Cubs

Even after so many ups and downs, Starlin Castro says: ‘I’ll always be thankful for the Cubs’

Even after so many ups and downs, Starlin Castro says: ‘I’ll always be thankful for the Cubs’

The much-anticipated reception for Starlin Castro at Wrigley Field didn’t quite match the buzz when the video board showed David Ross on “Dancing with the Stars” during a rain delay.

It might have been the 37-degree wind chill at first pitch or a more laid-back vibe from the Friday matinee crowd or Castro being one year off from getting one of those World Series rings made from 14-karat white gold.

Even if it didn’t build toward a full-throated standing ovation at 1:25 p.m., the clapping started when the sound system blasted Castro’s walk-up music, “Ando En La Versace,” a cool hat tip for a player wearing the New York Yankees’ road gray uniforms and hitting cleanup in between Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.

As Castro stepped into the batter’s box, he patted catcher Willson Contreras on the back, pointed toward the home dugout, smiled, nodded and touched the brim of his helmet. The “WELCOME BACK STARLIN CASTRO” tribute ran on the video board after the first inning.

Even if it stung a little bit seeing the Cubs end the 108-year drought without him, Castro is in a good place now, playing for another iconic franchise and again looking like a potential batting champion.

“I feel happy for the city,” Castro said, back in the Wrigleyville fishbowl, surrounded by about 30 reporters and at least four TV cameras before the Yankees pulled off a dramatic 3-2 comeback victory over the defending champs. “I feel happy for my ex-teammates.”

Castro, who woke up second in the American League with a .362 average, always showed that elite hand-eye coordination, an eager-to-please personality whenever the Cubs had another management shake-up and a strong desire to be in the lineup every day, something he learned from Alfonso Soriano.

Even during a 2-for-4 afternoon, Castro also reminded you of those concentration lapses that filled up so much airtime, bandwidth and newspaper space while the Cubs finished in fifth place each season between 2010 and 2014.

This didn’t rise to the level of a Bobby Valentine rant on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” in 2011 – when the shortstop turned his back to home plate – but Castro again found himself in the middle of the action with one out and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

A step or two slow tagging up from third on the line drive Chase Headley hit at Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward, Castro ran out of the baseline and onto the infield grass and knocked over Contreras in that rally-killing double play. Around the Cubs, it really wasn’t personal with Castro, just questions sometimes about the focus level and his instincts.

“I’m a big Starlin fan,” said Joe Maddon, one of five managers Castro played for during his six seasons on the North Side. “When we took him out of the shortstop role and put him at second without any real specifics, he didn’t cry.

“He didn’t blame anybody. He just went out and started working at it, became a pretty good second baseman, and then one of our best offensive players in 2015 in the postseason by far. He had an outstanding September and October and you could see he was on the verge of really understanding the whole thing.

“He was asked to do too much of a leadership kind of a thing when he wasn’t ready for it – not at all. Just because he hit for a good average, just because he made an All-Star team, all of a sudden people want to start attaching labels to that. That’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong on every level. He just needed more time.”

[RELATED: What Starlin Castro's return to Wrigley Field means for Cubs and Yankees]

The Cubs clearly saw Ben Zobrist as a finishing piece to the team that stormed into the 2015 National League Championship Series and got swept by the New York Mets. The Cubs flipped Castro to the Yankees – the only team willing to absorb his remaining money ($38 million guaranteed through 2019) and give up a useful pitching piece (Adam Warren) – at the winter meetings and signed a future World Series MVP to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“I really like Starlin,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He came up in the big leagues really early on teams that weren’t good and I thought the way he reacted in 2015 when we started winning was perfect. He played great down the stretch.

“For us, the fit was right with Zobrist, and the move made sense, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for (Starlin). He played on a lot of teams that were really bad and he played really hard the whole time.”

The baby-faced kid once put on the billboard opposite Derek Jeter, marketed as part of “The Three C’s” (along with Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner) and splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated looked almost exactly the same when he walked into the visiting dugout before the game wearing a navy blue Yankee sweatshirt and gray Air Jordans.

“There’s always going to be memories here,” Castro said, “because that’s the team that gave me the first opportunity to be a professional baseball player, and be in the big leagues for the first time. I’ll always be thankful for the Cubs.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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