Big-Game Fish

Luis Castillo is all alone again. Almost two weeks after his impressive run of registering at least one hit in thirty-five consecutive games came to an end, and less than a week before his first All-Star Game appearance, he sits quietly in front of his locker at Pro Player Stadium and reflects. "I had a great time," says the Marlins second baseman. "I felt the difference in the media attention. It was hot. "

Indeed, admits Castillo, as he extended his streak night after night, inching his way slowly but resolutely toward one of the game's most revered marks -- Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak -- the pressure mounted. "The newspapers called me all the time," recounts the 26-year-old. "The press started taking me out of my routine. Everybody wanted to talk about [the streak], but I wanted to keep being the same guy. I couldn't sleep. I wanted it to be tomorrow so I could get to the stadium, to see what would happen."

If Castillo eventually felt carried away by the import of what he was attempting -- only two players in the past fifty years have come closer to DiMaggio's record -- he appears to have been among the very few in South Florida who did. During the streak, attendance at Pro Player Stadium was typically paltry, often with fewer than 10,000 spectators showing up to see what most baseball fans in the nation regarded as one of the great stories from the season's first half.

Any way you add it up, the Summer of '41 it wasn't. That was when DiMaggio, a New York Yankee, was catapulted into the national consciousness for hitting safely in more consecutive games than anyone before him. DiMaggio's streak began quietly, with a first-inning single in a 13-1 Yankee loss to the Chicago White Sox on May 15. It was DiMaggio's only hit of the day. Two months and two days later, on July 17, it ended dramatically, with DiMaggio smashing two hard line drives down the third-base line in a game in Cleveland against the Indians. Both drives, one in DiMaggio's first at-bat of the game, the other in the seventh inning, seemed destined for left field. Both were speared by Indians third baseman Ken Keltner, who each time retired the Yankee great with long, accurate throws to first base. They beat him by a step. DiMaggio finished the game hitless in three official at-bats. The streak was over.

But not its significance. Between May 15 and July 17, "Joltin' Joe" DiMaggio had become more than just the best-known ballplayer in America. He had become a symbol of consistency, the one sure thing in an ever-changing, ever more frightening world. During the summer of 1941, World War II was already raging across Europe. Americans, if they did not know when and how -- if they could not have predicted Pearl Harbor -- nevertheless knew they would be dragged into the conflict sooner rather than later. DiMaggio's streak became a respite from the headlines of the day, a magnet for the collective anxiety of millions: "Did Joe get his hit today?" the national mantra.

Ironically Castillo's streak, so far the highlight of the first post-9/11 baseball summer, also unfolded against a backdrop of national and international unease, and nearly mirrored the schedule of DiMaggio's famous feat. Joltin' Joe hit in his 34th consecutive game on June 21. Castillo hit in his 35th consecutive game on the same date. But there the similarities end. The media might have followed Castillo's streak, but local fans literally stayed away from it. "I'd come home to play [during the streak]," says Castillo, choosing his words diplomatically. "It was different from the other stadiums we'd been in." Empty.

How empty? Remarkably, the Marlins' smallest-ever weekend home crowd -- 5865 -- assembled (or didn't) on the Friday night Castillo extended his streak to 35. The player, though, is grateful for the fans who did turn out. "I'd see people carrying banners with my name and that made me feel good."

The lack of local attention to the streak is surely the product of more than just South Florida's renowned apathy (though it is that, too). Baseball, once the national game, is no longer at the center of the culture, or even of the sporting universe. Castillo's streak competed with both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League finals, as well as with the overheated buildup to the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis world heavyweight championship fight -- all more exciting in our event-driven society than the day-in, day-out grind of the Major League Baseball season.

Then there's the issue of Castillo himself as protagonist. In this era of Juice Ball, where hypermuscled sluggers routinely hit 60 or more home runs every year, Castillo's prowess for slapping base hits all over the field, bunting his way on, and stealing bases goes largely ignored by less astute fans. Singles -- Castillo's specialty -- just aren't sexy. Sure, fans and media may occasionally glom onto a Punch-and-Judy jaguar like Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners' right-fielder, but usually only when his team, as Seattle has done the past two years, is winning an inordinate number of games. Then the player is called a "spark plug," a "table setter," or, even better, the league's Most Valuable Player, as Ichiro was voted last year. On a team like the Marlins, struggling to just stay in the pennant race, a similar kind of player is easily overlooked.

Castillo, though, understands that too. "A lot depends on the city you're in," he says philosophically, before adding, "But I feel good here." Certainly South Florida, with its sunny weather and large Hispanic population, appeals to the Dominican-born Castillo. But so do fan appreciation and long-term security, something he is unlikely to receive from the Marlins. "Someday I need to have at least a two- or three-year contract," says Castillo, currently working under a one-year, $3.3 million deal that expires at the end of this season. "Otherwise, you're always under pressure." He says it matter-of-factly, with no hint of resentment. Then, just to make sure the listener understands: "I'm working hard, trying to help the team."

The problem is one of economics. The Marlins, as Casey Stengel once might have quipped, don't have any. Or, at least, appear unwilling to extend themselves financially in order to sign some of their key players into the future. The team, after all, traded away its relief pitcher and one of its best young pitchers before the season even started in what many saw strictly as a salary dump. Rumors abound that any number of established and still-developing players may soon be dealt for the same reason. At press time, the Marlins were eagerly pursuing a trade that would send slugging outfielder Cliff Floyd and starting pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Montreal Expos. Other moves are anticipated.

And Castillo? Even at his career-high salary this season, the first-time All-Star is, in baseball dollars, a steal. Which is why he'll probably want a lot more next year. And why we'll probably have to watch his future exploits from afar.

Those may just include another hitting streak. Castillo, after all, has already had two streaks of better than twenty games in his career (he shared the old club record of hitting in twenty-two consecutive games with ex-Marlin Edgar Renteria) and arguably has not yet reached his full potential. The emerging star smiles and looks up at the triptych of Virgins he keeps on the top shelf of his locker when the possibility is raised of another run at history. "It'll be hard," he says, "but you never know."

Whether or not he ever comes close to hitting in 56 in a row, Castillo might just catch up with DiMaggio anyway. Two of the past three seasons, Castillo has hit for better than a .300 average and has stolen at least 50 bases. He will almost certainly reach those numbers again this year. Slick-fielding second basemen who make a habit of accumulating stats like that don't just go to the All-Star Game. They go to the Hall of Fame.

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Gaspar González

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