

Acquired by the Mets in June, 1983, Hernandez had the contractual right to demand a trade after the season. His first reaction to being traded to the Mets had been to cry in the shower after his first game, at Shea. By season's end, though, he was all but convinced to re-sign.

"Frank [general manager Cashen] told me we had some talent coming, and he made me a good offer," Hernandez later explained. "But Rusty already had convinced me. He loved the city. I wanted to come back."

Staub's love for the city lingers. He's an in-season fixture at Shea. Moreover, he is an astonishingly successful and generous fund-raiser. His work on behalf of the widows and children of fallen New York City policemen and firefighters has raised close to $150 million.

"He's a big man with a bigger heart," Hernandez says of his friend of 25 years.

"A great, great hitter," Mets owner Fred Wilpon once called Staub. "But he's a better person than he is a hitter."