About a month into the baseball season, every year around this time, something triggers the flashback: an opponents’ face or uniform, touching down in a certain city, a familiar ballpark smell. Maybe just the spring weather that day.
This year: nothing.
Starlin Castro is too busy at his home in the Dominican Republic, sheltering with family and trying to stay in baseball shape as he watches and worries about the rising coronavirus death toll in the DR and the much worse numbers in the United States.
“All this stuff happening, all the people getting sick, and a lot of people dying. I didn’t really think about it,” the former Cubs All-Star shortstop said this week by phone. “Thank you for reminding me. That was a special moment for me and for my family.”
That moment, of course, was a record-setting big-league debut for the Cubs, 10 years ago today in Cincinnati — a three-run homer in his first trip to the plate and a three-run triple in the third adding up to a record six RBIs for an MLB debut.
Ten years? “Unbelievable,” said Castro, who only turned 30 on March 24 — two days before what would have been Opening Day in the majors this season. “Time flies.”
Castro, who signed a two-year contract with the World Series-champion Nationals in January, typically marks the anniversary as a special event with his family every year.
Of course, nothing is typical for ballplayers or anyone else this year.
Castro and his family are healthy and taking precautions to stay safe, he said.
And in addition to taking swings at his batting cage and staying in shape, he has joined about 40 other players and former players from the Dominican (including former Cubs teammate Alfonso Soriano) in a COVID-19 relief effort organized by Pedro Martinez. As of early this week, they had raised more than $550,000 to provide food and supplies such as personal protective equipment in a nation of 10.6 million that has more than 8,800 confirmed cases and more than 360 deaths from the virus.
After baseball shut down in March because of the pandemic, Castro chose to go to his home in the Dominican rather than stay in his home in Miami so he would have access to a cage and field for taking grounders, and it allowed him to be closer to extended family.
Like most players, Castro longs for games to start — in his case with added incentive of joining a competitive team again after two seasons with the Marlins. And he said he believes there will be a season, having heard from other players some of the early-July startup scenarios being leaked to media.
He also knows what might be at stake for his career the longer baseball is idled.
Castro has 1,617 career hits in just less than 10 full seasons in the majors — only Robinson Cano and Adam Jones have more since the day Castro debuted.
The four-time All-Star needs about 8 1/2 seasons on the same pace to reach 3,000. Or, if he were to play another 10 seasons, he would need about 138 hits per year to reach what he considers a career goal.
Only 32 players in history have reached 3,000 hits. Every eligible player on the list is in the Hall of Fame except PED cheat Rafael Palmeiro.
“It would be awesome,” Castro said on last year’s anniversary of his debut. “As long as I keep healthy and do my job, then it’s about playing.”
A year later, it is suddenly about everyone’s health.
How many hits would a 30-year-old Castro, batting fourth or fifth in a strong Nats lineup, lose in 2020 if only half a season is played? If the entire season is lost?
He’s well aware that could be the difference — and not just for him.
“For real,” said Castro, who became the youngest player to lead the National League in hits in 2011. “I was just talking about this [with other players]. If we don’t play the season, not me, but some players might end their career with 2,900 hits because of not playing this year.”
Miguel Cabrera, 36, who has been slowed by injuries in recent seasons, has 2,815 hits. Cano, 36, who was limited to 187 games the last two years by injuries, has 2,570. Nick Markakis, 35, has 2,355.
If that’s not enough extra reason to make Castro anxious to get back on the field for games this season, an even bigger one is the chance to win again.
After spending his first five seasons on losing and rebuilding Cubs teams, Castro no sooner had tasted winning with the Cubs in 2015 than he was traded after that season to the Yankees. That was just in time to join a Yankees team that spent 2016 retooling for the future before returning to the playoffs in 2017, where Castro reached the league championship series again — just in time to then get traded to Miami.
He had one thing on his mind as a free agent this time around: “I just said, I’ve been in the big leagues 10 years already. I just want to be on a contender, a team that can compete,” he said.
For a player who had five different Cubs managers his first six years in the big-leagues, going to a team with his trusted former bench coach, Davey Martinez, as a manager made the decision even easier, Castro said.
“It’s an incredible team,” he said. “It’s good for me to be back on a contending team.”
Whatever happens next for Castro, the Cubs and Chicago will always be a part of him, he said.
He got a standing ovation when he returned to Wrigley Field the first time with the Yankees in 2017, got tickled by former teammate Kris Bryant during a bench-clearing incident between the Cubs and Marlins in 2018 and still keeps in touch with Cubs pals now during the shutdown — “I talk to [Anthony] Rizzo, Javy [Baez], all those guys,” he said.
Beyond that, he takes care of his family and stays in shape.
He said he’ll be ready whenever teams are allowed to start playing again and keeps the faith it will be this year.
“I hear a lot of opinions,” he said. “I hope we play."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.