Cust finds place with A's

The Baltimore Sun

Jack Cust might forever be remembered in Baltimore for the night he took a comical spill while trying to score the winning run in an eventual loss to the New York Yankees. It's part of his Orioles legacy, and he's always accepted it with good humor.

A better story, one that doesn't involve his crawling toward home plate and being tagged out, is the way Cust has landed on his feet.

Acquired from the San Diego Padres after designated hitter Mike Piazza went on the disabled list earlier this month, Cust has transferred the power he's displayed in the minors - 199 home runs - to the Oakland Athletics' lineup. Big swings, big results - like none he'd ever achieved at this level.

Cust hit seven homers in his first 11 games, vaulting him into the team lead, and drove in 15 runs. He connected Wednesday, and the A's would have won if the bullpen didn't collapse at the end.

It's exactly the kind of production the Arizona Diamondbacks envisioned when they selected him with the 30th overall pick in the 1997 draft. And the Colorado Rockies when they traded for him in 2002. And the Orioles when they acquired him for Chris Richard the following year.

"It's been crazy," Cust said. "Crazy, but fun."

And highly improbable.

Cust had only four at-bats in the majors over the past three seasons before donning an Oakland uniform for the first time on May 6. He appeared in one game with the Orioles in 2004, striking out in his only plate appearance, and never left the minors in 2005 despite hitting 19 homers at Triple-A Sacramento. He played four games for the Padres the next season, raising his career total to 70.

Surgery on both hands to correct carpal tunnel syndrome enabled Cust to hit 30 homers - he also amassed 143 walks and 124 strikeouts - last season at Triple-A Portland. But he's below-average in the outfield, as the Orioles quickly learned, and the National League became a bad fit.

"I was labeled at a young age that I couldn't play defense," Cust said. "The last few years, I felt like I could help out some team. I know I'm not going to win Gold Gloves, but I can still go out there and catch some balls."

Sometimes, he'll also catch a break, though the latest came at Piazza's expense.

This is Cust's second tour in the A's organization. He left as a free agent after the 2005 season, but general manager Billy Beane e-mailed Padres GM Kevin Towers on May 2 after learning of Piazza's shoulder injury, which occurred in Boston.

The cost wasn't exactly steep - a modest sum of cash - because Cust had a clause in his contract allowing him to leave if another team offered him a chance to play in the majors. A deal was struck the next day.

"He does what we like hitters to do," Beane said.

The Orioles would have liked Cust a lot more if he had been more aggressive. His patience allowed him to work deep into counts, but he often fell behind in them and would strike out. The bat needed to leave his shoulder more, something the Orioles kept stressing until they finally gave up on him.

In 2003, Cust batted .260 with seven doubles and four homers in 27 games during his first season with the Orioles, drawing 10 walks and striking out 25 times.

"He was disciplined almost to a fault," Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan said.

He still has a keen eye, refusing to chase anything inches off the plate. Pitchers are forced to throw strikes, leading to last Sunday's walk-off homer against the Cleveland Indians and an onslaught of interview requests and national media attention that still seem strangely misplaced when directed at him.

Not everyone is surprised by Cust's tape-measure blasts. A's first baseman Dan Johnson used to marvel at Cust's power during batting practice sessions in Sacramento. For sheer entertainment value, nothing could match it.

"It was like a little performance every time he took BP," Johnson said.

With the Orioles, Cust would take BP on one of the back fields at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and launch balls over the palm trees and onto the grounds of the executive airport.

"He had this tremendous power," Flanagan said. "The first day in Florida, this guy really put on a show. It was fairly incredible.

"He didn't really have a position, but I always liked him. And this is a nice fit for him now. It's a nice story. I'm happy for him."

Compiled from interviews and other newspapers' reports.

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