Living on the edge of a goal
Updated 1/31/2007 3:19 PM ET
By Paul White, USA TODAY
The air-supported bubble was bursting with activity on a wintry afternoon in central New Jersey. Two teams of top high school-age players were playing a game in one corner of the facility. A pair of Little League-age teams played in another area. Two girls field hockey matches were going on near the back. And in another corner two men huffed and puffed over weights under the watchful eye of a personal trainer.
For all the kids scattered around the Jack Cust Baseball Academy, becoming a professional athlete is a dream. For the larger of the men lifting weights, being one hardly is a nightmare but it isn't exactly what he imagined, either.
"I was thinking, 'I'm going to be in the big leagues in two years and hitting 50 homers,' " says Jack Cust, getting ready for his 11th season in pro baseball.
That's his name on the academy in Flemington, N.J., but it's also that of his dad, a former Seton Hall University player who taught Jack Jr. to hit. Jack Jr. hit so well that his tape-measure home runs in high school were legendary enough to make him a 1997 first-round draft pick of the Diamondbacks. (Arizona began play in the major leagues the following season.)
Jack Jr. has hit as many as 32 homers in a season, but only in the minor leagues. His major league total is five, in 70 games with four teams. He'll be in the Padres camp this spring, but at 28 his time is running out, now more like dirt through an infield rake than sand through an hourglass. He's on the verge of having baseball's most feared label ("journeyman") permanently attached to him.
Journeyman is a generic description. The official term is six-year free agent, a tag eventually stuck on hundreds of pro baseball players. It means they've spent six years in pro ball and they're not on a major league team's 40-man roster. At that point they can opt for free agency, a rule designed to help players who might be stuck in Triple-A.
After all, if you're a shortstop in the Yankees system or a first baseman in the Cardinals organization, you don't have much hope of competing for a major league job anytime soon. In reality, though, if a player hasn't made a 40-man roster in six years, he already has been labeled by general managers, scouts and player development people as somehow deficient. Often, it doesn't matter what minor league statistics he has that might scream otherwise.
Too slow. Can't hit a curveball. Defensively challenged. These designations are how a six-year guy suddenly finds himself known in scout-speak as "4-A." That means better than your average Triple-A player but not quite good enough to hold down a major league job. The label might as well be 4-F, the classification back in the days of the military draft that meant physically unacceptable.
The players have their own laundry lists of reasons for their plight. The most common of them range from injuries to not getting a real chance to "I just don't know."
Take Jason Wood, the 37-year-old who is the current active leader in minor league games with 1,785.
"Putting up the numbers I have that last couple years really makes me wonder why I'm not at that next level," he said last summer while playing for the Marlins' Triple-A team in Albuquerque. He actually did get called up in September, for the first time since 1999, and hit .462 in 13 at-bats. He also got the game-winning hit in the 11th inning of the final game of the season against the Phillies.
"I just looked up, and there was a swarm of Marlins coming at me," Wood told reporters after that game. "It was the greatest feeling I've had in this game so far."
Alan Zinter had to wait until he was 34 to merely play in his first major league game. The Astros gave the first baseman — a 1989 first-round draft pick by the Mets — that shot in 2002. When Zinter got his first hit, a home run against the Reds in Cincinnati, he got a standing ovation from the Astros players, who could empathize with the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
"It was better than I thought" was how Zinter described finally being a major leaguer.
It's those glimpses of the majors, however brief they are, that keep these guys going.
"Every one of those six-years believe they still have something to offer to a major league team," says Razor Shines, who became a cult hero during his 10-year minor league career (he had 68 games in the majors).
Shines has since worked his way back up through the minors as a manager and this spring will be part of the White Sox coaching staff.
Shines is not far from where Cust stands. Cust firmly believes he has something to offer but is pondering his next career step. The Padres put him on their 40-man roster this winter, a step back toward Cust's goal as significant as his improved health. (He had surgery before the 2005 season on both hands for carpal tunnel syndrome.)
"Two years ago I had no power to the opposite field," he says. "I'm a guy who has long at-bats. It got to the point I just wanted to swing (to avoid more discomfort)."
Back in form last year, Cust hit 30 homers and batted .293 for the Padres' Triple-A team in Portland, Ore. He walked 143 times and struck out 124, Jim Thome-like numbers on a Triple-A stage.
"He's a very, very good offensive player," Padres general manager Kevin Towers says. "He has power. He's selective at the plate. He's the prototype of how we're trying to teach our young guys to hit. We want a Cust-type approach."
That hardly guarantees Cust's future. Asked what has held back Cust, Towers says, "It would have to be his defense."
Being subpar on defense is a label Cust, an outfielder, has been stuck with for years, one he acknowledges he earned but that was a decade ago.
Sitting in a chair in the 3-story fitness center that's part of the family operation at the academy, he looks around at the state-of-the-art equipment, remembering the three batting cages that were the sole equipment after Jack Sr. bought the land and a small building in 1995.
"Maybe if we had all this then," Jack Jr. says, laughing, "I wouldn't have the reputation. All I did was hit in the cage, crank up 100-mph fastballs from 40 feet away and hit. I might have done some long toss, taken ground balls. But I have worked hard at it. I'm not saying I'm great defensively, but I'm certainly more than adequate."
Another reputation he's gaining also could work against Cust, whom the Padres called up in September.
"We want the types of guys who are going to help teach our minor league prospects how to win," Towers says.
"We wanted to reward him. He could've been the MVP (in the Pacific Coast League) last year. We probably had too many bodies around in September, but we wanted to show that we're an organization that will offer opportunities. (Triple-A) is not just a taxi squad. Every once in a while we're going to hit on a guy who helps in the major leagues."
Minor league veterans often become de facto coaches.
Shines fell in love with working with younger players but says he wasn't planning the next phase of his career before he was finished playing.
"Not at all," he says. "My thought process was to get back to the major leagues. If you don't believe you can make it, then you shouldn't be playing."
Once he turned to managing, though, the perspective changed.
"You don't get into (coaching) to get to the majors. You get into it to teach the kids. I tell my guys, 'I'm not successful until you're successful.' "
When Shines managed Triple-A Charlotte last season, he had Ernie Young on his roster. Young, 37, has been playing pro baseball since 1990. He has gone on some memorable spring training home run binges, though his most lasting place in major league history was a strikeout, when Randy Johnson of the Mariners whiffed him on what turned out to be the last pitch of the 1994 season, the one never completed because of the strike.
Shines found Young invaluable.
"He's the guy in the clubhouse who keeps things (problems among players) away from the coaches," Shines says. "You can't develop prospects without the six-year guys. And if you don't get the right mix, you're in trouble."
Shines says Young has the same mentality as younger minor leaguers such as Cust, who would seem to have a stronger claim on one more shot at the major leagues.
Young didn't return phone calls seeking comment for this story, but Shines says, "Ernie feels like he could help a big-league club."
Cust doesn't plan to be thinking that way at 37.
"I'm going to give it one more healthy year," he says. "I've spent five years in the (PCL). I've been in Triple-A since 2001. It does wear you down, playing in Colorado Springs with 700 people in the stands after you've been on planes six hours. I can't play in the PCL again for a whole year.
"If I can't get significant time in the majors this year, maybe I'll go to Japan," says Cust, who's married with an infant daughter.
Salaries for experienced Triple-A players vary from organization to organization, but the top salary usually is anywhere from $10,000-$15,000 a month for the six months from April through September. So by supplementing their income with offseason jobs, which often include running baseball camps or providing private instruction, these players can bump their incomes into six figures.
That's hardly major league money, but it can be more than enough to live on, especially if players maintain their hopes for big-league cash. The turning point for many players is when their families begin to grow.
First-time foreign players going to Japan with significant minor league experience generally are paid in the $400,000-$500,000 range, but few minor leaguers get that opportunity to play in one of Japan's major leagues.
"I need to make money," Cust says. "I mean, I love baseball, but I need to make a living. I feel like I haven't been treated as well as I've treated the game."
The complex at the academy works against him becoming a baseball lifer. His father persuaded him to invest a portion of the $825,000 Jack Jr. received as a signing bonus from the Diamondbacks to help grow this new business Jack Sr., a CPA, was developing.
"He was right," Jack Jr. says. "He knew I'd blow it eventually. I did buy a Lexus coupe."
"It's all teed up for him," says Jack Sr., talking about the academy, though he, too, hasn't given up on his son's major league dream.
"It's a lot of luck, whoever's lucky," says Jack Jr., who remembers hitting a home run against Mariano Rivera for the Orioles in 2003. But he got more notoriety for falling down and being tagged out between third base and home the next night.
As Cust heads to camp next month, he could be rounding third on his career. But is he really heading for home? Triple-A is full of 30-somethings who still haven't let go of their dreams.