Anytime a player gets his first call to the big leagues, it’s special. But in Justin Christian’s case, it’s a little more special than usual, especially if you love rooting for the underdog.
Christian, 28, was in the starting lineup last night for the Yankees, batting eighth and playing left field as a fill-in for the injured Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. He went 2-for-4 in his major league debut, with two RBIs, a double and an error.
Those four at-bats are the culmination of a long, long road to the big leagues. Christian spent time at Skyline (Calif.) Junior College, Auburn and Southeast Missouri, but no team liked him enough to draft him. With no other options, Christian went to the independent Frontier League, where he starred for a season and a half with River City. Hitting .450 for the first half of the season did finally get him noticed, and also shows how the road to the big leagues can require a little luck.
John Coppolella, the assistant director of professional scouting with the Yankees at the time, was trying to help fill some roster holes for the short-season Staten Island Yankees. Over instant messenger, he asked if there was anyone we at Baseball America had come across in our indy ball coverage who deserved a shot at affiliated ball. It just happened that same week I had started reporting an article on Christian. His manager, Randy Martz, talked about his excellent speed, his great bat control and his defensive versatility. Rarely do you ever see an indy leaguer with plus-plus speed and an impressive bat, but Christian happened to be that one-in-a-thousand guy. So I mentioned him to Copollela, who then went and further researched Christian’s statistics.
Coppolella, who now works as the Braves director of baseball administration, went to his higher-ups and laid out Christian’s stats and his tools. A year before, Coppolella had wanted to sign George Sherrill, another indy leaguer, but before the Yankees could get a scout in to Winnipeg to see him, Mariners indy league scout Charley Kerfeld swooped in and signed him.
Worried about seeing history repeat itself, Coppolella was able to convince his bosses to move quickly, despite the fact that no one from the organization had seen Christian play. Considering the cost of acquiring Christian was just $500, and the Yankees’ need for another bat in Staten Island, it wasn’t a very big risk.
Before our story on Christian had ever made it to print, Christian was a Yankee. Like any indy leaguer given a shot in affiliated ball, he was going to have to prove himself every step of the way, which he did. He hit .274/.336/.438 with 14 steals that year for Staten Island, then stole another 55 bags next season as he hit .303 between low Class A Charleston and high Class A Tampa. After stealing 68 bases in 2006 with Double-A Trenton, Christian had established himself as one of the minors best basestealers (235 steals in 279 attempts for his career). An injury cost him the final two months of the 2007 season, but this year, injuries in the majors helped give him his first taste of the big league life.
"When I make it to the big leagues, all of that will make it more special," Christian said earlier this year while playing for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. On Tuesday night he said that making it to the majors was a dream come true. Pretty much every first-time major leaguer could say that, but in Christian’s case, the dream took a little more work to achieve.
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