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
August 05, 2007

The best highschool hitter I've ever seen. The kid reminds me of Reggie Jackson. --LONGTIMECLEVELAND INDIANS SCOUT BOBBY MALKMUS, 1997

For 10 yearsthey'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 freshmanwith a blast in his last at bat as a senior; at the neighborhood diner Jerry'sPlace, where the legend's photo hangs next to one of Mickey Mantle; and here atthis warehouse turned hitting complex, where the legend's newspaper clippingsand old jerseys line the walls. Tom Gambino sits in a room down the hall fromthree batting cages, and when he starts talking about the legend, he leansforward, his eyes bulge, and he raises his arms as if leading a revivalmeeting. ¶ "He was sick," says Gambino, who was the legend's highschool coach. "Students skipped class to see his BPs. Teachers went to seehim hit. When the other team's bus pulled in while he was hitting, the playerswouldn't come out--they'd sit in the bus and just watch him hit bombs. One dayhe hit the ball so hard it hit a truck in a field 500 feet away. The guy in thetruck drove over and asked who hit it. I said, 'You want to see him, just waita 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 forsure. I really. . . ." Gambino's voice trails off.

For 10 yearseveryone had been waiting for the arrival of Jack Cust--the folks from thisarea of central Jersey, the major league scouts who have seen the preposteroushome run potential, the statheads who have followed him through the minors,extolling his discipline at the plate. But for 10 years Cust bounced among fiveorganizations, making only cameos in the majors. The lefthanded slugger wasbecoming a real-life Crash Davis, a minor league lifer who batted .285 with1,058 hits and 191 home runs in 1,089 games entering 2007. "Every year I'dcome home," Cust says, "I'd get the same questions: 'Why haven't youstuck 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 forthe second time by the Oakland A's, on May 3, Cust appeared in his first majorleague game in two years on May 6--and in his fourth plate appearance launcheda 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 theA's dugout and said, "I've seen two guys hit it there--and they were bothrighthanded." Four days later in Kansas City, Cust homered twice. He wentdeep again the next day in Oakland. And the next. And the next. Cust capped hisbinge 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 thefirst player in A's history to homer six times in his first seven games, buteven 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 inon-base percentage (.384). "I lived in a hotel in Oakland for the firstmonth or so, and [manager] Bob Geren finally told me, 'Hey, you don't have tolive out of a hotel--you're going to be here a while,' " says Cust, whomoved with his wife, Jennifer, and their 11-month-old daughter, Ava, into abasement apartment of a friend's house in Oakland. "People ask me why Idon'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 itfigured out."

Imagine JimThome's offensive line and you have a representation of what Cust could becomein the big leagues. . . . No hitting coach with an ounce of wisdom will tellhim to change his approach.--Baseball America, 2000

Three months agothe 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 inTucson, Colorado Springs and Lethbridge, Alberta. "I know those places waybetter than anyone should know them," he says. During the last week ofApril he went on a hellacious road trip for the San Diego Padres' Triple Aaffiliate 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 ofthere." The next day Cust called his agent, Gregg Clifton, and told him hewould seriously consider job offers in Japan.

How had thingscome to this? Even after his high school career Cust seemed destined forgreatness, blasting balls into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium during atryout. 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 theSacramento River Cats, the A's Triple A club, "Even before he got toSacramento [in 2005] I knew about the kid. When he was in Tucson [in 2001 aspart of the Diamondbacks' organization] and playing us, he fouled a ball offhis foot and limped around for four minutes. He stepped into the box and hit abomb and hobbled around the bases like Kirk Gibson. It's the only time I'veever seen the Sacramento crowd give a visiting player a standingovation."

But in the eyesof big league clubs, Cust had two strikes against him: He was an all-or-nothinghitter, and he had a lousy glove. Says a National League scout who saw Cust inhigh school, "Defense was never a priority for him--he was the kind of kidwho spent 90 percent of his time hitting." In 2000, while Cust was playingat Double A El Paso, USA Today writer Rod Beaton called him out after hebotched two plays. "Think of the worst leftfielders you've ever seen,"Beaton's column began. "Lonnie Smith, Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski, PeteIncaviglia. . . . Make room for Jack Cust." Even today that article rilesCust's father, Jack Sr. "That really kind of sealed hisreputation," he says, "which is very unfair for a 21-year-old who had abad day."

Teams weredissatisfied with Cust's approach at the plate as well. Impressed by his rawpower, coaches in the Baltimore Orioles' and Colorado Rockies' systems demandedthat he become a free swinger a la Vladimir Guerrero. "But I'm not abad-ball hitter, and I never was," says Cust, who led all minor leaguerswith 143 walks last year. "That kind of messed me up." When he didn'tmake an immediate impact in the majors during his rare chances--three games asa 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 Oaklandhe never had more than 25 straight at bats as a big leaguer.

On May 2 Cliftoncalled to tell Cust that two Japanese teams were interested. Cust's phone rangagain 20 minutes later; again it was Clifton, who said he had just gottena call out of the blue from Oakland general manager Billy Beane. "The A'swant you to be their DH," Clifton told Cust.

"Twentyminutes," says Jack Sr. "Thank god for Billy Beane."

Coming off thebench, Jack Cust has big potential too. If he gets 300 at bats, he could hit 25home runs. --an anonymous big league scout in Sports Illustrated, 2004

Bob Geren wasmanaging Oakland's Class A Modesto team in 1999 when he first saw Cust,then in the Diamondbacks' system. After games, minor league managers often filereports on players they face, and Geren recalls writing of Cust, "Greatstrike zone discipline and great power. A perfect Oakland A's hitter."

The A's alwayshad their eye on Cust: Beane had been trying to acquire him since 2002, afterArizona shipped him to Colorado, but a proposed deal with the Rockies fellthrough. In '04, after his failed tour with the Orioles, Beane snagged Custafter he became a free agent. But suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, Custspent the year with Triple A Sacramento, and he signed with the Padres thefollowing winter. Then in May, just a few hours after Mike Piazza injured hisright shoulder, Beane, on the hunt for a new DH, sent Padres G.M. Kevin Towersan e-mail asking him what it would take to get Cust. A day later Cust was onhis way to the A's for cash considerations.

Shortly afterCust joined the A's on May 3, Geren took him aside and said, "We knowwhat you can do. Just be who you are." Cust has never read Michael Lewis'sMoneyball, but he had heard enough about the 2003 best seller to know that itdepicted Beane's taste in players: He likes the ones who get on base. "Idon't know what OPS is--I just know it's a good stat for me," Cust says."It kind of gave me hope that I'd get a chance somewhere down theroad." Oakland management has gone out of its way to reassure Custthat he's in the lineup to stay. After a bad game Beane will often swing byCust's locker and joke, "Uh oh, another 0-for-4 night, better watch out,we're going to send you down!" Since Piazza's return on July 20, Custhad appeared in eight of 10 games through Sunday and was hitting .252."He's going to play," says Geren. "Period."

The A's won'ttinker with Cust's hitting approach either. He learned it from Jack Sr., aCPA who played baseball at Seton Hall and has given batting lessons for 17years, instructing his three boys, Jack Jr., Kevin (drafted in the 11th roundby the Atlanta Braves in 2000) and Michael (picked in the 35th by the St. LouisCardinals in '01). Jack Sr. believes in patience at the plate and waitingfor the perfect pitch. When Jack Jr. was 11, his father converted a15-by-60-foot beauty parlor under his office in Flemington, N.J., into abatting cage. Soon after Junior was drafted in 1997, Senior opened the JackCust Baseball Academy at a former machine warehouse, at which Kevin andMichael, both out of baseball, now work.

During theAll-Star break four weeks ago, the legend returned home. He dropped by Jerry'sPlace and had the usual--egg-white omelet with cheddar cheese and bacon. Heworked out at the baseball academy, then talked to the summer campers there ashe signed hats, gloves and T-shirts. A hanging TV set in a corner of thefacility showed a loop of the legend's greatest moments from the last threemonths. Jack hitting his first major league home run since 2003! Jack gettinginterviewed by ESPN! "It's been a thrill," says Jack Sr., of his son'sbreakthrough season. "But what's surprised me the most is his perseverance.I have tremendous respect for his discipline to stick this out. He knew he hadit in him."

He always did.Cust was five years old and sitting behind first base at Yankee Stadium when hefirst told his father that he wanted to be a professional ballplayer. "Aslong as I can remember my goal was to be a big league player--to make it in thebig leagues," says the legend. "I keep saying that this, right now, ismy last chance at it. But really, it's my first."

"I have tremendous respect for his discipline toSTICK THIS OUT," says Jack Sr.

Says Gambino, "When the other team's bus pulled inwhile he was hitting, the players wouldn't come out - they'd sit and watch himHIT BOMBS."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Brad Mangin PHOTOBRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGESA BLAST Cust never read Moneyball, but he knew that the book extolled his virtues. FOUR PHOTOSFROM LEFT: BARRY GOSSAGE; RICH CLARKSON & ASSOCIATES; NEAL HAMBERG/AP; CHRIS HARDYGOING, GOING. . . . Cameos with the (from left) Diamondbacks, Rockies, Orioles and Padres yielded all of five home runs before '07. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER POWERSURGE
After hitting only one homer last year, Peña had belted 25 at week's end andtrailed only Alex Rodriguez in slugging percentage in the AL.
PHOTOBRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES JOY OFSIX
After his call-up, Cust became the first Oakland player to hit a half dozenhome runs in his first seven games.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)