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The Legend Of Jack Cust
Albert Chen
August 06, 2007
The tape-measure homers, like the tales they spawned, came in bushels--until he reached the bigs. After a decade of unmet expectations, the A's slugger, it appears, has turned the myths into reality
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August 06, 2007

The Legend Of Jack Cust

The tape-measure homers, like the tales they spawned, came in bushels--until he reached the bigs. After a decade of unmet expectations, the A's slugger, it appears, has turned the myths into reality

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The best high school hitter I've ever seen. The kid reminds me of Reggie Jackson . --LONGTIME CLEVELAND INDIANS SCOUT BOBBY MALKMUS, 1997

For 10 years they'd been telling the same stories--at Immaculata High School in Somerville, N.J., where the legend bookended a grand slam in his first at bat as a freshman with a blast in his last at bat as a senior; at the neighborhood diner Jerry's Place, where the legend's photo hangs next to one of Mickey Mantle; and here at this warehouse turned hitting complex, where the legend's newspaper clippings and old jerseys line the walls. Tom Gambino sits in a room down the hall from three batting cages, and when he starts talking about the legend, he leans forward, his eyes bulge, and he raises his arms as if leading a revival meeting. � "He was sick," says Gambino, who was the legend's high school coach. "Students skipped class to see his BPs. Teachers went to see him hit. When the other team's bus pulled in while he was hitting, the players wouldn't come out--they'd sit in the bus and just watch him hit bombs. One day he hit the ball so hard it hit a truck in a field 500 feet away. The guy in the truck drove over and asked who hit it. I said, 'You want to see him, just wait a bit, he'll be up again.' The guy said, 'No. I need to get his autograph.' " The old coach shakes his head. "I thought he'd be an All-Star for sure. I really. . . ." Gambino's voice trails off.

For 10 years everyone had been waiting for the arrival of Jack Cust--the folks from this area of central Jersey, the major league scouts who have seen the preposterous home run potential, the statheads who have followed him through the minors, extolling his discipline at the plate. But for 10 years Cust bounced among five organizations, making only cameos in the majors. The lefthanded slugger was becoming a real-life Crash Davis, a minor league lifer who batted .285 with 1,058 hits and 191 home runs in 1,089 games entering 2007. "Every year I'd come home," Cust says, "I'd get the same questions: 'Why haven't you stuck in the majors yet? Next year's the year, right?' "

The wait, finally, is over, and now there are new Jack Cust stories to tell. Acquired for the second time by the Oakland A's, on May 3, Cust appeared in his first major league game in two years on May 6--and in his fourth plate appearance launched a pitch over left centerfield at Tampa's Tropicana Field. When the ball landed, Oakland pitcher Joe Kennedy, a former Devil Ray, turned to his teammates in the A's dugout and said, "I've seen two guys hit it there--and they were both righthanded." Four days later in Kansas City, Cust homered twice. He went deep again the next day in Oakland. And the next. And the next. Cust capped his binge on May 13, belting a three-run walk-off to beat the Indians 10-7. "The most amazing thing wasn't how often he was hitting those bombs," says A's first baseman Dan Johnson, "it was how far."

Cust became the first player in A's history to homer six times in his first seven games, but even more impressive is what he's done since: At week's end the 6' 1", 230-pound DH led the A's in home runs (17), slugging (.532) and was second in on-base percentage (.384). "I lived in a hotel in Oakland for the first month or so, and [manager] Bob Geren finally told me, 'Hey, you don't have to live out of a hotel--you're going to be here a while,' " says Cust, who moved with his wife, Jennifer, and their 11-month-old daughter, Ava, into a basement apartment of a friend's house in Oakland. "People ask me why I don't buy a place. I know this game too well. When I started out I was cocky. But I've been through enough to know you should never think you've got it figured out."

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.-- Baseball America, 2000

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.

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