Rockies Opened Door; Castilla Didn't Hesitate Walking In

For Vinny Castilla the Colorado Rockies were a salvation.

Back in the fall of 1992, when he was selected by the Rockies from the Braves in the expansion draft, Castilla, who had come from Mexico to play the United States to play in the Braves organization in 1990, was limited in his English but he understand his situation in Atlanta.

He had spent the bulk of the 1990, 1991 and 1992 seasons in the minor leagues. He was 25, the same age as Jeff Blauser, who had just become the Braves’ starting shortstop, and right behind him was Chipper Jones, then 21, who had been the No. 1 selection in baseball’s June draft the same year Castilla made his debut in the Braves organization.

“I looked at it as a great opportunity, being with a new organization,” said Castilla, now a special assistant in the Rockies organization. “It was a fresh start for me. With Atlanta, Chipper Jones was the big-time prospect, and he was a shortstop then, too. I didn’t know what would have happened if I stayed in Atlanta. So it was the best thing for me, to become a member of the Rockies.

“Bobby (Cox, Braves manager at the time) liked me a lot, but they had Chipper, he was the No. 1 prospect in baseball, and they had Blauser. Going to the Rockies meant I was going to get more playing time, more opportunities.”

What it did was open the door for Castilla, who eventually became a third baseman, to have an impact 16-year big-league career in which he became the all-time leader among Mexican-born players in the big leagues with 320 home runs – 90 more than runnerup Jorge Orta – and 1,105 RBI – 360 more than Orta.

Orta, like Castilla, played in 16 big-league seasons, a year shy of the record for a Mexican-born player, which is shared by Aurelio Rodriguez and Juan Castro. His .276 average was fourth among Americans, eight points shy of Mel Almada, the best of any Mexican player.

The bulk of those stats came during his nine years with the Rockies.

Joining the Rockies was a new experience for Castilla. There was Armando Reynoso, like Castilla a Mexican-born player who was signed originally by the Braves, and a lot of strange faces.

“I was nervous because I didn’t now my new teammates, but I was excited because it was an opportunity for me,” he said.

At the time Castilla was a shortstop, but before camp even opened he said it was clear that Freddie Benavides, who had been a second-round draft choice of the Reds in 1987 out of Texas Christian University, was going to be the starting shortstop. After serving in a utility role those first two seasons with the Rockies, Castilla made the move to third base in 1995, and found himself an NL All-Star not only that season but also in 1996.

Through it all, he always had the guidance from Reynoso, who was two years his elder.

“He was my best friend,” said Castilla. “He was like my older brother. He put me under his wing right away. He told me the right things to do. He told me to show up early and work hard. We would always eat together. We’d go to movies together. It was a good time.”

Aside from Reynoso the key to Castilla’s survival in those early years with the Rockies was his own focus.

“When I came to the United States I meant business every time I put on my uniform. I didn’t know English, but I knew how to talk baseball. Playing baseball was always on my mind.”

And Castilla played baseball well.

Tracy RingolsbyComment