NEW YORK — Sometimes, they're a little like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. That's when they're getting along together nice as pie.
Other times, they're more like the Odd Couple and the Sunshine Boys, arguing and picking on one another.
Still, you never saw two better friends than Rusty Staub and Keith Hernandez. You'd better believe it. Anytime you want to find Hernandez, check Rusty's, which is Staub's restaurant here on the east side of Manhattan. There's a good chance you'll catch him there.
That's where he was Thursday, listening to General Manager Frank Cashen of the Mets tell all the media why it was decided to sign Staub again even though he'll be 41 by the time next season starts and is pretty much restricted to pinch hitting.
Rather than accept a winter roster assignment to the Mets' Tidewater farm in the International League, Staub went for free agency last fall. That meant any other club could sign him the way the Chicago White Sox surprised the Mets by signing Tom Seaver a year ago when he was left unprotected.
"I held my breath for a few months," Cashen said.
He really didn't have to.
"No one came pounding my door down," said Staub, who led the National League for the second straight year in pinch hits with 18 and batted .264.
Cashen said he was delighted to have Staub back. Hernandez also was happy about it because had the Mets decided not to re-sign Staub, or had he gone to some other club, whom would the 31-year-old Hernandez have to argue with? Most of the other Mets are too young.
Laughing over that, Hernandez explained what he meant after photographers got their shots of Staub and him together.
"We always talk on the bench," he said. "I have to have someone to talk to, and Rusty helps me with my hitting. Sometimes, he tells you things you don't like to hear, but he always gives it to you straight. No bull, and that's what you want.
"While waiting to hit, for example, I'll ask him, 'How do you think this guy is gonna pitch me?' and he'll give me his opinion. Then I'll give him my opinion. We disagree about 80% of the time. I'll say to Rusty, 'You're nuts,' and he'll tell me I'm nuts."
Hernandez was sitting in the rear of the restaurant and Staub was in the front, answering questions into the microphones and saying how happy he was to be back with the Mets.
"I don't think there was any time I didn't think things wouldn't work out this way," said Staub, whose 2,704 hits rank him third among active players, behind Pete Rose's 4,097 and Rod Carew's 2,929. "A lot of my life is here in this city with the Mets' organization."
Afterward, some writers wanted Hernandez' assessment of what Staub, a designated hitter in the wrong league, meant to the Mets.
"He's the stabilizer," Hernandez said. "A lot of young players go to him for advice. Rusty is not one to be indirect."
Neither is Hernandez.
Right there, you have the essential element in the warm, strong friendship that exists between the Mets' two productive veterans.
Greg Foster, the world's No. 1 hurdler at 110 meters, did some wide receiving while he was still going to high school in Chicago and he's bigger than his cornerback cousin with the Bears, Leslie Frazier, so people keep asking him why he didn't go for some of that big money in pro football.
Look at how well Willie Gault is doing with the Bears. And Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah with the San Francisco 49ers. Both were world class hurdlers.
"I'm not sorry," said the 6-foot 3-inch, 195-pound Foster, a silver medalist in last year's Olympics who plans to compete in about a dozen of the 15 USA-Mobil Grand Prix track meets, starting in Sherbrooke, Canada, Jan. 13.
"Professional football can be rewarding, I'm sure," Foster said. "But it doesn't take much to end your career. The first thing I look at is what happened to Darryl Stingley. All it takes is one hit."
Foster didn't care much for football when he tried it in high school.
"I thought it was lousy," he said. "I was out there practicing twice a day and every time I'd run out for a pass, they'd throw the ball 20 or 30 yards short. I got tired of running, so I quit."
Foster was favored to win the 110-meter hurdles in the Olympics, but turned to look around coming off the last hurdle and finished second to Roger Kingdom of the University of Pittsburgh by 2/100ths of a second.
He still offers no excuses, although he says he hesitated momentarily at the start, thinking he had jumped the gun. Reminded of Satchel Paige's famous piece of advice, "Never look back because something may be gaining on you," Foster smiled and said: "After what happened to me in the Olympics, I believe it."
Married to the former Florence Griffith, also a silver medalist in the Los Angeles Olympics in the women's 200 meters, Foster hopes to compete in the 1988 Games in Seoul, but only if he believes he's in top form.
In his opinion, Gault is the fastest sprinter-hurdler who ever lived. Not the fastest sprinter or the fastest hurdler but the fastest combination of both.
Foster will be watching the Bears-49ers' NFC title game in San Francisco Sunday on TV and he'll be rooting for the Bears, partly because he's from Chicago and partly because of his friendship with Gault.
"I talk with Willie all the time," he said of the Bears' swift wide receiver. "Whenever I think of him, I say to myself, 'Maybe I missed the boat.' Not trying to play football, I mean. But to me, there's nothing more fulfilling than hurdling. I love it."