Justin Christian is trying to win a spot on the Cardinals' roster as a backup outfielder. (Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports)
By Rob Rains
Ten years ago, all Justin Christian wanted was a chance to play professional baseball. When the independent league River City Rascals called, he answered.
A decade and many stops later, he is still chasing the same dream.
That pursuit has brought Christian into the Cardinals’ spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla., as a non-roster player, trying to win a spot as the team’s fourth outfielder. He is competing against Shane Robinson, who held the job for most of last season, and Adron Chambers, who has been up and down between the Cardinals and Triple A Memphis the last two years.
Christian, who will be 33 years old in April, is here for the same reason he joined the Rascals in 2003. He wants to prove to his many doubters that he can play, and succeed, in the game he loves.
“So many people told me that I couldn’t play,” Christian said. “If I had a dollar for everyone who told me I never would be able to make it I would not have to play baseball and would be a millionaire. I love this game and the passion runs deep. So many people told me I wasn’t going to be able to do it, and every day I try to prove them wrong.”
That long list of doubters begins with the scouts who failed to select Christian in the annual baseball draft, even after he had earned All-America honors as a senior infielder at Southeast Missouri State. He had transferred there from Auburn after sitting out a season with a torn labrum.
“I was extremely frustrated and I was very angry,” Christian said. “I was told that if I played at a high level in college I would be rewarded and have a chance to play as a professional. I played hurt. I had a torn labrum and I still played. My numbers were not eye-popping, but I was hurt.”
After he went undrafted, a friend from his college team who was playing for the Rascals called Christian and said the team was looking for players. He got on an airplane and flew from his home in California to St. Louis and was in the starting lineup that night, where he stayed for the rest of the season.
Christian was working as a student assistant coach at Auburn the next summer, preparing to give up on his dream after the team arranged for him to be one of the players on display at its annual scout day. Fifteen scouts were there, and all left without offering Christian a contract.
He called the River City officials back and asked if he could play shortstop if he came back for a second summer in 2004, believing he could impress the scouts more at that position than he could playing second base. They said yes, and in 30 games, Christian hit .450 with five homers, 22 RBI and 26 stolen bases.
“It was some pretty harsh conditions,” said Christian, who lived with a host family and made about $600 a month. “Our clubhouse was a trailer. But the blessing of the whole thing was my teammates and coaching staff, and we had a beautiful field to play on. I enjoyed it. I didn’t have a bat contract. I didn’t have batting gloves. I would be out there with no batting gloves and sometimes I had blisters on my hands. I had one pair of cleats which had to last until I could get enough money to buy another pair.”
A scout for the Yankees finally noticed him, and signed Christian to a contract with the organization. He received a plane ticket to Tampa, Fla., where he joined their Gulf Coast League team. He did not receive a signing bonus.
“I was very fiery and very angry,” Christian said. “I had a lot to prove. To me, it wasn’t just a game anymore. I barely had enough money to do anything. I played the game to make a little money, but the motivating factor was that I thought I had so much to give to the game. I just wanted it to be recognized.”
Christian began to finally receive that recognition as he switched to the outfield and started moved up through the Yankees farm system. In 2008, he got the phone call every kid dreams of, telling him he had been promoted to the major leagues.
The date was June 24, and Christian joined the Yankees in Pittsburgh and was in the starting lineup, playing left field and hitting eighth. Also in the lineup that night were players by the names of Rodriguez, Jeter, Posada and Cano.
Christian went 2-for-4 with a single and double and drove in two runs.
“The nerves didn’t kick in until that night,” Christian said. “I had put my name up there, I had made it. That night in the hotel was kind of nerve racking. I thought, ‘I’ve come a long way and I’m here. Everything I’ve done and all of the sacrifices I have made, I’m finally here.’
“That was a tough situation in itself, because you’ve got to redirect your focus and think ‘How can I stay here?’”
That has been the battle Christian has been fighting for the past five years. Since that night in Pittsburgh, he has played a total of 75 more major-league games, 23 more games with the Yankees in 2008 and 42 with the San Francisco Giants, 18 in 2011 and 34 last year.
When he was not getting that limited chance in the majors, Christian has done all he can at the Triple A level. In more than 1,500 at-bats at that level, Christian has a career .310 batting average. In 72 games at Fresno last year, he hit .343.
Christian signed with the Cardinals as a free agent in November instead of returning to the Giants, or accepting offers from two other teams, because he thought they offered him the best chance of sticking in the major leagues.
“It’s all about your opportunities,” he said. “If you’re not getting the opportunity it’s hard to display your talent. San Francisco gave me an opportunity, but it was quite small. Playing every two weeks, especially at the highest level in the world, is quite difficult. It was frustrating.”
Christian is pleased with the look he is getting in the Cardinals’ camp. He has played in nine games so far this spring, hitting .278 (5-of-18) with two doubles and two RBIs. He is not satisfied with that performance, and hopes his production will improve as the spring schedule continues. Like the rest of the Cardinals, he enjoyed a day off on Tuesday with games resuming against the Marlins on Wednesday.
Christian knows just being in a major-league camp, and having played in the majors at all, representatives a major accomplishment from where his career began a decade ago. He is one of only a handful of players able to say that he rose from the independent leagues to play in the majors.
“Every once in a while when people bring it to my attention I kind of take a step back and look at what I have done,” he said. “I’m happy with where I’ve come. It’s been an arduous road and it hasn’t been easy for me but I am not satisfied getting to where I am now. I would like to be in the big leagues, and help contribute to a winning team.”
Whether that will happen this season with the Cardinals remains to be seen. If it doesn’t, Christian knows it will not be from a lack of effort. He still approaches playing the game the same way he did with the Rascals.
Over the years, Christian has lost touch with most of his former River City teammates, a fact that he regrets.
“I know it’s been 10 years. A lot of time has gone by but it’s gone by fairly quickly,” Christian said. “When I got signed by the Yankees, I really had mixed feelings. I was elated and happy but I also was sad because I had built a rapport with some of those guys who I knew would probably never play at a level higher than where they were then. I knew I was getting the opportunity and was blessed, but it was hard to swallow to be leaving those guys to go do something bigger, and that they probably wouldn’t get that opportunity.”
What Christian didn't know then was that a decade later, he still would be pursuing that same dream.