The Legend Of Jack Cust (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday July 31, 2007 10:15AM; Updated: Tuesday July 31, 2007 10:22AM
Imagine Jim Thome's offensive line and you have a representation of what Cust could become in the big leagues.... No hitting coach with an ounce of wisdom will tell him to change his approach.
Three months ago the legend was ready to give up on his dream. Cust was 28, making a $60,000-a-year salary and had stayed too many nights in stale hotel rooms in Tucson, Colorado Springs and Lethbridge, Alberta. "I know those places way better than anyone should know them," he says. During the last week of April he went on a hellacious road trip for the San Diego Padres' Triple A affiliate in Portland, during which he slept back-to-back nights in airports. When he returned on April 30, Jennifer said, "You've got to get out of there." The next day Cust called his agent, Gregg Clifton, and told him he would seriously consider job offers in Japan.
How had things come to this? Even after his high school career Cust seemed destined for greatness, blasting balls into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium during a tryout. The Arizona Diamondbacks took him with the 30th pick in the 1997 draft, and the legend only grew. Says Johnny Doskow, who calls games for the Sacramento River Cats, the A's Triple A club, "Even before he got to Sacramento [in 2005] I knew about the kid. When he was in Tucson [in 2001 as part of the Diamondbacks' organization] and playing us, he fouled a ball off his foot and limped around for four minutes. He stepped into the box and hit a bomb and hobbled around the bases like Kirk Gibson. It's the only time I've ever seen the Sacramento crowd give a visiting player a standing ovation."
But in the eyes of big league clubs, Cust had two strikes against him: He was an all-or-nothing hitter, and he had a lousy glove. Says a National League scout who saw Cust in high school, "Defense was never a priority for him -- he was the kind of kid who spent 90 percent of his time hitting." In 2000, while Cust was playing at Double A El Paso, USA Today writer Rod Beaton called him out after he botched two plays. "Think of the worst leftfielders you've ever seen," Beaton's column began. "Lonnie Smith, Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski, Pete Incaviglia.... Make room for Jack Cust." Even today that article riles Cust's father, Jack Sr. "That really kind of sealed his reputation," he says, "which is very unfair for a 21-year-old who had a bad day."
Teams were dissatisfied with Cust's approach at the plate as well. Impressed by his raw power, coaches in the Baltimore Orioles' and Colorado Rockies' systems demanded that he become a free swinger a la Vladimir Guerrero. "But I'm not a bad-ball hitter, and I never was," says Cust, who led all minor leaguers with 143 walks last year. "That kind of messed me up." When he didn't make an immediate impact in the majors during his rare chances -- three games as a Diamondback in 2001, 35 as a Rockie in '02, 28 as an Oriole in '03 and '04 , four as a Padre in '06 -- Cust would be sent down. Before his arrival in Oakland he never had more than 25 straight at bats as a big leaguer.
On May 2 Clifton called to tell Cust that two Japanese teams were interested. Cust's phone rang again 20 minutes later; again it was Clifton, who said he had just gotten a call out of the blue from Oakland general manager Billy Beane. "The A's want you to be their DH," Clifton told Cust.
"Twenty minutes," says Jack Sr. "Thank god for Billy Beane."