PORT CHARLOTTE — There weren't many places Rays veteran outfielder Jack Cust could hit growing up in Flemington, N.J.
So his family got creative.
His father, Jack Sr., a former Seton Hall standout, asked his accounting clients for any open spaces to put a pitching machine so his three sons could practice. Cust smacked grounders off the rock-covered ground of an abandoned warehouse. He took cuts in empty retail stores and even a salon.
But when Cust, 34, was drafted in the first round by the Diamondbacks in 1997, he and his dad went one step further, starting the Jack Cust Baseball Academy. What began as two indoor batting cages has blossomed into the largest turf baseball complex in the country, a 65-acre campus with more than 120 employees. That includes Cust's younger brothers, Kevin (Braves) and Mike (Cardinals), who were each drafted but never played in the majors.
"It's something I'll have when I'm done playing," Cust said.
Cust isn't ready to retire yet, but there were doubts whether he'd be done when spring training started and he didn't have a job. Though the left-handed hitter racked up at least 25 homers in three straight seasons from 2007-09 in Oakland, he hasn't played the field in the majors since 2010, and he spent last season in Triple A.
Cust appreciates the Rays giving him a shot, signing him to a minor-league deal Feb. 17, even if it's just trying to provide depth at designated hitter.
"They do anything over here," Cust said. "I know I can definitely help produce some runs, scoring runs, or getting on base, and hitting home runs; that's what I do. They're always looking for offense, and I feel that this is a team that could value what I can do maybe a little bit more than some other places."
Cust, a 6-foot-1, 247-pound corner outfielder, never was known for his glove. His sometimes-streaky bat is what has prolonged his journeyman career through 11 organizations, counting the majors and the minors. The Rays hope they have the Cust from a few years ago, when he averaged 28 home runs and 103 walks from 2007-09. Cust also led the league in strikeouts those three seasons, and he has hit just 16 big-league homers since. And he's coming off the toughest year of his career. Cust started with Houston, but he couldn't throw due to elbow inflammation and was released near the end of spring training. He split the season in Triple A with Scranton (Yankees) and Las Vegas (Blue Jays), combining for 20 homers, 72 RBIs and 148 strikeouts in 114 games.
"It was definitely mentally one of the hardest years for me," he said. "I just wasn't in a good place mentally. This year, I just wanted to give it another shot."
Cust isn't hanging on just for a World Series ring, as he already won one with the Diamondbacks in 2001. He admits he didn't do much, playing in just three September games as a rookie, though he jokes he hit .500 (1-for-2) for a championship team.
"I got it out of the way early," he said, smiling. "I was by far the youngest guy. It was an eye-opening experience."
Now, Cust is one of the older guys in a youthful and exuberant Rays clubhouse. However, he isn't totally out of place. His musical tastes are eclectic, from hip-hop and Jay Z to the "slower" tunes of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. Cust doesn't hunt or fish, but he plays video games, sneaking a few in after his wife, Jen, falls asleep.
When in New Jersey, Cust is typically a homebody, watching TV with his young daughters, Ava and Sophia, coaching their soccer and basketball teams. "Just doing normal dad things," he said.
Manager Joe Maddon has enjoyed Cust, from his engaging personality to his professional approach. Though Cust has yet to play defense, Maddon said the "power stuff is still there."
Cust feels it too, more so than the past couple of years. And he's hoping there's a little more bang in his bat before he returns home to work with his brothers.
"I'm just playing because that's what I do," he said. "I'm a baseball player. I don't really know anything else that I'd be doing as well as I play baseball. It might be sad, but true."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]