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Healthier body produces Castilla's heathy outlook

Back from a "miserable'' experience last year, the Rays third baseman says he has regained his confidence.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The physical pain of last season was bad enough. There was the strained oblique muscle that all but wiped out spring training, the pulsing lower back pain that brought him to his knees and sent him to the disabled list two more times, the right wrist that was bruised by a pitch.

But what may have hurt Vinny Castilla the most in the worst season of his professional career was the damage to his confidence.

With five successive solid seasons in Colorado, Castilla built a reputation as one of the game's most durable and productive third basemen. Within one month of joining the Rays, it was all starting to slip away. The skeptics grew louder all season, and by the end of the long year, Castilla was beginning to wonder too.

"I started losing my confidence a little bit last year, going on the DL so many times and then trying to do too much when I was on the field," Castilla said Thursday, joining the rest of the Rays for the start of full-squad workouts. "Mentally, it was bad. I wanted to play, but I wasn't ready."

Worse, he never could get in synch. When he wasn't hurt, he was struggling. When he started to get comfortable, he got hurt again. "I don't think he was ever right," manager Larry Rothschild said.

When the season ended, all Castilla wanted to do was forget. After averaging 38 homers and 112 RBI with a .302 average the previous five seasons, he hit six home runs, drove in 42 and finished with a .221 average. "When I got home, I was so glad the season was over. It was so painful for me," Castilla said. "It was a miserable year. I was miserable all year long."

But after a few weeks, he was ready to start over. He spent the first two months working with a personal trainer to get his body strong, then the next two playing in his native Mexico, rebuilding his tattered confidence.

Statistically, his results were impressive, a .360 average and a key role in leading the Hermosillo club into the Caribbean World Series. Just as important were the mental gains. Word is that Castilla was back to his old self.

That's the way it looked to Rays assistant general manager Bart Braun, who went to see him play. "Much better," Braun said. "I'm not saying he's going to hit 40 home runs, but he showed a lot more quickness with his bat and a lot more quickness in the field."

Rusty Meacham, a non-roster pitcher in camp who also played for the Orange Growers, was also impressed. "He played a great third base for us down there and he really swung the bat well," Meacham said. "He's back. He's definitely back."

First impressions may not mean much, but Castilla showed up Thursday in good spirits and better shape. He lost 6 pounds -- "6 pounds of fat," he said -- and adheres to a stretching and exercise regimen designed to keep his back strong.

"I think he's freer, looser, more ready to play baseball," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Just his actions on the field, not so much the results but just the way he carried himself, his overall athleticism and movements tell me he's a healthier player than we saw at this time last year."

Ultimately, Castilla's performance in the next seven months will be what matters, and the timing is somewhat critical. He will be 34 in July and he is in the final season of a four-year, $24-million contact, making $7-million this season.

"I don't think Vinny Castilla is ready to give up this major-league life," LaMar said. "He's had an awfully good career but I think he wants to continue to play, and how he performs this year is going to dictate that. It also, and more importantly to us, helps us win baseball games. So it's a very important year for him individually, and with a good year he helps us get where we want to go."

Castilla, with conviction, says he is confident there are more good times ahead. His feels strong, his back healthy. His family life is good, as he and wife Samantha have a 3-month-old son (Dalton Samuel) to go with nearly 5-year-old Marco Vinicio. The adjustments of switching teams and leagues and stadiums and cities are all behind him.

One day at the end of last season, Castilla stood in the Tropicana Field clubhouse and predicted he'd bounce back to win the comeback player of the year award this season.

At the time, it sounded like wishful September thinking. Now it has become his goal, if not his mission.

"That's why I worked so hard," he said, "to come back and to do it."

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