Castilla quickly reaches cruising altitude with Nats

Slugger makes short work of talk of Denver air being necessary for production

Baseball

April 29, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The trio of Mexican ballplayers leaned against a wall in the bowels of Shea Stadium, clowning around in front of a photographer rapidly clicking away.

To the right was Esteban Loaiza, the Washington Nationals' wise-cracking, journeyman starter. To the left was Luis Ayala, the team's talented young reliever.

Fittingly, in the middle was Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla, the symbolic center of Mexican baseball for the past 14 years.

With his jet-black hair, easy laugh and 300-plus big league homers, Castilla, 37, has rock-star status in his home country. He's a fastball-crushing Elvis.

"He is an icon," said Tony Siegle, Washington's assistant general manager. "He is an icon and a god in Mexico, without a question."

For this photo shoot, a Cinco de Mayo promotion for a Spanish-language newspaper, Loaiza forced Castilla to wear a baseball cap. The balding Loaiza presumably didn't want to compete with Castilla's slicked-back mane.

Still, Castilla unwittingly controlled the session. He crossed his arms and, moments later Loaiza and Ayala crossed their arms and struck the same pose.

Castilla laughed and the others followed. Eventually, Loaiza and Ayala turned to face Castilla, two respected big league ballplayers flanking "The King," as the camera flashed.

Life couldn't be more picture perfect for Castilla at the moment.

He's the National League's reigning RBI champ. He has a two-year, $6.2 million contract with the Nationals. And he has gotten off to a fast start with his new team, hitting .338 with three homers, seven doubles and 12 RBIs in 68 at-bats through Wednesday's game.

Turnaround

"I am very happy here," Castilla said. "I think we can win here, too."

Baseball was much different for Castilla four years ago. That's when the majors' worst team released him. That's when he thought his career might be over.

"To be honest, that was like a nightmare for me," Castilla said. After five consecutive seasons of 30-plus homers and 90 or more RBIs for Colorado, the Rockies traded him to Tampa Bay for pitcher Rolando Arrojo and infielder Aaron Ledesma in December 1999.

It was a disastrous deal for both teams. Arrojo and Ledesma barely played for the Rockies. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay paid millions of dollars for Castilla to homer eight times in 424 at-bats.

In leaving the thin air of Colorado, Castilla's power numbers were expected to decline some. But not so dramatically.

"Like everybody else, we were wondering what happened that he would fall off that much," said Siegle, who was with Colorado when Castilla was dealt. "It certainly was an endorsement for why some people thought he was on the other side of the hill."

Castilla was injured most of the 2000 season, hitting the disabled list three separate times. Then he started slowly in 2001 and was benched. He got a second chance with a new manager - Hal McRae replaced Larry Rothschild - failed to get a runner over at a crucial moment and was benched again.

By the time he was released by Tampa Bay in May 2001, Castilla, the fans and management all wanted him gone. He wondered if he had lost his ability.

"Tampa Bay talked so much [stuff] about me that sometimes I started believing it. I said, `Yeah, probably I am done,'" Castilla said. "I didn't have that fully in my mind, but yeah, in the back of my mind, I thought that because they were talking too much and turning the fans against me."

Houston picked him up a few days later, and he homered and doubled twice in his first game with the Astros. At age 33, he was starting over - while trying to repair his good-guy, good-player reputation.

"I went to Houston and had a great time," Castilla said. "All those guys embraced me, and we went to the playoffs that year."

After hitting 25 homers with the Astros, Castilla announced he wanted to play three more seasons. And he did, spending two years in Atlanta with mixed offensive results, followed by last year's huge season with Colorado when he posted his best power numbers (35 homers and 131 RBIs) since 1998.

For the second time in his career, Castilla's success was labeled a byproduct of Coors Field. His average was 100 points lower away from Denver last season.

It's an argument that has always irked Castilla. He still feels the need to defend his numbers - he points out 21 of his 35 homers in 2004 came on the road - but he says the criticism no longer bothers him.

"If people talk, good or bad, I don't really care anymore," he said. "I am a mature player now."

Team had faith

The Nationals weren't overly concerned about the Coors Field effect or Castilla's age, even though the slugger turns 38 on July 4.

"Age is just a number. We have to judge the individual by what he is capable of doing at a certain age," manager Frank Robinson said. "I think you have to look at the individual in what he is capable of doing and what he does."

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