Justin Christian's Long Road To The Bigs

Justin Christian is easy to root for.

There are some people in sports that you can't help but root for. Players who have overcome long odds to make names for themselves are often at the top of that list. For the Giants, that player is Justin Christian.

To understand what kind of breaks he has made for himself in baseball, one must understand the early years of his career.

In a draft system that lasts 40 rounds, it's pretty common for late-round picks to never make it within spitting distance of the major leagues. The mountain needing to be climbed for a player who wasn't drafted is even greater.

That describes Christian, who was never drafted in the three years in which he was eligible to be taken. Naturally, that has been something that motivated him early his career.

"It's weird, because, being the ballplayer that I am, I always felt that I was better than some of the guys who were drafted," Christian told me recently. He takes long pauses between words, as if he's trying to make sense of what he was going through back then.

"In that regard, not being drafted kind of put a fire in my stomach a little bit," said Christian. "It made me play with a chip on my shoulder, like I had to prove something."

In taking with Christian, you can tell that he is intelligent and self-aware.

While some players insist they don't pay attention to their statistics, he can confidently state his numbers as if he had been memorizing them for a mid-term exam.

With that same confidence, he says he always trusted his ability. That's why he didn't give up on baseball after college, opting for the independent Frontier League rather than a real-world job. Eventually, he caught the attention of the New York Yankees, who signed him to a minor league deal on July 1, 2004.

At that point, he said that playing with a chip on his shoulder really wasn't an option, that he needed to trust his ability to help raise him through the minor league ranks.

"Once I got into affiliated baseball, I knew it was time to prove myself. I could play with a chip on my shoulder all I want, but that isn't going to make me play well," he said. "I definitely felt that I had the tools to be there, it was just a matter of being as consistent as possible to showcase them."

Christian did showcase those tools -- hitting .303 with 55 stolen bases in the 2005 season, his first full season in the Yankees' system. His successes earned him a short stint at triple-A, where he appeared in one game without recording an at-bat.

He excelled in 2006 with double-A Trenton, however, hitting .276 and stealing a ridiculous 68 bases. Playing at the minor league level he says was "the stepping stone" to the big leagues, Christian felt like he was beginning to prove himself.

"I didn't want to blend in. I wanted to stand out in one way, shape or form and play well, especially with that [Yankees] organization," Christian said. "I felt like I had a chance, that the games I was playing meant something, that the numbers I was putting up meant something."

He split the 2007 season between Trenton and triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He put up significantly better numbers at the latter of the two destinations, hitting 90 points higher (.235 versus .325), while recording one less extra-base hit and one fewer stolen base in 25 fewer games played.

He started 2008 in Scranton, and on June 24, he was called up, making his major league debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He went 2-for-4 with two RBI.

Christian called the opportunity he was given a "blessing."

"You feel vindicated in a way, because the hard work that you put in is actually paying off and an organization is taking a chance on you because they like what you've done in the minor leagues," Christian said.

He hit .250 in 40 MLB at-bats, before being sent back down to triple-A. His performances were evidently not good enough for the Yankees, as he was non-tendered by the team following the season.

Christian signed a minor league contract with Baltimore and spent the 2009 season at triple-A Norfolk.

But 88 games and a .270 batting average later, he once again found himself outside of pro baseball.

He spent the early part of the 2010 season in the Atlantic League before an occurrence of déjà vu.

On May 7, the Yankees once again plucked him from independent ball and assigned him to Trenton. He hit nine home runs and stole 20 bases before a promotion to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He struggled down the stretch, hitting .242 with no home runs and two steals in 16 games.

At this point, he was about to turn 31 and had already seen two separate stints in the independent leagues. Since quitting is against his nature, he continued to gut it out, and received an opportunity from the Giants, signing on Feb. 6, 2011.

"My whole career has been like that, so it was nothing new," he said with a slight grin on his face. "The age thing, it's all about how you feel. You could be 35 years old, but if you feel great you're going to perform. For me, being in my early 30s, and competing day-in and day-out, I feel like the talent is still there. It's just a matter of an organization taking a chance and giving me an opportunity to perform.

"It's all about luck, it's all about having that opportunity to play, and most importantly, it's about having a guy in an organization who likes you and is willing to stick his neck out there for you," Christian said. "You can't control that opportunity, all you can control is your attitude on the field and how hard you play."

Some people define luck as when hard work meets opportunity. Be that as it may, Christian found some "luck" in 2011. After a rough start to the season with double-A Richmond, where he hit .256 in 73 games, he was called up to Fresno and finally was able to show baseball what he can do.

Christian looked like what you would want from a prototypical leadoff hitter. After only having one double-digit home run season in six previous minor league seasons, he hit 10 home runs in 64 games for the Grizzlies. He stole 36 bases in 39 attempts, and walked 35 times to only 31 strikeouts. He hit .338, and posted an on-base percent of .428 and an OPS of 1.002.

When discussing the start to his 2011 season, there is a tinge of bitterness in his voice that he was assigned to Richmond and not Fresno. But he dismisses it as "a decision I had to live with."

He says about his stint in Richmond that he didn't perform as he wanted, but when coming to Fresno, he felt closer to the big leagues (in an organizational sense, not geographic), and that motivated him to perform.

"You focus a little bit more and put a little more into it," he said. "When I hit, I want to hit for the whole year, so if I hit .240 at one level, then I have to hit .340 at another level. So hitting well was something that I thought a lot about doing right when I got here."

For the second time in his career, he was rewarded with a call-up to the big leagues. He appeared in 18 games for the Giants in 2011, batting .255 with three steals in five attempts.

Unfortunately for Christian, the Giants logjam in the outfield -- compounded by the offseason acquisitions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan -- forced him back to Fresno.

Then, something happened to him.

Not necessarily a change in mindset -- he is still every bit as tenacious as he was in the past -- but all of the sudden, getting a call-up wasn't top a priority.

Maybe it was because of Fresno's hot start. After an abysmal 2011 season, the Grizzlies are one of the top teams in the PCL, a turnaround that his .364 average, seven home runs and 31 RBI have played no small part in.

Perhaps he recognized the situation in front of him. Cabrera and Pagan have been anchors in the San Francisco outfield, and the Giants have scrambled to get guys ample playing time between first base and right field.

Regardless of what the reason was, Christian has a 100 percent team-first attitude, saying that he is, "a member of the Fresno Grizzlies," and that, "thinking about a call-up, you lose focus about what's at hand and what's important. So thinking about getting called up to the big leagues, it's not really there."

Now at 32, he was one of the leaders on the Fresno squad.

"He's just professional at what he does," said first-year Fresno manager Bob Mariano. "He's been playing hurt, and he's a big part of our team. He's persevered, and probably doesn't get as many chances as someone who the club has a lot of money invested in him, so it says a lot about him that he's made it to the big leagues. Those are the guys you really want to pull for.

"They're the guys who like to compete. He has a lot of internal heart and gamesmanship."

The reason that he "was" a leader on the Fresno squad is because he is no longer on the team. With Aubrey Huff headed for the disabled list, Christian's contract has been purchased by the Giants and he will join the team in Seattle for the beginning of its nine-game road trip.

Which goes to show, hard work and perseverance does pay off -- even if the pay-off isn't the goal.

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