Ask Luis Castillo when he last felt completely healthy, and his
answer is likely to leave National League pitchers and catchers
feeling anything but. "Nineteen ninety-six," says Castillo, the
Marlins' second baseman, who through Sunday was ranked second in
the major leagues in steals despite having played with a sore
ankle since May 24 and last September having undergone his third
shoulder operation. He also spent three weeks in April and May on
the disabled list with a strained back. "Right now I feel about
85 percent," he says. "When I feel good and I'm on base, it looks
like the next one is right in front of me."
Opponents indeed might be wondering if the usual 90 feet between
bags is reduced when Castillo gets on, which is often. He led
National League leadoff hitters with a .473 on-base percentage,
was fifth in the league with a .361 batting average and had 26
steals in 37 attempts. He's also an anomaly in this powerball
era, a player who rarely hits the ball in the air--76% of the
balls he had put in play this season had been on the
ground--much less out of the park. "I don't want to talk about
home runs," says Castillo, a switch-hitter who had three career
homers after hitting his first of the season (for just his third
RBI) last Saturday. "My game is stealing bases."
Though he's only 24, Castillo has been developing his specialty
for nearly a decade. He was signed by Florida as a 16-year-old in
1992. Four years later he broke into the majors by hitting .262
and stealing 17 bases in 41 games. He was the Marlins' Opening
Day second baseman in '97, but his meteoric rise fizzled that
July when, struggling with a .240 average and only 16 steals in
75 games, he was sent back to the minors.
Castillo spent more than a year at Triple A Charlotte and got a
second chance with Florida only after Craig Counsell went down
with a broken jaw in August 1998. Though Castillo struggled upon
his return to the majors, John Boles, who replaced Jim Leyland as
manager before last season, named him the starting second baseman
the next spring. "I feel more comfortable with Bolesy," says
Castillo, who found it difficult to play under the gruff Leyland.
"He gives me confidence."
"When his confidence is soaring, he's a special player," says
Boles, who was the Marlins' director of player development when
Castillo was signed. "One day he'll look in the mirror and see
how good he is."
Opponents already know. Castillo hit .302 and finished fourth in
the league with 50 steals in 1999 despite missing most of the
season's final month with a dislocated left shoulder. This year
he had reached base in 41 of his 44 games through Sunday and had
six multisteal games, including a four-steal romp against the
Padres. "Luis is the catalyst of our offense," says Boles. "As he
goes, we go."
Castillo has yet to go at full strength. To protect his
chronically injured shoulder, Castillo--who formerly slid
headfirst, even when breaking up double plays--learned the
feet-first style in spring training. The approach backfired in
St. Louis, when Castillo jammed that ankle sliding into second.
Despite nagging pain Castillo had been successful on eight of 11
steal attempts since the injury. "It's not debilitating; it just
needs rest before it completely heals--maybe at the All-Star
break," says Boles, who then quickly reconsiders. "That is, if
he's not in the All-Star Game."
COLOR PHOTO: RICH PILLING/MLB