Monday, May 14, 2007

Thoughts on an Old Flame

When I was 15, I had a huge crush on a girl named Mandy. Mandy was a senior and had some problems -- she drank a lot and wrecked her car too often and no one's parents trusted her -- but those were the things that made a clueless, horny teenager like me love her. Yes, she was a tad rough around the edges, but I defended her to the death because, the way I figured it, I was going to marry Mandy someday, and everyone needed to know just how amazing she was.

I finally got my chance at Mandy when I was a senior. She had been hanging around town for a couple of years, going to community college, and not really doing much with her life. We dated for three weeks. Though I had grown up enough to realize that my earlier illusions of marrying Mandy were wildly misguided -- the parents were right not to trust her -- it was a fun three weeks that made me feel like all those hours spent pathetically longing for her were not wasted.

Jack Cust is the baseball equivalent of Mandy. With all apologies to Hee Seop Choi, Roberto Petagine, Euribiel Durazo, Bobby Kietly, and Jeremy Giambi, Cust is perhaps the poster boy for stathead man-crushes. Whereas Mandy had a rockin' body that helped me to ignore her erratic behavior, Cust's minor league numbers (.900+ OPS in extensive minor league play) had me and all of the other SABRboys looking past the fact that he had no natural position on the diamond and couldn't run any faster or smarter than I could. If you asked us about him in 2001 or 2002, however, we knew that he'd be an all star if given a chance.

Though some may argue whether Cust ever got a real shot, there has been little to suggest that we were right about him. Yes, he had an.878 OPS in 73 at-bats in 2003, but it was surrounded by 71 at-bats of pure stank in four other brief call-ups. Statistics aside, he usually looked awful in a major league uniform, with his vaunted patience at the plate transformed into seeming timidity. A high-profile baserunning mishap in 2003 -- Cust fell down twice between third and home in the 12th inning, costing the Orioles the game -- is what most people think of when his name is mentioned, his pedigree for mashing the ball notwithstanding. In being judged based on what he does poorly rather than what he does well, he hasn't fared much better than any of the heirs to Rob Deer's title to King of the Three True Outcomes.

At least until now. His rampage since being signed by the A's -- six homers and fourteen RBI in seven games -- has been something to behold. Because baseball is no different than any other entertainment outlet, Cust's success will cause other teams to look for other Jack Custs. I can just see Keith Woolner rolling his eyes as some Cleveland Indians assistant GM asks him if he knows what Hee Seop Choi is doing these days or if he thinks that Petagine still has anything left in the tank.

Though I hope he continues to mash all year, my suspicion is that Cust will come back to earth hard once pitchers realize he's not some kid you can simply overpower with straight heat. Like Mandy, he has some serious flaws in his game, and I imagine once he faces some nastier stuff his considerable vulnerabilities, like Mandy's unsuitability for marriage, will present themselves.

But, also like Mandy, it sure will be a fun ride while it lasts.