Jack Cust Story — ‘One Degree of ‘Dr. Strangeglove’

The ghost of Richard Lee “Dick” Stuart was alive and well that warm, languid evening at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Gene Autrey Way.

Many of you weren’t born when Stuart, infamously known as Dr. Strangeglove following the Stanley Kubrick 1964 classic of the same name, held court and, oopsy-daisy, drop-kicked balls from 1958 to 1969.

Stuart didn’t just butcher the rawhide. He stewed, filleted, shaked, baked, folded and otherwise mutilated balls with all the aplomb of a blind elephant in a pottery barn.

Shameless on defense, and almost defiantly so, the good-humored — Thank goodness, for he was a giant — Stuart’s record 29 errors at First Base set while toiling for the Boston Red Sox stands preeminent even today. Frank Litsky’s New York Times obituary for Stuart upon his death from cancer at age 66 in 2002 quoted Bobby Bragan calling old Stonehands — Stuart’s pre-strangeglove moniker — the worst outfielder he ever saw.

Add quote Litsky: When the public-address announcer at Pirates training camp once told the spectators, ”Anyone who interferes with the ball in play will be ejected from the ballpark,” Danny Murtaugh, the Pirates’ manager at the time, said, ”I hope Stuart doesn’t think he means him.”

Oh by the way, Stuart also hit 228 home runs — pre- pre-steroids. In 1963, when he set the record for errors, he also led the American League in RBI’s with 118. This in the modern dead ball era before the mounds were lowered and the hitters designated.

Which brings us full circle to a fatefully unexpected Thursday this side of Los Angeles where the county turns orange. That awful thud. The shameful bounce. A Bugs Bunny cartoon of a fly ball clank clank, you never gonna get that baby back. And the reincarnation of Dick Stuart incarnate, in the form of Jack Cust, Left(out)fielder, Oakland’s A’s, committing the ultimate honors in anti-defense.

This brought back long lost memories of ye olde Dr. Stonehands Strangeglove. The sheer audacity of Cust’s latest blunder, coupled with that loud thud of a sound similar to a cement block dropped about 50 stories to the concrete ground was like a tornado, hurricane, flood, an unnaturally natural event, unforgettably permeating the moment.

That bitter play! Sweet nostalgia. Not heard nor such audacious non-play seen for so many lonely moments and now this.

Give Cust credit for he probably never heard of Stuart. But Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, he did the greatest Dr. Strangeglove impression possible. First, he looked up to see the routine fly ball drift ever so graciously to Left Field. Ever confident — and nobody looked more confident than Stuart right before each next gaffe — Cust held up his glove awaiting the expected result.

Hosanna and look out below, the ball fell flush on a closed glove, bounced about 20 yards away and resulted in disaster, Angels flying around the base paths. What Cust had done was cover his eyes with his glove. He never stood a chance.

But Cust is a playa, if not a fieldah, per se. Almost nonchalantly, he retrieved the ball, missed the cut-off man — perfect, if this were Superman’s Bizarro World, but here not so much — and eventually departed the field at inning’s end.

Cust’s no love for Mr. Glove did Stuart even prouder then. As Stuart often did, Cust went the distance and then some. Made up for it all with a ringing home run sparking an eight-run Fifth Inning that won the A’s the game. So imperfect in the damn field, Cust was perfect at the plate going four for four, walking twice and scoring three runs.

I am not too proud to say this: When I focused on the enormity of the effort, the Dr. Strangeglove resurrection in reflection, I got a little misty-eyed.

Somewhere, this side of heaven, maybe a field of dreams at Dyersville, Iowa, Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart is picking up that image of Jack Cust on the defensive cusp as he kicks and klunks a routine ground ball into a two-base adventure before hitting a game-winning grand slam.

Somewhere, the A’s are playing today. And Jack “The New Stonehands” Cust with Dr. Strangeglove as his wingman — all props to Pharrell and Snoop Dog — is dropping it like it’s hot.

These are the days, my friends. We thought they’d never end…

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