The Enemy Within
It is, by all accounts, a marvelous time to be a Phillies, as American McCarver’s resident Philadelphia booster Mike Monteiro is fond of telling you loudly and repeatedly long after you’ve begged him to stop. The Phillies are on pace to win 330 games this year. (Math is not really my strongest subject.) Bud Selig is mulling a proposal that would officially declare the postseason a mere formality. Everyone who dons the Phillies uniform is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being you’ve ever known in your life. It is no wonder, then, that Phillies fans are feeling rather bullish about their prospects for the fall. So you can understand — maybe even appreciate — why Monteiro is so boastful, why his tweets drive adolescents to write terrible blog posts, why he’s acting like a real cock of the walk.
(Note to editors: If article goes over word count, please delete “of the walk” from that last sentence.)
But as fairy tales, childhood pastors, and regrettable writing clichés warn us, pride comes before a fall. And though the Phillies are riding high now, a threat looms on the horizon that may well threaten to dash their postseason hopes to bits, sending Philadelphia sports fans back into the death spiral of self-loathing and misery the rest of the nation associated with the City of Brotherly Love. And the most horrifying aspect of it all is that this clear and present danger lurks just 62 miles away, the very essence of its destructive power emanating toward Philadelphia in waves.
You might possibly not be familiar with Jack Cust’s work if you only pay attention to people who are good at playing baseball. Most recently, Jack Cust plied his trade with the Seattle Mariners, until they asked him to stop showing up at the ballpark a few weeks ago. It may seem odd that the Mariners — currently enjoying one of the worst offensive seasons of the last four decades — would part services with a hitter. Or it would seem odd right up until you notice that Cust was hitting a less-than-robust .213 with the .673 OPS one would expect from a noodle-armed middle infielder and not a Bunyan-esque power hitter. Cust did manage to hit the ball out of the yard three times in 2011, though that figure might have been offset by his 87 strikeouts in 270 appearances. Mariners fans lamented his departure with heartfelt tributes such as “thank the Lord” and “one less terrible player to worry about.”
I am intimately familiar with Jack Cust’s body of work since, for four seasons, he was the Oakland A’s primary designated hitter, though to be fair, the tail-end of his tenure featured a lot less hitting, designated or otherwise. Still, those early days were glorious — he homered six times in his first seven games with the club in 2007, capping of that stretch with a walk-off three-run homer against Cleveland. A’s play-by-play man Ken Korach, who is not often prone to such outbursts, shouted “Jack Cust could run for mayor of Oakland” as Cust rounded the bases in that game. And he probably could have, though it’s worth noting Oakland has a history of electing awful mayors.
The 2007 season continued much in that vein—Cust hit 26 homers that season for a power-derived team and followed up with 33 the following season. At the same time, he was striking out — a lot. Cust led the American League in strikeouts three years running between 2007 and 2009, including an eye-popping 197 Ks in 2008. Many of those strikeouts were of the called-third-strike variety, the bat remaining on Cust’s shoulder if a pitch wasn’t precisely where he fit comfortable swinging. This passivity was frustrating to watch, sure, but what did it matter when Cust was one of the few A’s consistently knocking the ball over the wall?
Well, that stopped happening. The home run totals fell while the strikeout rate remained gallingly high. To be fair, Cust’s on-base percentage remained robust, but that may have been because pitchers started to recognize that Cust was the only Athletic capable of smacking a homer and that putting him on base posed little downside when the only way he could get from first to third on a base hit was if he was allowed to hail a cab somewhere around second base. The A’s probably didn’t do much to assuage fans’ growing frustrations with Cust by trying him out as an outfielder: The familiar clang of balls bouncing harmlessly off his glove when he was in the field soon began to drown out the sound of balls whizzing past him at the plate for a called third strike.
This is the player the Phillies have invited into their organization — an older, slower, less prone to hitting home runs version of that player, at least. He’s safely tucked away in Triple AAA ball at the moment, but how long before the Phillies conclude that Jack Cust is the answer to their lefthand pinch hitting woes. Phillies organization: If Jack Cust the answer you come up with, you are asking awfully confusing questions.
[The photo at the top of this story is a Jack Cust bobblehead on display at the local BBQ joint a short jaunt from my house. Keen observers will note that someone has swiped the bat out of the Cust bobblehead’s hands; long-time A’s fans will recognize that missing a bat won’t make much of a difference in many of those plate appearances.]