No, Thank You, Starlin

It was a chilly Friday afternoon in Chicago on May 7, 2010. I was sitting in my last-period Sports Marketing class during my final semester of high school, and since graduation was now less than a month away, I was pretty much checked out.

I was already committed to attending Illinois State University in the fall for broadcast journalism, and my final semester grades were probably going to be the best they ever were over four years at Lockport Township High School. Motivation was completely thrown out the window, so during this particular class at the end of the week, I did what any rabid, young Chicago sports fan would do. I read blogs.

My beloved Cubs were putrid; 13-16 may not look bad, but we just got swept by the (then) lowly Pirates, miserably losing the final game 11-1. Fact is, the squad Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella built and carried to back-to-back NL Central championships in 2007 and 2008 was falling apart, and the lack of reinforcements on the farm left the Cubs trudging along only to hope things would turn around.

At least the Blackhawks were doing well. They were in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Vancouver Canucks, en route to what would be their first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years. Chicago fans had something.

The Cubs did have one promising young star in the system. Their 20-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro put together an impressive 2009 between Daytona and Tennessee which got people around baseball talking. He began 2010 tearing the cover off the ball in Kodak, slashing .376/.421/.569 with 62 total bases in 26 games.

It was on that Friday morning that GM Hendry decided his broken down Cubs roster needed a shot of youth. That’s when Castro got his call-up.

Many — including yours truly — were already disenchanted with Hendry for building an unsustainable team that was almost impossible to improve upon due to long, expensive, no-trade clause laden contracts to players like Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee, who weren’t getting any younger. It didn’t help that I felt the one good thing we had going for us on the farm was having his development rushed.

We saved our frustration for Hendry, and embraced the young shortstop with open arms. He would bat eighth in Cincinnati that evening, moving Ryan Theriot to his natural position from his days at LSU, second base.

With Homer Bailey on the mound for the Reds in the top of the second, Castro stepped up with one out and Alfonso Soriano on first. He didn’t look like a ballplayer; he looked like a kid. His helmet was bigger than his head, which at the time boasted a puffy, curly mane atop the wide-eyed face reminiscent of someone I could have sworn I played Super Smash Bros. against at some point in high school.

That kid worked a 2-2 count against Bailey before launching a two-run homer into right-center field to give the Cubs an early lead.

Bailey was removed in the top of the fifth in favor of Micah Owings, after surrendering five runs against the anemic Cubs offense. With two outs and the bases loaded, Castro dug in for his third at bat of the night.

On a 3-2 count, he lined a ball into center field that easily sent Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez across home plate, and somehow Geovany Soto managed to chug himself home all the way from first. Starlin watched the play in the outfield as he sprinted around second, before taking a headfirst slide, clearing the bases.

I sat in the restaurant in utter amazement over what I’d just seen. In a game the Cubs won 14-7 when all was said and done, Starlin Castro went 2-5 with a home run, triple and six RBI. The kid was now officially a big league ballplayer.

“It seemed too good to be true,” Castro said in his Players’ Tribune piece.

His 2010 season consisted of 463 at-bats, in which he slashed .300/.347/.408 with only three home runs but 41 driven in. This earned him fifth place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. His power numbers were a concern, but he was a 20-year-old middle infielder. It would likely come in time.

The Cubs had something special on their hands. Castro continued to produce in 2011, adding power to his repertoire with 10 home runs and 36 doubles. His speed was also a game changer; he collected nine triples and stole 22 bases (despite being caught nine times). All of this, along with his .307/.341/.432 slash earned him a few MVP votes. The future of the Cubs was looking bleak, but Castro was a bright spot. And he became a fan favorite.

“When you’re new, you want to be approved of, and you want to belong,” he said. “Those first big cheers I got at Wrigley are something that I will never forget. They helped me feel like I was doing something right — and they helped me feel like I was home.”

Everything in the Cubs organization changed in October 2011 when chairman Tom Ricketts brought Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in to run the show. Epstein gave refreshing words to Cubs fans of “building from the ground up,” something the North Side fanbase hadn’t been familiar with for a very long time. Castro might have been the only Cub at the time to feel secure in his job.

While Theo and Jed dismantled the team and acquired replacement-level players in an effort to replenish the farm, Starlin plugged along. The Cubs went 127-207 between 2012 and 2013, and he didn’t miss a single game at shortstop. He was the perfect symbol of the Cubs rebuild at the major league level: youth and patience. And despite a miserable 2013 campaign, it was difficult for Cubs fans to remember that he was still only 23, and few sports ebb and flow like baseball.

“Even when we were losing in Chicago during those first few years, it felt like we were working toward a larger goal,” he said. “There were always coaches and veterans creating a sense that we were all in this together — and that the wins would come.”

Come 2014, the vision for the franchise was beginning to come alive, and Starlin still had a place in it. He bounced back from his poor 2013 with an impressive .292/.339/.438 and 14 home runs in 134 games. He was responding well to the Cubs youth movement — even with power phenom Javier Baez, also a shortstop, waiting in the wings — and he silenced many of his skeptics from the year before.

That was, until an injury ended his season early. Fortunately, the Cubs weren’t playing for anything so he could focus on recovery. But it was sad to see such a fine season cut short the way it was.

Castro came back in 2015, now with middle infielders Javy Baez and Addison Russell looming over him, but he remained new manager Joe Maddon’s starting shortstop. Maddon continued to pencil him in at short even after Addison Russell was called up in mid-April.

As the Cubs surged into the summer as a contender, Castro struggled mightily. By August 6, he was slashing a meager .236/.271/.304 in 411 at-bats, with just five home runs and a number of defensive mental lapses to his credit.

He spent the summer largely as an albatross in the lineup, and with the club now thinking about October, he was moved to the bench, Russell to short, and Chris Coghlan (of all people) took over at second to free left field for Kyle Schwarber. Still, Maddon saw something in Castro and never lost patience or faith, even though a lot of Cubs fans did.

Maddon began plugging Castro in at second late in games, and sometimes to start there. Soon enough, Castro’s bat came alive and he was once again in the everyday lineup as the Cubs, for the first time in his career, surged toward a playoff spot.

The peak of Starlin Castro’s Cubs career, it can be argued, came on September 18, 2015. It was a rainy and dark Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, and the dastardly division-leading Cardinals rolled into town. Castro started at second that day.

On an afternoon where fastballs were thrown at marquee players on both sides several times, Castro decided to let his bat do the talking. Tied 3-3 in the bottom of the fifth, he smoked a two-run blast to left-center field off Seth Maness to put the Cubs ahead 5-3. On his follow-through, he took a step back to admire it, drawing the ire of the Cardinal faithful.

He wasn’t done there. Just one inning later, with two on and two out, Castro hit another bomb to left field, this time of the three-run variety, to give the Cubs an insurmountable 8-3 lead.

Castro went 3-3 with two home runs and six RBI that day, tying his career-high RBI total which he set on the very first day of his career five years before. It was an afternoon of redemption for a player who no more than two months prior Cubs fans were begging to be sent to the San Diego Padres in a package deal for starter Tyson Ross.

I was one of those fans.

Following a very difficult summer — after five very difficult seasons as a member of the Chicago Cubs — Starlin Castro joined the party. That day was a microcosmic glimpse of an explosive month of September when he slashed .369/.400/.655. Because of it, he was able to participate in and enjoy the first Cubs playoff appearance since 2008, and of his career. 

“Out of all of my accomplishments as a Cub, that is the one I hope people talk about when they look back on my career: That in a situation where some players would have checked out, I kept my head up and work even harder,” Castro said. “I didn’t just say, ‘I want to help the team win.’ I actually helped the team win.”

Now that Castro has been traded to the New York Yankees, one can also look at that dreary Friday afternoon against the Cardinals as him coming full circle as a Chicago Cub. A happy ending.

In 2010, he was called up as a wide-eyed 20-year-old to provide a spark to an aging Cubs lineup under a former regime, which he did in his first game. He toiled away between 2011 and 2014 as the Cubs lost hundreds upon hundreds of games, playing in every game and waiting patiently for everything to come around. When the team finally did, he struggled. But when it mattered, he was just as significant as everyone else.

Cubs fans went through an awful lot between the years 2010 and 2015. So did Starlin Castro. There were very few ups and a lot of downs, but at the end of it all, Castro, like the Cubs, came out on top. Starlin Castro was the embodiment of Theo Epstein’s plan: patience, and hope. We Cubs fans adore Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta. But Starlin was the one we could all relate to the best, because he was there through all of it. Just like we were.

From that Friday morning of his call-up, I graduated from high school, undergraduate school and graduate school. The Cubs are such an enormous part of my life that even in colossal failure, what they do will always resonate with the most critical memories of my life. And for the last six years, he was part of all of them.

Today, Starlin released his thank you letter to Cubs fans and Chicago through the Players’ Tribune. It’s a good read, and concludes with his excitement in joining the Yankees organization and getting to move on to the next phase of his career. He shows nothing but gratitude towards the Cubs and their fans. I’m excited for him, and will continue to root for him.

Thank you, Starlin. For the patience, the devotion to the team and the city, the big hits and big games, and above all else, the memories. Good luck in the Bronx.

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