If you ever wonder why players will spend years playing independent baseball holding out hope of a future big league career, Alberto Castillo is proof that those dreams can come true.
Just a year ago, it would have seemed delusional to even suggest that Castillo might end up in the big leagues. It’s along way from independent ball to the majors, but it’s even further form the Road Warriors, Castillo’s team for much of 2006 and 2007. The Road Warriors were a travel team that spent the entire season on the road, bouncing from hotel to hotel and bus ride after bus ride.
Castillo had never played above high Class A, and he hadn’t played in affiliated baseball since 2001. When the 2007 season began, Castillo, 32, had to pay his own way across the country just to get a tryout for a spot on the Atlantic League’s travel team.
Now he’s thrown 21â"3 scoreless innings in his first four big league appearances with the Orioles.
“Alberto is proof that when there’s no hope, all of a sudden there’s hope,” said Jeff Scott, Castillo’s manager in 2006 and 2007 with the Pennsylvania Road Warriors. “It’s an amazing story. If Alberto can make it, anybody can.”
Castillo’s arduous journey began in 1993, when the native of Havana, Cuba, defected to Canada while playing in the World Junior Championships in Windsor, Ontario. An American woman he had met in a church group helped him escape from the team hotel at 3 a.m. He eventually played junior college baseball in Florida and was drafted in 1994 by the Giants in the third round.
But after several unimpressive seasons in the minors, which included a stint as a first baseman, Castillo was released and turned to independent league ball. He had to come back from Tommy John surgery in 2004, was out of baseball in 2005 before former major leaguer Ellie Rodriguez signed him with the Road Warriors.
“I met him when he first came to Newark in 2003,” said Rodriguez, who claims Castillo can throw with either hand. “He could always throw pretty hard, but he had that surgery and that set him back.”
Castillo had a mediocre 2006 campaign with the Road Warriors as a starter, going 4-3, 5.31 with a 1.72 WHIP in eight starts. Scott used him as a starter “just to see if he could get through the season healthy.”
Scott wasn’t impressed and didn’t include Castillo in his pitching plans for 2007.
“To be honest, I wasn’t going to bring him back,” he said. “I figured we got lucky with him once, I didn’t want to push our luck. He threw from about eight different angles and you could see he wasn’t healthy yet.
“He didn’t have the velocity, but he did make it through the season.”
Castillo topped out in the 86-to-88 mph range with his fastball in the first season back from ligament reconstruction surgery, but that wasn’t good enough, even for a team that played its entire schedule on the road. With no prospects for a job, Castillo pleaded with Scott to give him a final chance and offered to pay his own way from Bakersfield, Calif., to the Atlantic League’s spring training in Florida.
“He told me ‘I’m not the same guy as last year,’ ” recalled Scott, who was the Atlantic League manager of the year in ’07. “He said ‘I’m healthy and I will pay my own expenses to show you.’ If he was willing to do that, I was willing to watch.”
What Scott saw surprised him. Castillo was spotting his fastball between 89 and 92 mph and getting lefthanded hitters out with ease.
“Unless he made a mistake,” Scott said, “lefty batters had no chance. He wasn’t the same guy I had seen the previous year.”
Castillo didn’t add anything to his repertoire—he already had command of his slider—he just was healthy. He was a combined 5-2 with Pennsylvania and Camden, striking out an average of nine batters per nine innings. His 68 innings pitched represented his second highest total since throwing 114 innings in 2003.
“He was throwing harder than before,” Rodriguez said. “He just wasn’t going to quit. Jeff (Scott) had the patience and the savvy to get him through.”
Then, as if Castillo still had something to prove, he pitched in the Mexican League with Los Mochis, where he met Oscar Suarez, a well-respected 18-year veteran agent with a stable of primarily Latin players. Suarez convinced the Orioles to sign Castillo to a Triple A contract. Castillo pitched well for Norfolk—his first stint above high Class A—going 3-1, 2.05 with 26 strikeouts and just six walks in 26 innings. Lefties hit just .093 against him. When Baltimore needed a lefty specialist for its pen, Castillo was the logical choice.
“I would always ask him, ‘Did you get the lefties out?’ ” Suarez said. “He just needed a chance and someone to believe in him.”