Cust knows batter's box is base path he can't slip up on

March 10, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

JUPITER, Fla. - When it comes to style and grace, Jack Cust has wisely decided not to try to change anyone's mind. His one unforget- table series of slips and falls on the base path between third and home against the Yankees last season was enough to convince him he'll never be perceived as one of baseball's coveted five-tool players.

But hey, for the one or two tools he does possess, Jack Cust is dead set on making sure we know he knows how to use them - or it.

The young man can hit.

"I've got to hit. No matter what, we know I'm not going to play in the big leagues because of my glove," Cust said yesterday, boyish smile only slightly off-setting his dead-on self assessment.

Or his base running.

Jack Cust the hitter understands he is on the cusp, so he did what he had to do yesterday. He drove a towering, 400-foot homer over the center-field wall at Roger Dean Stadium to give the Orioles a brief but nice 2-1 lead over the Cardinals.

The fifth-inning bases-empty shot was just what Cust needed to kick off his "Keep Me" campaign and steal the spring spotlight away from second baseman Mike "The Talk of Camp" Fontenot and Walter "Yes, He Looks Like Frank Thomas" Young.

Good timing, considering Cust's situation.

"I hope they want me on the team. I'm out of options," said the 25-year-old New Jersey native who could not be assigned to the minor leagues unless he cleared waivers.

Spring is fun, mostly because of the way it affords us the chance to ogle, giggle or fawn over minor league players, prospects, bubble players and veteran invitees who get hot or make an unexpected splash.

Walter Young, benevolently listed at his post-Jenny Craig regime weight of 296, is a bear of a young man who was picked up off waivers from the Pirates. If size alone could translate into a big league slugger, Young would already be launching Ruthian homers.

But there is hitting coach Terry Crowley reminding us that squat Kirby Puckett was a mashing menace in Minnesota, so body type alone does not indicate power. It will take more than 296 pounds to generate major league plate prowess, so all we can do down here in the Florida sun is wonder what kind of moon shots Young will deliver, when and if the first baseman seasons and matures.

In the meantime, his batting cage theatrics are priceless.

"That's what spring's for, to show off when no one expects you to," Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks said.

On the other side of the spectrum, the 5-foot-8 (in heels) Fontenot has used his six consecutive Grapefruit League games to his advantage. On Monday, he crushed what some are calling one of the longest homers they've seen at Fort Lauderdale Stadium - by an infielder who could ride claiming horses at Gulfstream.

"Last year [Fontenot] was our minor league player of the year. People who saw him in the minors raved about him. He's opened a lot of eyes up here," Hendricks said.

Suddenly, Jerry Hairston's broken knuckle and Brian Roberts' back spasms seem more like a golden opportunity for Fontenot than it is a setback for Hairston and Roberts. They can pick up their battle for the bag when they're healthy - hopefully soon.

In the meantime, Fontenot has prompted press box dwellers to recall the big-bat exploits of diminutive infielders like Freddie Patek, Tony Phillips and Mike Gallego.

Somewhere, Orioles director of scouting Tony DeMacio is laughing at all the critics who skewered the Orioles for drafting Fontenot in the first round because he didn't fit the prototype for a major league second baseman.

"I don't get frustrated with the critics. I don't think body type has anything to do with it. I think it's God-given talent and I work hard at it," Fontenot said.

"When I'm standing on the field, I can't tell everyone's a little taller than me."

But for all the early curiosity caused by big Walter Young and little Mike Fontenot, there are more pressing matters that the Orioles must begin to attend to this spring. That will include bursting the bubble that contains several outfielders/first basemen/designated hitters who populate spring camp.

Jack Cust could make life a lot easier for himself and the Orioles if he can just flat-out deliver the hits and justify occupying a roster spot.

Not that Lee Mazzilli is willing to marginalize Cust's ability to contribute to the Orioles. The homer yesterday was good.

"That's his main thing. We've got [Jay] Gibbons in right and [Cust] can float, play DH, swing the bat a lot. He's versatile. He can play outfield, first base, left field, DH. That's versatile. I like what I see so far," Mazzilli said.

This is the kind of positive reinforcement Cust needs and wants, even if those of us who are less benevolent are willing to cast Cust as a largely one-dimensional player who diminishes team versatility because of his defensive weakness and lack of speed.

It's little surprise that Cust does not like being typecast this way. As a young slugger with Arizona and Colorado, Cust felt he wasn't given the instruction or attention needed to break through.

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