The Cub We Forgot to Celebrate

Remembering the tragic rise and fall of Starlin Castro


Friday night, May 7th, 2010 — almost seven years ago to the day. The 13–16 Chicago Cubs were in Cincinnati for a three-game series with the 14–14 Reds, just another game for two teams going nowhere fast. It was a cool, breezy night at Great American Ballpark and 20,030 fans settled in for a couple beers and a duel between pitchers Carlos Silva and Homer Bailey.

The Cubs had averaged 88 wins the previous three seasons but would finish fifth in the NL Central that year, and the next year, and the year after that and the two after that one. Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano anchored the lineup, but another young man deep in the lineup would steal the show that evening.

20-year-old Dominican named Starlin Castro debuted that night for the Cubs, hitting in the 8-hole in front of the pitcher. Castro became the youngest shortstop in Cubs history, no small step for a franchise that bleeds for Ernie Banks. Each side stranded a couple runners in the first, and Castro stepped to the plate at the top of the second with runners on the corners.

He watched the first pitch go by, then another. He watched a third, then a fourth as the count drew even. The fifth pitch from Bailey was a hanging curve and Castro finally took the bat off his shoulder, crushing it over the right field fence for a monster opposite-field three-run bomb. He lined out his next time to the plate, then came up in the fifth with the bases loaded and cleared the decks with a triple to deep left-center.

Castro had notched 6 RBIs halfway through his first Major League game, and he’d become the sixth Cub to homer in his first at-bat (joined since by Jorge Soler and Willson Contreras). It remains an MLB record for RBIs in a debut, one of the most electrifying debut performances in baseball history.

It was the Castro game, and a star had been born. Starlin Castro was the face of the franchise and the future of the Chicago Cubs.

Right up until he wasn’t.

Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Starlin Castro signed with the Cubs at age 17 and tore his way through the minor leagues, batting .300 or above at every level on his way to the majors. He hit .423 in the Cactus League in the spring of 2010 but was sent back down for the start of the season. Still, he continued to cruise with a .376 month at Tennessee Double-A and left the Cubs no real choice but to call up their number one prospect.

Castro became the first Major League player born in the ‘90s that Friday evening in Cincinnati. He would hit .310 that May and finished his rookie season at an even .300, a deserving runner-up in a hotly contested Rookie of the Year race featuring San Francisco’s Buster Posey and future Cub Jason Heyward. It was a refreshing change of pace for Cubs fans who had grown tired of names like Felix Pie, Corey Patterson, and Gary Scott being nothing short of bitter disappointments at the top level.

Castro played his first full season in 2011 and led the National League in hits, batting .307. He made the All-Star team as a 21-year-old and even got an MVP vote that season as the lone marquee playeron a 71–91 team.

Castro made the All-Star team again in 2012 with teammate Bryan LaHair, playing in every one of the Cubs’ 101 losses, then again in 2014 where he was joined by teammates Jeff Samardzija and Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs were still bad, but they were getting better. Rizzo was a star-in-the-making, and it looked like he and Castro would anchor the Cubs lineup for a decade to come.

That November, Chicago stunned the baseball world when they fired well-liked manager Rick Renteria after his first and only season at the helm and turned the franchise over to quirky manager Joe Maddon.

It was the beginning of something truly special for Chicago Cubs fans — and the beginning of the end for Starlin Castro.

Everything changed for Castro in 2015.

It started with an innocuous foul ball in Castro’s first at-bat in an April game in Pittsburgh. The ball went straight back off the bat and struck a woman in the back of the head. The woman was stretchered off after a 23-minute delay and suffered a concussion and migraines. It was just a foul swing, hardly Castro’s fault, but it seemed to stick with both him and the fans.

Later that season Castro found his way into Joe Maddon’s doghouse when he didn’t run a ground ball out to first, and then the fielding errors started to pile up. He had 144 errors in 865 Cubs starts, almost one every six games, finishing first or second in the National League in errors all but one season as a Cub. Castro’s uneasy defense led Maddon to move his bat to second base in favor of rookie Addison Russell’s hot glove, then Castro was benched for the first time in his career in August.

Starlin Castro strikes out a lot, doesn’t walk, doesn’t field well, is often caught stealing, and doesn’t hustle. In hindsight, it’s a wonder he ever got any playing time on this Joe Maddon team. He was never going to fit with this version of the Cubbies.

Castro and the Cubs made the playoffs that fall for the first time in Starlin’s career. He had only six hits and a walk in 35 plate appearances, a putrid .200 on-base percentage. He grounded out in the eighth inning of a disappointing four-game NLCS sweep against the Mets in what would turn out to be his final contribution as a Cub.

In December 2015, Starlin Castro was traded to the Yankees for veteran pitcher Adam Warren. Warren only ever made one start for Chicago and was mostly disappointing out of the bullpen. He would end up as a throw-in half a year later in the Aroldis Chapman deal.

Castro’s five-year run with the Chicago Cubs was over. The face of the franchise had become its appendix, a useless spare part removed in the name of avoiding pain and moving forward.

In a farewell “thank you letter” to Cubs fans at The Player Tribune, Castro zinged fans one final time, celebrating his move to the Yankees:

I am at the stage of my career where I just want to win. Period. So, to be traded to a team with a winning tradition like the Yankees — it’s perfect. I couldn’t be happier to be playing in New York.

Those winning-tradition Yankees finished fourth in the AL East and watched at home on their couches as former Yankees Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller duked it out on the biggest stage in November.

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series — the Chicago Cubs won the World Series!!! — and celebrated everyone from Bryzzo to Banks to Bartman to Billy. Longest-tenured Cub Anthony Rizzo caught the final out and stormed the mound in celebration after a 17-minute rain delay from the heavens and a Game Seven for the ages.

Tens of thousands of Cubs fans poured out onto the streets of Wrigleyville, spraying champagne into the night sky and singing “Go Cubs Go,” partying deep into the Chicago night.

Not a single one of them thought of Starlin Castro.

#FakeNews

Castro had seven RBIs in his first two games as a Yankee, an all-time franchise record for a team where that really means something. He recorded the one thousandth hit of his career and hit a walk-off homer all by the end of June, finishing the season with a career-high 21 home runs. Only two active players have more Major League hits in their career through age 26, and those players are Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.

Yet Yankees spring training opened this season with beat writers wondering what the team would do about their “Starlin Castro problem.” It wouldn’t be the first time Castro started out brilliantly before disappointing once things settle in. Castro hits .321 in the month of April for his career — but just .258 in May, June, and July.

Just one season into Castro’s tenure as a Yankee, the New York Daily News wrote about the “Starlin Seduction” and Castro’s “mysterious 100-game slumps” each summer. Cubs fans are more than familiar with Castro starting out the season hot and getting everyone’s hopes up before disappearing for yet another long Chicago summer.

Still just 27, Starlin Castro seems destined to forever be the guy that never quite lived up to expectations. He can’t seem to find a home that wants him, now just the guy keeping second base warm for the Yankees until their more exciting prospects can come up.

Always the trade bait and never the target.

Starlin Castro leads the AL with 38 hits in 2017. He’s got five home runs and 16 RBIs and is hitting .362, another strong April to start the season. He’s batting clean-up for the surprising 17–9 Yankees as they come to Wrigley Field this weekend to face the defending World Champions.

Castro won’t get a ring, but the Cubs will celebrate his time in Chicago with a video tribute and, no doubt, a throwback to Starlin’s catchy walk-up tune “Ando en la Versace.” Fans will clap along with Castro’s music, and he will be celebrated, at least for a moment.

Like so many others before him, Starlin Castro was supposed to be the guy that brought the Cubs up out of the muck and delivered a World Series title after a century of frustration. And he came much closer than so many before him, even helping the team win their first postseason series ever at Wrigley Field in his final weeks with the team.

In some alternate timeline, perhaps it is Starlin Castro fielding that weak Michael Martinez grounder and throwing the final out to Anthony Rizzo as the two longest-tenured Cubs embrace and celebrate a World Series win.

Instead Castro will forever remain a tragic figure, the last great Cubs regular that fans won’t remember forever when they list off their World Series heroes. For a franchise that waited 108 years, Castro only made it to Year 107. He is the last “not the guy” in Cubs history. He should have been drinking for free in Chicago the rest of his life; instead a whole litany of new Cubs fans have probably never even heard of the guy.

Starlin Castro is a Chicago Cubs tragedy, the last of his kind, a vestige to Cubsdom past. He is the Cub we forgot to celebrate.

His return to Wrigley this weekend is a reason to celebrate a player with an outstanding career, to welcome home a guy that gave nearly a decade to this great organization. It is a chance for fans to remember Starlin Castro at last.

Maybe Aroldis Chapman will even show him his ring.


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