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.”
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.”