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Big League Heart, Major League Talent

What does a national, top-ten draft pick do after consistently leading the minor leagues in practically every offensive category, reaching the big leagues on the strength of a hugely courageous heart and an even bigger, left-handed swing, and coming back from a debilitating injury to emphasize that none of it was a fluke?

Well, if you are Jack Cust, Jr., you simply pick up where you left off.

Unquestionably, America loves to revel in the heroic accomplishments of successful athletes who are on the comeback trail. In what shapes up as one of the true Cinderella stories in baseball, Jack Cust, Jr. is presently forging an impressive comeback, not only from injury but from defamation as well.

Most of us who know of Jack’s on-field achievements and have followed them throughout his illustrious career, understand the energy, passion, and raw talent that he brings to the game. So, we do not find it surprising that, for the better part of two AAA seasons in 2004 and 2005, he played with pain in both hands and arms that would have placed lesser men on the extended DL.

Jack never told anyone about the injuries that he sustained in 2004 and 2005, until the unrelenting pain forced him to have off-season surgery in November of 2005. Upon examination by Elliot Decker, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon in Flemington, New Jersey, Jack learned that he had a carpal tunnel problem in both hands that worsened over time as he kept playing with it. There were times when the pain shooting through one arm or the other effectively caused him to swing the bat one-handed.

In Dr. Decker’s words, “Jack’s case of carpal tunnel syndrome was significantly more severe than average…(in) the top 10% of severity.” The numbness, weakness, and pain that Jack experienced in his hands affected his ability to simply grasp a bat and a baseball. That he nonetheless continued to hit and throw at a professional level for two full seasons, should have proven impossible.

Amazingly, Jack still managed to club 36 home runs, with 130 runs batted in, in the two years that his powerful swing was impaired. As successful as Jack’s surgery was, his recovery, according to Dr. Decker, was “extraordinary.”

Power hitters like Jack typically do not hit for average. To that extent, his sub-par batting averages in 2004 and 2005, when he was injured, are not unexpected for a young slugger. That those two seasons were sandwiched by a .285 batting average in 2003 and a .293 batting average in 2006 reveal the seriousness of his injury and demonstrate what an exceptional talent Jack Cust truly is.

Jack punctuated his return from injury by leading the entire Pacific Coast League (PCL) in three offensive categories and placing 2nd in two others. In addition to the .293 batting average that he posted for the 2006 AAA Portland Beavers, Jack paced the PCL in Walks (143), On-Base Percentage (.467), and OPS Percentage (a combination ratio of on-base percentage and slugging percentage, 1.016).

Speaking of OPS, it’s interesting to note that as prestigious a baseball resource as Baseball America observed that its own selection as 2006 Minor League Player of the Year, AA-Wichita’s Alex Gordon, “trailed only Jack Cust in OPS among full-season minor leaguers.”

Except for his carpal tunnel problem, Jack’s productivity clearly separates him from baseball’s plethora of sluggers who consistently put up impressive long-ball numbers, but who struggle to hit safely even once in every four trips to the plate. Despite the two seasons that he played with injury, Jack’s minor league career is a panoply of accomplishment that few can match.

To those of us who know him, Jack’s performance has always exceeded expectations and has always matched or eclipsed that of his power hitting peers. For example, by the end of the 2002 minor league season, compared with well-known players who had subsequently gained major league experience, Jack’s numbers compared favorably with those young players who received the opportunity to move up that Jack did not.

For example, his AA batting average of .315 was higher than the minor league batting averages of Pat Burrell (.312), Lance Berkman (.308), Corey Patterson (.292), and Vernon Wells (.290) at comparable points in their young careers. Jack also topped that select group in terms of slugging percentage (.567), on-base percentage (.455), runs scored (313), home runs (66), RBI (280), and walks (335). He placed second among them in doubles and in total hits.

The parallels in productivity between Jack and established ball players in the major leagues becomes even more stark when we examine individual player performances from the earliest stages of their professional careers. In his first stint as a major leaguer during the 2003 and 2004 seasons, with a meager 138 at-bats in just 62 games played, Jack batted .217 for the Baltimore Orioles. Even though he batted only .217, Jack’s performance, when contrasted with other players, once again proves comparable.

In 1989 Dante Bichette, with the same number of at-bats, 138, batted .210. Five years later a young Carlos Delgado hit .215 in 130 at-bats. Delgado followed that effort with a .165 batting average in 91at-bats during the 1995 season. None other than Reggie Jackson made an inauspicious entry into major league baseball with a .178 average in 118 at-bats in 1967. Jim Thome batted .205 with 117 at-bats in 1992.

Only Andruw Jones, with 106 AB and a .217 average in 1996, matched Jersey Jack. Still, all of these players got the chance to move up to the big leagues, an opportunity that somehow eluded Jack.

In all, a young Jack Cust outhit 20 marquee players, whose names are now household words at the major league level, at comparable times early in their pro careers. Again, while a .217 batting average is nothing to crow about, Jack’s performance, even at the earliest stages of his career, leaves open the question as to why those other players were granted opportunities to move up, despite their lackluster performances, that were denied to Jack.

Overall, throughout the years as a consistent threat on offense, Jack Cust’s value to a team has stood unquestioned. As a hitter he has faced every test that the minor leagues and the major leagues have presented to him, and in every instance, he has proven himself more than equal to the task. On defense, though, his performance has had to overcome more than just the opposition and the level of play on the field. Therein lies a possible answer to the question of why Jack was denied entrée to the big show while other young players received the invitation, regardless of their less-than stellar performances.

Someone once said that the pen is mightier than the sword. No place is this more evident than in the flamboyant, frequently fickle world of sports commentary. In the elitist and brutal arena of sports writing perspective, once a commentary appears in print it often has the staying power, for better or worse, of a summer wart.

Diligent, young athletes invariably become the unsuspecting victims of irresponsible reporting; and, Jack Cust, Jr. knows the truth of this more than most.

In August 2000 a Red Smith wannabe by the name of Rod Beaton wrote an uncomplimentary article about Jack in USA Today. Living up to his name, Beaton beat on young Jack without cause. Briefly put, his article damned Jack with faint praise for his offensive prowess, while slamming him because his performance on defense did not compare favorably with his accomplishments at the plate. In tearing apart a young athlete with a promising career before him, the unschooled Beaton failed to explain that teams typically promote young sluggers to the big leagues because they can hit.

Still, Beaton’s beat went on about how Jack’s big bat failed to make up for his lack of mastery on defense, and that “the National League has no DH.” At the time, Jack played for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL. He was 20 years old; but, Beaton still made a point to compare him to established major leaguers known partly for their defensive shortcomings, including “Lonnie Smith, Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski, and Pete Incaviglia.” What, no mention of Marvelous Marv Throneberry? At least in his article, Beaton had the dubious distinction of equally disparaging professional athletes who had risen to the top of their craft, a career accomplishment that has somehow eluded that writer in his own industry.

Many scouts will tell you that teams often move big hitters up from the minors, figuring that they can improve their fielding later. Beaton’s premature analysis notwithstanding, that is precisely what Jack Cust has done. The off-base Beaton would no doubt be surprised to know – and major league front offices would do well to take notice – that Jack’s defensive performance in the last three seasons shows a total of just 9 fielding errors in 349 total AAA games played. That statistic represents a 74% improvement in Jack’s fielding from six years ago, when he was just beginning his professional career, and when he became the unsuspecting target for a beat writer with nothing better to do than unnecessarily, and unfairly, damage the career aspirations of a promising, young baseball player.

The prediction here is that Jack Cust, Jr., because of his balanced play on offense and defense, will finally receive the permanent spot on a major league roster that he has deserved for so long. NJB Magazine congratulates the San Diego Padres organization for seeing Jack’s value and promoting him to their major league roster for the duration of the 2006 season. We wish them and Jack only the best of luck in what promises to be a long, productive, and mutually beneficial association.

In the end, we certainly intend no malice toward Mr. Beaton. Hopefully, he has learned to take a less strident, more patient approach to critiquing talented, young ball players whose learning curve for playing in the big leagues often takes time to rise. Hopefully, he has learned something by now; because, he quite obviously does not know Jack.

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