First, the details on the game itself. It was a Saturday night, August 16, 2003. The first-place (ugh) Yankees were in Baltimore to take on the Orioles, who had lost five straight to drop to 57-64 and usher in the annual late-season collapse. But on this night, they were game. Veteran starter Pat Hentgen gutted out six innings, striking out five and leaving with a 3-2 lead. He had been supported by improbable home runs from infielder Jose Morban (.141 career AVG) and catcher Brook Fordyce (6 HR total in 2003). But it took reliever John Parrish exactly three pitchers to surrender the lead, allowing New York's backup catcher John Flaherty to hit his second longball on the evening. The Yanks took the lead in the top of the eighth with Hideki Matsui's single off of Parrish, scoring Jason Giambi. With Mariano Rivera coming in to slam the door in the ninth inning, things looked grim. That is, until outfielder Luis Matos led off the inning with a home run to tie the game!
The score remained knotted at four until the top of the twelfth, when Giambi hit a solo home run off of Hector Carrasco with two outs to put the visitors up 5-4. The Orioles would have to rally once again. With Jeff Nelson on in relief of Chris Hammond, the first two Orioles went quietly: Tony Batista lined out to left field, and pinch hitter B. J. Surhoff struck out looking. Manager Mike Hargrove called upon another pinch hitter: rookie Jack Cust.
Cust was an interesting case, the first-ever first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He did three things at every stop in the minor leagues: hit a ton of home runs, took a bunch of walks, and struck out even more. He was incredibly similar to Adam Dunn, but teams just couldn't overlook the flaws in his game. He wasn't a good defender, he wasn't fleet of foot, and oh, those strikeouts...you know the drill. So it was that he found himself with the Orioles in 2003. He was still only 24, but he was on his third organization and had only 38 games of major league experience. He'd been called up from Ottowa, the International League's answer to Hell, early in August and had played ten games for the O's at this point. His average was just .214, but he'd garnered some buzz with three home runs and eight RBI, and five walks boosted his on-base percentage to a healthier .353. With Baltimore mired in fourth place, he would get a good opportunity to prove himself.
On this night, Jack did what he did best, battling back from an 0-2 count to draw a walk and bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Larry Bigbie. Bigbie took ball one, and then two quick strikes. Once again, the Birds were down to their last strike. But the outfielder laced Jeff Nelson's 1-2 delivery to right-center field. With two outs, Cust was off at the crack of the bat. He rounded second base, approached third, and saw coach Tom Trebelhorn windmilling his arm, waving him home. But in the meantime, Yankee right fielder Karim Garcia had cut the ball off in the gap and fired a perfect strike to second baseman Alfonso Soriano. Trebs did an about-face, tossing up the stop sign.
But Cust, at 6'1" and 205 pounds, had some difficulty putting the brakes to his momentum. He slipped and fell, and Soriano altertly chucked the ball to his third baseman, Aaron "Bleeping" Boone. Cust was trapped in no-man's land as Boone tossed the ball to Posada to initiate the rundown. The rookie turned back towards third, and Posada followed him down the line before relaying the ball to Boone once more. So again, Jack reversed field and headed for home, but something improbable had happened. It was a stroke of luck rarely afforded to the O's in their recent torturous history with the Yankees. No one was covering home plate! Boone, now holding the ball, was too far away to outrun even an ox like Cust. He could just run those last few feet unencumbered, scoring the tying run and giving probable pinch hitter Robert Machado a chance to drive in Bigbie, who would have been at second base at the very least. But Mighty Casey...fell.
There's no other way to say it. He slipped for the second time in a matter of moments, stumbled, and fell flat on his face, just feet from his goal. He scrambled on all fours, made a futile reach for the plate, but was still painfully short. Before he could even think to recover, Boone had rushed over and applied the tag to end the game.
So where was I when this circus unfolded? In scenic Toms River, New Jersey, squeezing in a long weekend visit with my then-girlfriend of ten months (incidentally, her birthday is today, which inspired this entry). We'd be together again at college less than two weeks later, but I had a friend who was New Jersey-bound that weekend, and I took advantage of the opportunity. Considering how tense and...let's say animated...I get while watching games, especially when those damned Yankees are involved, it had to have been some sort of divine providence that I wasn't watching that game. (Particularly since the girlfriend's father was a Yank fan. In hindsight, she and I were probably not meant to be.) So late that night, after the girl had gone to bed, I was prepping for a good night's sleep on the foldout sofa in her family's basement/game room. I'd flicked on Sportscenter, and as the "highlights" of the Orioles/Yankees tilt unfolded, I stared in disbelief at the sight of poor, clumsy Jack Cust making his futile crawl for home. It had to happen to the O's. It had to benefit the Yankees. Unbelievable.
Jack Cust, of course, would live to fight again. After wandering in Baseball Babylon for three more years, spending five total games in the majors and 374 in AAA outposts Ottowa, Sacramento, and Portland, he finally got a fair shake in Oakland in 2007. In two years with the A's, he's hit 59 home runs and walked 216 times. He's finally an established, major-league power hitter.
He's also gone 0-for-2 in stolen base attempts in that time. But no one's perfect.