Justin Christian's journey through baseball is remarkable solely for dedication. Look at the numbers, fine. But look at the fight and the hard work and how giving up never seemed to be an option. Some guys don't have that in them. Christian does.
His eight-year career has taken him through the Orioles and Yankees system, as well as the independent leagues.
The winding road from affiliated ball to indy league doesn't always lead back to an affiliated team again. It can be a kind of drop-off, when baseball really is just a job and the promise of more gets less likely. At 31, the outfielder defies all odds.
"He's a coach's dream," said Christian's Richmond Flying Squirrels hitting coach Ken Joyce. "First of all he has an idea of how to hit. Which is always good. The fact is he'll take constructive criticism the right way. He does't get offended. He's always asking questions after every at-bat, he's in the dugout in your ear asking what you see. He's just a guy who really has a feel for hitting. That's what got him to the big leagues and that's what will get him back."
In 2008 Christian played in 28 games with the New York Yankees, hitting .250 with six RBI. He was non-tendered at the end of the season. The Baltimore Orioles picked him up and signing him to a minor league deal in 2009, but the Yankees came calling again and signed him out of the Atlantic League in 2010. He played for the Double-A Trenton Thunder and Triple-A Scranton Yankees for a combined .289 average to end the season. In 87 games for Trenton he collected 102 hits, 51 RBI, and drew 40 walks.
All of the experiences matter. They give confidence to the players around him and to the coaches that put him in the lineup. Christian understands what he means to the people around him.
"I'm not a guy who's all that vocal, but I will talk to the younger guys if I see something. But trying to lead by example you have to go out there and perform at a high level to lead your team. So it's frustrating for me because being a veteran guy, you want to go out there and play well. There's a lot of pressure to play well, especially with a new team. So for me it's just a matter of trying to relax and play the way I normally play and let my skills show for themselves."
He's started off 2011 hitting .250 in thirteen games.
"I normally don't start off too great to begin the season. I work on a lot of things with my mechanics and get the feel, to be able to get a chance later on in the season. I just try and get in position to help in any way I can. At the beginning of the season, yeah, you're not feeling too great. It's just a situation where I'm working on things and trying to get my body healthy."
Spring training was a different experience for the versatile player. He came into it having played 85 games in the Mexixan Pacific League where he hit .365 and was named Mexican League MVP. He believes playing in the winter made an impact.
"This was the first spring training I really felt good and I hit well. Normally in spring training I get in there and I haven't seen live pitching in awhile so that's difficult. This year I got accustomed to live pitching a lot sooner because I'd played in so many games. I didn't have much downtime so that was a little bit easier for me. So what happens is that you start the season feeling you're already game-ready."
But the early struggles are a reminder he has to still get going.
"The hitter I am now isn't the hitter I'm going to be in a month. Everything always changes. So you just try to go out there and have a game plan and work that plan."
Joyce knows that Christian is a player that will figure out whatever he needs to in order to be successful as the season progresses.
"He's learned how to coach himself, which is basically what our job is. Our job is that by the time they leave us they should understand how it feels to do it right, so when they get to the next level, if they're going bad, they can make the adjustment. He's one of those guys that's been able to do that his whole career."
Facing his old team brings nothing but positive feelings. And dedicated minor league fans remember.
"Being back here is always special. It's the first time I've played against the Thunder. The fans have been very welcoming, [and so have] the staff and Tony [Franklin, Thunder manager]. And you always wonder how they're going to pitch you."
The Giants have awarded Christian's tireless efforts with a new opportunity and he's focused on making the most of it.
"The main thing I want to improve on is just getting consistent at-bats. I don't mind not getting a hit, obviously I love getting hits. But putting together quality at-bats to get back to the major leagues is all I'm trying to do."
Christian has a lot of people in his corner. He keeps going, because that's what he's always done.