I remember where I was when Starlin Castro made his big-league debut. I’m guessing you do, too. In amongst the jumble of hazy memories and half-begun hopes that are all that remain of the dark years between 2008 and 2011, just a few moments stand out. Castro’s debut, on the road against Cincinnati, is one of them.
First and third. Tie game. Second inning. The kid from the Dominican is at the plate; the kid who the Cubs had signed for $45,000 and a dream four years before; the kid who, by his very presence in the batter’s box, was becoming the first big-league player born in the ’90s, and the youngest player in the league.
The kid who homered in his first at-bat.
The kid who, three innings later, nearly homered again, tripling to drive in three more Cubs and bringing his RBI total to a major-league rookie record of six. It’s the triple that I remember, five years later, as Castro becomes a Yankee. The home run had been amazing enough, but the triple—it couldn’t be believed. Baseball isn’t meant to be that easy. Kids swinging baseball bats in their back yards are the ones who hit homers in their first at-bats and triples in their second; big-leaguers don’t do that.
Except Starlin Castro did.
So that’s my first memory of Castro. And the next few years didn’t do much to dim that shining first impression. Castro slashed .300/.347/.408 in that first year with the Cubs, pairing five home runs (fewer than expected) with a .266 TAv and a 2.1 WARP. The next year was even better: .307/.341/.432, double-digit home runs, a .273 TAv and 4.4 WARP. At age 21, Castro was an All-Star, and looked primed for a long and productive career in Cubbie blue.
But change comes in all seasons, and 2012 brought with it a new administration—led by Theo Epstein—and a new field general in Dale Sveum. The new leadership team liked what they saw in their young shortstop (Epstein called him a “building block”) but felt his free-swinging ways would be much improved with a little selective aggression, some walks, and a bit more power. Eager to please, Castro found that power (in the form of 14 home runs), but lost his ability to get on base, posting an anemic .323 OBP in his third big-league season. Still, the increase in power made up for the lack of plate discipline, and Castro’s 3.9 WARP in 2012 took him into his fourth campaign a somewhat different player than he’d been when he arrived, but still a star.
And then 2013 came. Alongside the Cubs’ other young slugger, Anthony Rizzo, Castro went into a tailspin, hitting .245/.284/.347, playing poorly on defense (-5.4 FRAA), and scraping replacement level performance for the first time ever. All this, by the way, at the tender age of 23: that’s the age Kris Bryant is right now. There’s a reason you care about Starlin Castro’s story: in his first quarter-century, he’s already lived a life more compelling than most.
In any event, things got so bad for Castro in 2013 that Sveum suggested that he might need to spend a little bit of time at Triple-A to work things out. That turned out to be a bad choice on the skipper’s part—he was fired after the season ended, in part for those comments—but the fact is that Castro was a bad baseball player that year. Four years of losing (the Cubs were 273-375 to that point in his career) and the impatient eyes of an impatient city had taken their toll.
That’s the valley from which Castro’s ascendant 2015 sprang. His 2014 was fine—an All-Star campaign, even—but 2015 started poorly for Castro. By the trade deadline, it seemed the fans and the city had for the most part given up on their young star. Joe Maddon hadn’t. He benched Castro—and made it clear that that’s what it was—but also told him that he believed in him and wasn’t giving up. That made all the difference in the world, and Castro had a second half at second base that propelled him into the position he is now: respected, still-talented, and a New York Yankee.
You might have noticed that I haven’t spent any time to this point talking about Castro’s “makeup problems.” That’s because I believe—have always believed—that they’re a big bunch of Bobby Valentine-shaped baloney. Castro is a 99th-percentile talent, even in a group with extraordinary amounts of talent, but he isn’t a superman. He couldn’t carry bad Cubs teams on his own—no player could—and took it out on himself. Plenty of folks around the game were perfectly willing to go along, calling him lazy, unfocused, and (in fewer words) stupid.
That’s not the Starlin Castro I saw on the field, and it’s not the Castro I saw in the clubhouse this season.
Sure, Castro could make the occassional play that would leave you scratching your head. I’m not trying to suggest he was blameless: there were genuine mistakes made, and headlines about Castro’s latest apology filled Chicago newspapers. He’d sometimes try so hard to hit the outside pitch that he’d tip forward, into the box, as the ball sailed past him and into the catcher’s mitt. You’d scream at the TV in frustration. But the guy showed up to work every day in what was often a terrible environment (he played for five skippers, for crying out loud!) and did what he could to help his team win every day. He was respected—even loved—by his teammates, and made honest efforts to better himself and do what he felt the team needed him to do.
And, for five years, he was the face of the franchise.
That era ended this week, and I can’t help but be a little sad. The team is better today than it was last week—yes, even when taking Castro’s second-half surge in 2015 into account—but the fact is that I loved Starlin Castro and I’m sorry to see him go.
The last five years have been difficult for Cubs fans, but we at least had the privilege of turning off the TV during the lean years and going on to other parts of our lives. Castro never had that chance. He had to spend every second of every play on the field, giving it his best. We’ve walked a hard road as fans, sure, but Castro’s road has been much harder. And he walked it with us every step of the way. In 2015, we came so close to the promised land together. Now, we know Castro won’t be on the next Cubs championship team, and it’s ok to be disappointed that we couldn’t make it happen together.
But it will happen, in part because he played here. And when it does, I’ll think of Ronnie. Of Ernie. Of Billy and Maddux and Fergie and all the other great Cubs. But I’ll also think of Starlin Castro.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.