Baseball, that cruel witch, is doing it again.
For two weeks, Jack Cust was Babe Ruth. Or Roy Hobbs. Any preferred derivation of the left-handed slugger doing inconceivable things would suffice. He hit eight home runs for the Oakland Athletics, big, towering parabolas, including one game-winner that earned him a friendly beatdown from the mosh pit awaiting him at home plate. Only then, as he strode the final 90 feet around third base, did Cust believe he was finally here to stay in the major leagues.
This all seemed too good, too fairytale. Over his 11 professional seasons, Cust has put up superb minor-league numbers, yet it took a yellow bus worth of injuries for him to see his first extended playing time in the major leagues. And now that Milton Bradley and Mark Kotsay are coming back, and the young Travis Buck is looking like the second coming of Nick Swisher, and Mike Piazza – the man paid $8.5 million to occupy Cust's designated-hitter spot – is starting to rehab by swinging a bat, Cust is fighting to shake off the feeling that he's baseball's version of a $2 bill.
Interesting and unique and still worth next to nothing.
"I hope this is the start of something," Cust said. "With the luck I've had, maybe this is the opportunity. Maybe there was a reason I waited around for so long.
"I really hope so."
Cust sat in the clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field. The clubbies had given him an unoccupied locker in which to place his extra belongings. Such a privilege is generally extended to only the most tenured players. Teammates asked if he wanted to participate in extra batting practice. He nodded, comfortable with himself, feeling accepted, looking confident, ready to hit cleanup that day. How could he know that less than two weeks later he'd be mired in a 1-for-23 slump that would threaten to undo everything those first two weeks did?
Baseball is funny like that.
"No," Cust said. "Funny is not the right word."
Baseball teams spend millions of dollars a year developing players. Millions more go toward scouts who calibrate their senses to find the next big thing. And countless more goes toward finding ways to win, whether through free agency or an algorithm that determines a player's likelihood to strike out on nights with a full moon when the relative humidity is between 43.62 and 51.49 percent.
And following this spring training not a single team believed Jack Cust – he of the career .429 on-base percentage and .514 slugging percentage in the minor leagues – was worth a spot on its 25-man roster.
"There's a lot of people who felt like Jack could hit," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. "It's just there's only 14 DH slots available in the big leagues. The thing is, when a guy hasn't gotten the opportunity, he acquires labels that are probably unfair as well. If you're in Triple-A long enough, it must mean you can't hit major-league pitching."
If anyone was going to give Cust a shot, Beane best fit the profile. As he espoused in "Moneyball," he doesn't care what a player looks like so long as he can hit. Which is good, because Cust is more spare tire than six-pack. Beane thinks the stolen base is an exercise in frivolity, which matches Cust's clumsiness afoot. And if Rawlings ever starts handing out the Pyrite Glove, Cust may just win one.
Oakland excused the excuses trotted out by every other franchise Cust passed through. The Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres worried about his defense, Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles about his exorbitant strikeouts.
"The way our team's constructed, we do put a premium on defense," said Padres GM Kevin Towers, who, after spring training, promised to trade Cust if another team had a major-league job. "Our strength is our pitching. Petco is a spacious park. And we didn't know what he could cover."
Cust shrugs when people in baseball nitpick his fielding. He wasn't chosen 30th overall by Arizona in 1997 because of his glove.
For almost 10 years, his bat had been creating stirs around New Jersey. Cust's father, Jack Sr., played at Seton Hall and groomed his three sons with a 10-point approach to hitting. The ultimate lesson: Do not swing unless you see a pitch you can drive.
So 8-year-old Jack would frustrate every Little League coach who threw him batting practice, tracking the ball toward the backstop unless it cleaved the middle of the plate, honing the batting eye that would become one of his hallmarks, practicing patience in game situations long before he needed it in life situations.
In his first high school at-bat as a freshman playing varsity, Cust hit a grand slam. Three years later, in a tryout at Yankee Stadium, he hit a batting-practice home run deep into the right-field upper deck. Every day that year, scouting directors swung by Immaculata High to see Cust take batting practice at 2 p.m., and, big coincidence, every day kids came up with mystery ailments and had to leave class right around the same time.
"Even Monsignor Kennedy, who ran the school, would ask me to let him know when Jackie was hitting," said Tom Gambino, Cust's high school coach.
Early in his career, Cust cruised through the minor leagues. He reached Triple-A at 22, hit 27 home runs, walked 102 times and made the All-Star team. Arizona gave him two at-bats at the end of that season, though Cust sensed he wasn't in their plans and asked for a trade.
"I was the cocky young guy," Cust said. "Which is funny to see now. Because I'm the 28-year-old looking at the cocky young guys and thinking how little they really know."
Cust struggled with the Rockies, got traded to Baltimore and slipped further. Literally. On a Saturday-night game at Camden Yards, Cust was the tying run in the bottom of the 12th inning against the Yankees. Larry Bigbie smacked a double, and Cust stumbled as he rounded third base. He managed to evade the rundown long enough that no one was covering home, and Cust only needed to run 25 feet to score.
He slipped again, his evening beginning to parallel his career.
It didn't matter that the previous night he homered off Mariano Rivera. Cust was expected to hit home runs. His baserunning gaffes were more self-fulfilling prophecies.
Carpal tunnel wrecked his wrists for the next two seasons, the latter of which he spent with Oakland, and Cust signed with San Diego before the 2006 season, resolved to winning an outfield job no matter his deficiencies.
To some it looked hubristic, to others plain-old dumb. And to Cust it made complete sense: His faith in his bat exceeds his lack of faith in the sport that has done nothing but string him along, like his whole career is an elaborate con.
At Triple-A Portland, he hit 30 home runs and walked 143 times in 138 games.
"I'm comfortable with myself," Cust said. "I don't try to be someone I'm not. I used to worry about striking out too much. Whatever. That's just the way I am. I learned to deal with it. Because if I don't, it kills other parts of my game. I hit the way I hit, and hopefully I get enough at-bats where people can see over time it works and cancels out everything else.
"If they don't like it … well, there isn't much I can do, is there?"
He still doesn't know what happened to Christopher on "The Sopranos," and that is painful for a Jersey kid. His life, though. It's just too hectic. The travel and the games and the workouts. And the knowledge that in another week or two it might not be here anymore.
"I don't think he's worried," Cust Sr. said. "I talked to him yesterday. He felt great. It's baseball. You can go through 20, 30 at-bats where you don't have much success. Look at Jeter a few years back. He went 0 for 32. It happens. That's the game. When you get pitches, you need to hit them.
"I just hope that somebody gives him the opportunity and sticks with him. His first game was May 6. Here we are at the end of May. He's got eight home runs and 21 RBIs. I don't know how somebody wouldn't give that a shot."
Just the usual. His .222 batting average is unsightly, even if his .411 on-base percentage ranks 14th in the American League among those with at least 75 plate appearances. His 32 strikeouts in 72 at-bats are downright miserable, even if he is seeing 4.4 pitches per plate appearance, second in the AL to Jason Giambi.
Cust can be great, and Cust can be awful, and the A's soon will decide whether that duality merits a major-league uniform.
"I might never get as hot as I was again," Cust said. "But then, I might."
Cust grinned. In April, he asked his agent, Gregg Clifton, to start exploring opportunities in Japan. If Cust was going to mash, he ought to get paid well, and Japan treats the best gaijin like royalty. That seems so distant now, with the home runs first and the slump now.
What still resonates are the tricks that baseball keeps playing. Cust is right. They're not funny. Does he belong? Is he good enough? Can he make it?
Sometimes he thinks so, sometimes he doesn't.
All he knows is that it's a cruel journey to find out.
- Jack Cust