HERMOSILLO, Mexico—Mexican baseball legend Vinny Castilla retired from the big leagues in 2006 after 16 major league seasons and has since been working in the Colorado Rockies front office.
But Castilla has figured out a way to keep one foot on the field as well. The former all-star third baseman is managing the Hermosillo Naranjeros of the Mexican Pacific League. It’s not Castilla’s first managing job, as he led the Mexican national team in the 2007 Pan American Games held in Brazil. He’s slated to manage the Mexican team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
“I like it . . . I like it a lot,” said Castilla. “I love the game. It’s my life . . . it’s my passion. I want to be involved somehow with the game. I like managing. It’s tough . . . it’s not easy, but I enjoy it.”
He also appears to be pretty good at managing. Hermosillo finished at 19-16 in second place in the first half of the season. They are fourth in the eight team league, at 10-11, in the second half. Castilla’s approach as a manager is what you expect: hard nosed and aggressive.
“That’s what I tell my players,” he said, “to play the game hard . . . play together . . . leave everything on the field so you don’t have regrets at the end of the game.”
But Castilla’s not only getting to stay involved in the game, he’s also still picking up a bat. His major league playing days are in the past, but he’s still seeing time on the field during winter ball. He rejoined Hermosillo’s active roster on December 13th in a home game against the Yaquis of Obregon. Castilla, 41, singled sharply on the first pitch thrown to him that night and hit his first home run and a double in his next game.
While most of the Hermosillo team is composed of veteran players, a pair of rookie infielders—German Duran (Rangers) and Walter Ibarra (Yankees)—are gaining valuable experience playing for Castilla in their first tastes of winter league ball.
“I’m learning a lot from him,” Duran said about Castilla. “I’m learning just from taking ground balls with him. He tells me how to go on balls, how to go back, drop stop, and stuff like that. Just getting the chance to talk with him, to talk about baseball and learn . . . it’s amazing.”
Duran made his major league debut with Texas in 2008, appearing in 60 games for the Rangers and batting .231/.275/.350. His breakout season occurred in 2007 at Class AA Frisco when he batted .300/.352/.525.
Duran came to Hermosillo with the plan to get additional at bats and to face the diversity in pitching found in Mexico.
“I figured out my swing this year,” said the 24-year-old Duran, who was born in Mexico but raised in Fort Worth, Texas. “I got sidetracked when I got called up and didn’t play much. (But) it was an amazing year because I got called to the big leagues and played for my hometown team.”
Duran is Castilla’s kind of ballplayer.
“He’s a great athlete and he plays hard,” said Castilla. “He knows the game and he knows how to play it. That’s all you can ask of a player—to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Ibarra, who reached the Class AA level in the New York Yankees organization this year at the age of 20, has also shown the characteristics that Castilla looks for in a ballplayer.
“He’s a great worker,” said Castilla. “He’s got great work habits.”
While the offensive part of Ibarra’s game is still a work in process, there’s no questioning his defensive aptitude at third base, shortstop and second base. His Hermosillo teammates are quick to point out Ibarra’s great hands on the field.
Castilla sees Ibarra’s future as a utility infielder. His biggest needs for improvement are to work on his “little game,” primarily bunting, executing the hit and run play, and moving the runners over.
The youthful Ibarra is still a little starry-eyed being around Castilla.
“It’s an honor playing for him because he’s a guy I grew up watching,” said Ibarra, with Duran interpreting. “Every time I come out and work, he tells me, ‘Try this’ or ‘Try that.’ He’s always giving me tips on how to do things. Learning from him has been a great experience.
With the lessons he’s already instilling in players like Duran and Ibarra, Castilla has a good future if he chooses to continue managing. Basically, they just need to be like Vinny.
“That’s the most important thing—to respect the game and play the way it’s supposed to be played,” said Castilla.