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Christian appreciates every baseball opportunity

Christian appreciates every baseball opportunity

Christian appreciates every baseball opportunity
MAYAGUEZ, Puerto Rico -- Justin Christian knows better.

He also knows worse.

Last week, when the journeyman outfielder signed a Minor League deal with the Giants, he didn't tell anyone other than family and his clubhouse in Mexico. He didn't want to jinx the deal. He's been in this situation before.

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But asked by a reporter if an Internet report of the signing was true, Christian bit his lip and nodded. Then he burst with excitement.

For all of the top prospects and big names that have passed through the Caribbean Series over the years, there have been dozens more players like Christian.

Christian is a grinder. He's the undrafted baseball lifer with an independent streak and an international flair for the game. Guys like Christian say that they would play the sport for free, but everyone knows they have already paid the price.

Many times over.

"I've had a lot of my friends throughout the years that got drafted and had an organization believe in them from the very beginning, but there's a totally different side to it, and that's where I come from," said Christian, who went 0-for-4 in Mexico's 7-6 loss to Puerto Rico on Sunday. "I had a different mind-set than a lot of guys do. I always play as if I was going to be released every single day, and I put everything I have into it because every day could be my last day to play."

There have been players like Christian on the field all week here at Estadio Isidoro Garcia. Some have landed jobs because of their play in the Winter Leagues. Others, such as former Major League hurler Luis Ayala, who is pitching for Mexico, are still searching for a gig.

Joe Newby, who is pitching for Puerto Rico, spent last season in the Atlantic Independent League and is fighting his way back. He last pitched for Seattle's Triple-A club in Tacoma in 2009.

Players such as Venezuela's Manny Ayala and Juan Pablo, who also spent last year in Independent Leagues, litter the rosters this time of year because they want another shot with a big league club.

They dream of futures such as that of the Dominican Republic's Ricardo Nanita, who signed a Minor League deal with the Blue Jays last year after spending the two previous years playing in Mexico.

Former Major League infielder Alex Cintron wishes he was as fortunate as Nanita. Cintron, who last played in the big leagues with the Nationals in 2009, spent the week in Mayaguez watching the series from the stands in street clothes. He played in Puerto Rico during the winter and said that if he does not land a job in the U.S., he is headed for Mexico.

"Playing winter ball without a job in the U.S. is very difficult if you think about it, so I didn't think about it," said Christian, who also had offers to play in Mexico. "I set short-term and long-term goals of what I wanted to accomplish. The entire time I believed I was going to have the opportunity to sign with a team, I just didn't know with which team."

Christian split the 2010 season between the Yankees' Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre teams, hitting a combined .289 with nine home runs, 55 RBIs and 22 steals. He was granted free agency in November and signed with the Mexican Pacific League. He shined, hitting .356 in 64 games. He was caught stealing only once in 25 attempts.

"I would like to think that playing winter ball and playing in the Caribbean Series has helped with the opportunities in the U.S.," he said. "For the most part, a lot of teams and a lot of scouts really do look at those numbers guys put up in winter ball. Especially for a guy like me that was an undrafted free agent, being able to show that you can play and put up numbers is definitely a big thing."

Christian has already come a long way. Signed out of an independent league in 2004, he overcame injuries and clawed his way through the ranks of the Minors and the independent leagues. He eventually made it to the Majors, hitting .250 with seven steals and no homers in 24 games with the Yankees in his 2008 debut stint but has not made it back -- yet.

"The reason I believe I was able to get to the big leagues is because I had to grind and work hard in independent ball," he said. "There are a lot of guys that go to independent ball and never make it out of there.

"You are not getting a lot of looks from scouts, but for me, it made me appreciate my opportunity with the Yankees that much more because I know the road I had taken was a difficult one. There's a totally different side to this game. I've only experienced the tough side of it."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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