Orioles' Cust shouldn't wait for perfect pitch

March 24, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Jack Cust: It's a name with some major- league pop to it. Same plain, powerful cadence as "Roy Hobbs," as in The Natural.

Say it for yourself. Jack Cust. He is the only player the Orioles have traded for in 11 long months.

This fact alone makes Cust, with all of his 65 big-league at-bats - including those 32 strikeouts - an important piece of the Orioles' newest rebuilding puzzle. We won't say it's by default that Jack Cust is the object of our curiosity, though we all know by now that the big bat the Orioles need will not come from a man named Pudge or Junior.

The push to get a player of that stature this offseason was honorable. Phones, apparently, were smoking with SOS calls for offensive help, calls tempered with reason, fiscal prudence. The search has been deemed fruitless. Last week, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan raised the white flag on a bona fide big-league swatter this season.

So we are left with a strapping, amiable young prospect named Jack Cust.

This is totally fine. Cust is a nice kid with a big-league name whose entire childhood was constructed to help him reach baseball's promised land. When Cust was 6 years old, his accountant father (also Jack Cust, a former collegiate player at Seton Hall) scaled back from work and instead cracked every book and studied every video about hitting, eventually ingesting so much information that he opened the Jack Cust Baseball Academy in Flemington, N.J.

"I was never that smart when I was young," the Orioles' Cust said. "I mean, I never tried to do a whole lot in school, especially once I knew I might be good enough to make it in baseball.

"It was the source of a few squabbles between my parents. When I wasn't doing well enough in school, my mom would yell at my dad, then my dad would have to yell at me. He'd tell me to just go do the work to get her off his back so we could go back out and hit."

Indeed, Cust's baseball pedigree is rich, and his swing is beautiful, except for one problem: Cust's power production throughout every level of the minor leagues (116 homers in 618 career games) has been undermined by his propensity to strike out. A lot. We're talking 708 K's.

The K's were why the Colorado Rockies, who dealt Cust for Chris Richard, were down on Cust, who also suffered the perception he's a poor fielder, because the first baseman was sent to the Coors Field outfield, where the mile-high air and even higher blue skies were a brutal place to learn how to shag major-league fly balls.

Enter the Orioles, a team whose path to contention must come through developing some young players. Yesterday, Cust proved true to form, drilling a hard single up the middle against the Expos but showing a lack of mobility when a foul ball fell in where a more capable left fielder would have tracked it down.

Most days this March, however, the place to find Cust is in the dark shadows under the stands at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, in the batting cage. Hitting coach Terry Crowley is drilling Cust to stop doing the one thing wrecking Cust's effectiveness:

Waiting for the perfect pitch.

For a kid who worked on sophisticated hitting techniques like reverse spin by the time he was in middle school, Cust seems to suffer the best kind of problem a hitter can have. He is too patient. He has too good of an idea what he wants to do with the ball. He has power, and he can use the entire field to spray hits. But he needs to let 'er rip.

"We need to loosen up his thinking so that, OK, look for the perfect pitch on the first pitch, but after that, go with the pitch, get after the next strike," Crowley said.

"By the time you get to the major-league level, any pitcher can still make a Hall of Fame pitch with the count at 3-2. You can only learn so much from books. At this level, hitters have to make adjustments. Jack needs to be less selective because he can hit the ball hard in all areas of the strike zone."

Back home, Cust's father is thrilled someone finally gets it.

"Baltimore is looking inside Jack's stats," Cust Sr. said. "They see the power and the on-base percentage, and they're right: He is too selective. Part of that is because ... a lot of times pitchers [in the minors] wouldn't pitch to him. He had a tremendous number of walks [520 in 618 minor-league games]. He grew very selective, so it's a habit that needs to be altered."

As a former Triple-A All-Star Game Most Valuable Player with RBIs and homers galore, Cust has little left to prove in the minors. Cust is eager, knowing he is one fix away from his big-league breakthrough.

"If only I could be a bad-ball hitter ... oh, I wish, I wish," Cust said, laughing.

"I'd be like Vladimir Guerrero. I've played with guys who could hit a ball in the dirt or something way off the plate. Me, I need a strike. It's good to be a bad-ball hitter."

For now, we'll settle for Cust being less patient, less perfect. You know the old sandlot saying: "Swing, batter, batter, batter, swing."

Jack Cust can.

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