03.18.11

Luis Castillo Limps Into The Sunset

Posted in Baseball, Racism Corner, Sports Journalism at 1:00 pm by

The Mets, more than perhaps any other team, have bigger problems than finding the right eight-hole hitter. But because the Wilpon family’s adventures in alleged malfeasance don’t involve any actual baseball (and are depressing), Mets fans have had little choice but to turn the uninspiring four-man race for the team’s second base spot into a biggish deal. And it sort of is, in the sense that the Mets will be using a second baseman of some sort in at least 150 games next year. (There’s a good chance that they use a second baseman in every game, but I want to be conservative about this) But it’s also a race between some (s)crappy-ish minor league free agent types — red-haired Twitter fanatic Justin Turner, the overtly Luis Hernandez-ian Luis Hernandez, off-brand Uggla impersonator Brad Emaus — and a couple of familiar faces. One belongs to Daniel Murphy, who is a pretty good hitter and not at all a second baseman. The inexplicably loathed one belongs to Luis Castillo (above), who has (rather embarrassingly) outplayed his competition this spring, albeit in a Castillo-ian way — playing the only competent defense in the bunch and hitting a respectable-ish .286 while slugging a less-respectable .286. We can only hope that Ol’ Slappy will get some comfort from his solid spring showing as he goes about finding or not finding a new gig. The Mets released Castillo on Friday morning.

In a certain sense, this closes the book on a bummer-y chapter in recent Mets history. Castillo played hard and played hurt for the Mets, but he was overpaid and much-diminished even in the first year of the too-long, too-rich $24 million deal to which he was signed by Omar Minaya. By last year, he was a limping, shuffling shade of his former self, and fans got on him for it. Castillo was booed on Opening Day. That sort of thing. In the New York Daily News, Andy Martino wonders if the fact Castillo is named Luis Castillo, as opposed to Lou Castle or something, might have had something to do with Castillo’s loathing issues.

Yes, he dropped a popup in 2009 that cost the Mets a game against the Yankees, and missed a voluntary visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2010. Those events aside, Castillo’s mentoring of Reyes, willingness to play hurt and his cerebral approach at the plate have long earned him praise from teammates. The public’s perception is often different. Castillo is jeered at Citi Field and at the Mets’ spring home, Digital Domain Park, and abused on the Internet. In a sampling of recent Twitter posts, he is described as “lazy” and “hated.”

It is difficult not to explore Castillo’s plight through the prism of race, because that subject has defined much of the discussion around the recent Mets. Under former general manager Omar Minaya, the team constructed a heavily Hispanic roster, and created the website LosMets.com.

The comments section below Martino’s piece is exactly the Staten Island-inflected crypto-dittohead shitshow you’d expect, but for me the bigger problem with Martino’s piece is a lack of depth, both in terms of examining Castillo’s specific case and addressing the broader dynamics and shape of the ways in which Slappy was unfairly criticized. Which, considering daily newspaper deadlines and stylistic limitations and so on, is probably not all that surprising. But, in the same way that I kind of had to give it up for Dan Le Batard’s sloppyish-but-bold dictator parallels in his recent column about David Stern, I’m inclined to tip my hat to Martino for even trying. At Amazin Avenue, the reliably good Matthew Callan offers a qualified attaboy/correction of his own.

Martino gets points for reminding us of the resentment some Mets fans felt when Omar Minaya was still the GM. While Minaya certainly deserved criticism for many of his moves, the tenor of that criticism occasionally manifested itself in borderline racist comments. WFAN programs seriously debated if Minaya “favored” Latin players when assembling the roster. In Martino’s own paper, Bill Madden accused the team of being “only interested in signing low-budget Latin players.”

Unfortunately, Martino undermines a valid point by using a weak example. You don’t have to look very far to find a Met whose reception is colored by race issues, and Castillo was fairly low on this list. Carlos Beltran has been maligned time and time again for being selfish and not playing hard enough, a charge made against Latin superstars since the days of Roberto Clemente. Jose Reyes is maligned for displaying the “wrong” kind of enthusiasm, even though other players who are just as demonstrative but not as “foreign” are praised for their “fire.”

I’m a little baffled by the deep and personal nature of some fans’ hatred for him, but I honestly don’t believe race is a large factor in that hatred. Beltran and Reyes are disliked mostly for how they are perceived, which at times has racial overtones. Castillo was disliked for how he performed.

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