So why such a fuss over Justin Christian, right? He was only another player on the Staten Island Yankees, right? Wrong and wrong again. Not only did Christian have a very fine season by NY-Penn League offensive standards but also carried the dormant lineup for the last few weeks of the season. "We battled all year but just had a hard time getting over the hump," said Christian of the disappointing season for the Staten Island club. Here is a guy who came a long way back and all of a sudden he is a key component to a Yankee Farm team. Who would have thought? To be honest, he himself may have just about given up hope not long before the Yankees swooped in and rescued him from the Independent League, River City Rascals. "This past summer was my last year of ball. I was giving it one last run hoping it would be the chance I've always wanted. I nearly gave it up before I went to the Independent League. I was an All-American in college and still no chance. I didn't know what else I had to do." Yea, what else did Justin Christian have to do? Granted, he did miss the entire 2002 season to rotator cuff surgery. But, the next season, he came back with an excellent, All-American season after transferring to Southeast Missouri. "I was told by some scouts to put up decent numbers and the scouts would be there, but that didn't happen. I guess it really has to do with the coaches and their involvement with the scouts. I went to a small Div. I school so there weren't many scouts, but you would think word of mouth would travel, right?," a puzzled Justin Christian said. Well, it didn't work out quite that way for Christian to his great disappointment.
For someone to hold onto the game long enough like Justin Christian has, it is obvious that he had a good upbringing in the game. But, also, he has learned to know that baseball can be a humbling game. It is not as if he eventually does come up short in his baseball career, he won't have a backup plan. "My education is very important. I can get injured tomorrow, but my college degree will be there forever." Justin is more than aware that the game can be taken away at any time. It's easy for someone that has learned to truly appreciate the game so well. "I know that things aren't guaranteed in this game as well as in life," said Christian. "I could be released in spring training next year, who knows, all I can do is control the things that I can control." And, for one minute, don't think that Justin Christian doesn't know just how lucky he is. "I know that the desire and motivation I have to play this game comes from within. The adversity that I've had to endure, just to continue to play baseball has been a lot to over come. Injuries, set backs, scouts telling me I wasn't good enough, all motivates me to be the best at what I do." For that matter, Justin Christian always seems to have been modest, even in his high school days. "I attended Aragon High School in San Mateo, CA. I batted around .380 and had roughly 25 stolen bases, nothing too amazing." By most other standards, that would be a spectacular season, but for Christian, it was not another year. It isn't every young player that hangs onto the game that long, but even looking back at the origins of his career, we can see the attitude that kept him going.
Needless to say, not one scout came knocking at Aragon High School looking for Justin Christian's services but that didn't stop him from playing baseball at Auburn University. But, just as it looked as if Christian was about to become a stud college player, bad luck struck again. "I was injured the entire year at Auburn in 2001. I still played every game but my stats suffered. I batted around .250 but I did have 18 stolen bases and a pair of HR's." The next season, Christian did not see any action as he was forced to undergo rotator cuff surgery. Once again, if you know Justin Christian, it would take a lot more than that to discourage him. "I try to play hard every game even though I may injure myself." Yes, he did injure himself but it was not slowing him down.
It would be the 2003 season that looked like the second baseman's big break. He had a fabulous season and became one of the best second baseman in the country, being named an All-American at that position. "That year was a huge year for me. I was able to win a few different awards because of my play." But, it didn't happen all at once, by any means. Christian had worked hard in years prior to get to his peak college performance at Southeast Missouri that season. "I really didn't start hitting for power until my sophomore yr. I was able to work with a hitting coach for 3 years and he really helped my use my entire body. I'm not really big so I had to be real efficient with my swing," said the speedy infielder. Of course, he is not just about offense. "I pride myself on defense and like to think that its my best attribute. The game is going in an offensive direction now days and defense takes a back burner."
Considering an All-American season, one would think that Justin Christian would be a hot commodity in the 2003 draft. For whatever reason, you'd be wrong. Justin Christian went completely undrafted. "I guess that's the way it goes sometimes," Christian said in regards to the draft. "I pondered it for a long while on what was going on with my baseball career. I was always told that if you put up the numbers, then you would be given a chance but that wasn't the case until this summer." So, that would just about do it for his career in baseball, right? No, not so fast. He immediately set out for the Frontier League to play for the Independent, River City Rascals. Little did he know that it would be there that created a bridge for him to try and achieve his dream. "I had one month last year summer with River City to get the hang of the wooden bat. You have to be a little more selective in what pitches you swing at or you'll break your bat or even hurt yourself." But, the use of the wooden bat only meant one thing, Justin Christian still had eyes for the pros. That moment came the next season and just in time.
After a brief stint with River City in 2003, Justin Christian went back for a second year there in 2004. However, this was going to be his last go around if he wasn't discovered. But, the pleasant news is that he never had to make that decision. The Yankees signed him in June and, at long last, Justin Christian had a chance to prove he could be a professional player. "I look at this game as a game of luck and chance, you get your chance because of good play but also the intangibles or a need," said Justin about his long awaited does of good fortune. "I'm just very thankful that I was given this opportunity." He does have the opportunity of a lifetime now and has taken it in a stranglehold. He will most likely be on his way to Tampa next season to play High A ball and there isn't a doubt about what kind of effort we will get from him. His appreciation for the game is truly unmatched. He attributes that appreciation to his father, his biggest influence on his career. "I would say the best piece of advice that he gave me was play everyday like its your last because you can't take back what you did yesterday."
What about Justin Christian the player? We know about his love and appreciation of the game, his all out style of play and his determination but something that can't be forgotten is that Justin Christian is a tremendous all around player. Who better to describe his skills than Christian himself? Here is Justin Christian scouting himself:
Batting and Power: "I'm very aggressive at the plate but typically leadoff hitters are patient so I had that problem to deal with. I really didn't start hitting for power until my sophomore yr. I was able to work with a hitting coach for 3 yrs and he really helped my use my entire body. I'm not really big so I had to be real efficient with my swing."
Base Running and Speed: "I just try to play my game. Speed is what I have and I tried to utilize that as much as possible. I still have things to work on such as getting on base more so that I can give myself more opportunities to steal." (Note: Christian stole 26 bases in 30 games in River City and 15 steals in 50 games in Staten Island in 2004.)
Defense: "I pride myself on defense and like to think that its my best attribute. The more positions you can play the better I've been told. I played some outfield this year too. The throw from the outfield is a bit different than the infield but feels a bit better because you can get more into your throw."
Maybe Justin Christian will not be the one most well known or highly touted prospects in baseball but no one will ever doubt what he lays on the line every time he steps between the white lines. It is players like him that make the game what it is because they appreciate just playing ball. Maybe it is because he knows more than any of his teammates that baseball is not a given. But, in all honesty, what other kind of player besides Justin Christian would you rather have?
PinstripesPlus.com would like to give out a special thanks to Justin Christian for his time and efforts in answering our questions.