By: Noah Frank
When Justin Christian signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants last offseason, he didn’t expect an assignment back to the Double-A Eastern League, with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. That’s exactly where the 31-year-old found himself on Opening Day, though, surrounded by teammates and opponents in their mid-20s, a place he was in when he first came up through the New York Yankees farm system five years prior.
Christian was an up-and-coming 26-year-old when he opened the 2006 season on the roster of the Trenton Thunder, the Eastern League team affiliated with the Yankees. He made it to the majors in June of 2008, but lasted just 24 games before being sent back to Triple-A. The Yankees non-tendered him in 2009, and he spent a shortened season in the Orioles chain after recovering from shoulder surgery. He began 2010 in Indy ball before the Yankees signed him once again, but he was relegated to a season split between Double-A and Triple-A again. Needing a change of scenery, Christian signed as a free agent with the Giants, his hometown team that he grew up rooting for in San Mateo. And yet, here he was to begin 2011, back on the east coast, two big steps removed from getting back to the promised land.
“Having to start in Double-A was tough for me,” Christian admitted. “I looked it as an opportunity to help the young guys over there and to get at-bats in and to perform and be ready to be up here.”
To keep himself focused, Christian decided on a walk-up song that would remind him of his ultimate goal, a return to the Major Leagues. That song was the “San Francisco Anthem” by San Quinn, a hip-hop track that samples Scott McKenzie’s seminal ‘60s hit “San Francisco”. Those at the Diamond in Richmond, as well as those who attended a game at Chukchansi Park following Christian’s promotion Fresno, may well remember it echoing from the sound system as he stepped to the plate.
“You always want to have those constant, daily reminders of where you want to be,” he explained. “I think if you see it every day, you hear it everyday and you believe it, that you will get there.”
Nevertheless, the dream still seemed distant, even after the move to Triple-A. Christian had hit a modest .256/.328/.359 with four home runs, 18 stolen bases and 46 runs scored in 73 games for the Flying Squirrels, and had only really gotten the opportunity to play in Fresno after Darren Ford and Tyler Graham collided going after a ball in right-center field at Kino Stadium in Tucson. The former had tweaked his wrist on the play, leading to the decision to move Christian up.
So much of baseball, though, as players and longtime fans of the game will tell you, is what you do when opportunity comes your way. Christian took full advantage of his opportunity, homering twice and swiping five steals through his first four games as a Grizzly. He would go on to finish his 64-game Triple-A stint at .338/.428/.574 with 10 homers and 36 steals in just 39 attempts. When the Giants decided to part ways with Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, summoning Brett Pill from Fresno, there was one more spot open on the 40-man roster. As much as a player can’t let himself be concerned with such administrative details as he goes about trying to succeed on the field each day, there is no avoiding it.
“Personally, I’m never too much aware of that part of the game because I’m too focused on playing well every single day,” said Christian. “But, you know, I have an agent, and a girlfriend that knows more about that kind of stuff than I do.”
As it turned out, Christian did not need to avoid the chatter from either agent or girlfriend. He would end up filling that final 40-man spot on September 6th, seven months to the day after signing with San Francisco.
“There were a couple of other guys who were deserving as well and they chose me,” he said in an early September interview in the home clubhouse at AT&T Park. “That means a lot to me. I always believed, deep down, that I could get back here.”
Not only did Christian get the call-up he has been waiting for, ever since recovering from that shoulder surgery, he found himself consistently in the starting lineup, batting leadoff. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve always expected to play, that’s just my mindset,” he said. “When the Yankees called me up back in June of ’08, even though I flew all day that day, I expected to play, and sure enough I was in the lineup. I always to expect to play, so that I’m not surprised. It’s too hard to do it the other way.”
With his speed and decent pop in his bat, as well as a propensity for highlight-reel catches like this, and this, Christian will be an intriguing piece of the puzzle as the Giants decide the future of their outfield.