By Pat Borzi
Mets fans fondly remember Rusty Staub for three things: the regal nickname "Le Grande Orange," bestowed by French-speaking fans of the expansion Montreal Expos before the Mets acquired him; production as a slugging rightfielder in the mid-1970s and a spectacular second run in Queens as a pinch-hitter deluxe in the mid-1980s.
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was a Met during Staub's second turn, one of the goofball reserves who dubbed themselves "F Troop" after the misfit cavalrymen in the 1960's TV comedy of the same name. Card games funded restaurant excursions led by Staub, a noted foodie before it was cool. "Rusty used to say, 'I can't take you guys out for less than $1,200,'" Gardenhire said.
Mainly, though, Gardenhire admired Staub's professionalism as a pinch hitter. As the game unfolded, Staub anticipated when he might be called on and whom he might face. Then he geared up for the one swing that could be a game changer.
Staub's remarkable 25 RBIs as a pinch-hitter in 1983 tied a major-league record, and he joined Ty Cobb and Gary Sheffield as the only major leaguers to homer before their 20th birthday and after their 40th. Staub hung on two more seasons before retiring in 1985.
Two years ago, recalling Staub's impact, Gardenhire considered bringing back Hall of Fame candidate Jim Thome as a DH and pinch hitter. Gardenhire relished Thome's presence affecting the thinking of an opposing manager, just as Staub's had.
But the game had changed. Twelve- and 13-man pitching staffs make it almost impossible to keep a veteran who primarily pinch-hits, even in the American League. So the Twins passed, and Thome signed with the Phillies.
"The way rosters are now, we couldn't make it work," Gardenhire said. "Benches are so short now, and you need to have flexibility."
Managing with as few as two bench players, one of them the backup catcher, makes a pinch hitter extraordinaire like Staub, Manny Mota, Lenny Harris, Smoky Burgess or Dave Philley an endangered species. That likely renders Harris' major-league record of 212 career pinch-hits, the last in 2005, untouchable for decades.
It shouldn't be that way, since tools for a pinch hitter to succeed have never been better. With indoor batting cages just steps from the dugout in most new stadiums, potential pinch-hitters can stretch out and prepare for live pitching more efficiently than their predecessors.
"I think it's a lost art," said Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin. "Branch Rickey said in one of his books that pinch-hitting was overrated, because a guy in the game with three at-bats had a better chance than a guy coming off the bench cold. And it is a little bit overrated in some cases. But most of us would love to have it."
Matt Stairs, who hit the final of his 23 career pinch-hit home runs with San Diego in 2010, might have been the last of that stand-alone breed when Washington released him in 2011. Then-Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who also managed Staub with the Mets, said at the time, "I loved having that left-handed bat off the bench. He was my guy."
Today's bench players need the versatility to back up at four, five and six positions. The National League still has some productive pinch hitters, like Reed Johnson of Miami and Colorado's Brandon Barnes. Most play multiple positions as well. Joe Inglett, the last player to reach 20 pinch-hits in a season (in 2010 for Milwaukee), shuttled between second and the outfield and even pitched one inning.
"It's an evolution of the game," said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter. "I think a lot of things are going to get kind of phased out.
"That one-dimensional guy that plays really good defense or only pinch hits? You can't carry a one-dimensional guy hardly anymore. The need for more National League-type players is showing up in the American League, guys who can do a lot of things. They're valuable. And what they're getting paid has increased."
Showalter said teams much prefer someone like Emilio Bonifacio of the Cubs, a six-position player who switch-hits and steals bases, or his own Ryan Flaherty, who has filled in at all four infield positions plus rightfield this season. It doesn't stop there. Showalter believes full-time designated hitters will disappear as well, as more teams utilize that spot to rest regulars. Baltimore does it that way already.
"What is a DH? Basically, a pinch-hitter," Showalter said. "How many true DHs, the way it used to be -- the Chili Davises, the Paul Molitors, the Edgar Martinezes -- are there now? David Ortiz? [Adam] Dunn, somewhat? I think there's another one. [Actually, two: Billy Butler in Kansas City and Victor Martinez in Detroit.] You're going to start seeing some of that phase out."
It's easy to blame this on Tony La Russa, who experimented with 13-man pitching staffs in Oakland as early as 1993. But the real culprit is starting pitchers who go five innings instead of seven or eight, requiring more bullpen arms to bridge the gap from starter and closer. La Russa and his pitching coach, Dave Duncan, mastered specialization of roles to solve a problem. And baseball followed along.
"I think there are still good pinch hitters out there, and guys that would be good pinch hitters," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "But the way you build your roster, not many teams can afford to have a guy who just sits there and pinch hits, that's the only thing he does. Usually that guy has to be able to play a position, at least the way we've looked at it."
Jim Duquette, the former Mets and Orioles executive turned Sirius XM radio host and SNY studio analyst, ran the numbers this way:
"Say you have a traditional backup catcher who is only a backup catcher," he said. "Then you have a backup infielder who is a defensive guy and doesn't hit. That kind of limits your bench options right off the bat. Can you take a guy who can't defend very well and can only hit, for one at-bat a game? That's very hard for anyone.
"Then what happens if you have a guy who tweaks something, can't play for three or four days, and you don't want to put him on the disabled list? It's hard to carry a pinch-hitting specialist."
The value increases in the National League, where teams often pinch-hit in the pitcher's spot twice a night. Melvin favors a rule change that lets managers to use a single pinch hitter twice in the same game. Plan B? Expanding rosters to 26 or 27.
Then there's this: In 2003, Melvin signed Brooks Kieschnick, a former outfield prospect who converted to pitching, as a combination reliever/pinch-hitter. Kienschnick never hit much as an everyday player, but was Tony Gwynn compared to the rest of the pitching staff.
Kieschnick batted .381 as a pinch-hitter (8-for-21) with two homers, hit .300 overall in 70 at-bats, and also pitched 53 innings in relief (1-1, 5.26 ERA). He became the first major leaguer to homer as a pitcher, pinch hitter and DH in the same season. In 2004 Kieschnick added 11 more pinch-hits in 44 at-bats, with one homer.
Even now, Melvin remains on the lookout for a 13th pitcher who can pinch hit. Maybe that's Jeff Francoeur, the former Mets and Braves outfielder making mop-up relief appearances for San Diego's Class AAA farm team in El Paso. Francoeur, who last pitched in high school, has a 6.23 ERA in five outings.
"I've always been searching for that guy," Melvin said. "I'll find one more before the end of my career."
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Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.