Vinny, Vidi, Vici He doesn't get the ink of a McGwire or a Griffey, but in only four seasons Vinny Castilla of Colorado has gone from utilityman to the Man

May 10, 1998

At first they called him Cousin Vinny, which was soon shortened
to Cuz. Vinny Castilla liked that nickname so much that he
decided to share it with everyone around him. His teammates
called him Cuz, and he called them Cuz, which was a lot easier
than keeping track of everybody's name. Hey, Cuz. What's up,
Cuz? Nice game, Cuz. Castilla now treats most people as if he
were their cousin Vinny--trainers, coaches, even reporters. "I'm
a happy man, Cuz," the 30-year-old Castilla says. "I've got a
great job, a great family, great teammates. What's there to
complain about?"

Well, there is this one small thing. It's called many
things--credit, pub, props, your due--and you don't get enough
of it, Cuz. Except among Rockies fans and rotisserie geeks, you
probably don't have the name recognition of Ken Griffey's pool
boy, even though since becoming Colorado's starting third
baseman in 1995, you've hit 125 home runs, including 40 in each
of the last two seasons. Only two other players in the National
League, Barry Bonds and Andres Galarraga, hit at least 40 in the
last two seasons. As for this year, well, through Sunday you
were leading the majors in dingers, with 13.

A few people have noticed. Your teammate Ellis Burks calls you
"the best all-around third baseman in the game." Another
teammate, reigning National League MVP Larry Walker, says you're
"probably the most underrated guy in baseball." Your manager,
Don Baylor, says he wouldn't trade you for the San Diego Padres'
Ken Caminiti or the Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones, and your
hitting coach, Clint Hurdle, considers you the best fastball
hitter in the game. "Every time I say something like that,
people look at me funny," Hurdle says. "It's like, 'Vinny
Castilla? Are you serious?' He's the best player nobody knows."

So what's the deal, Cuz? How come no one outside Colorado knows
you? "Maybe it's because I'm not on TV that much," says
Castilla. "Maybe it's because I'm not American. And maybe it's
because I play at Mile High. It doesn't matter. I know there are
no third basemen with better numbers than mine. I don't need the
recognition."

Castilla can still walk through shopping malls or hotel lobbies
without being swarmed by autograph pests. He was enjoying a
peaceful shopping spree in Manhattan last week when his buddy
Burks tried to convince him that he was a genuine superstar. "I
said, 'Look at your numbers, Cuz,'" says Burks. "By April he had
11 home runs and 33 RBIs. I told him he should have been player
of the month," a distinction that went to the St. Louis
Cardinals' Mark McGwire.

Castilla told Burks, "I don't care about any of that. I just
want to rake, Cuz." Castilla, born and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico,
speaks English well and slang English even better. To rake means
to hit and hit with power. At the moment no one in the big
leagues is raking better than Cousin Vinny.

No one saw him coming. In this age of international
techno-scouting and exhaustive talent evaluation, Castilla
almost slipped through the cracks. Hurdle was managing the New
York Mets' Triple A team in Tidewater six years ago when he was
asked to evaluate opposing players. One of the prospects he
critiqued was a skinny, wild-swinging shortstop in the Braves'
system named Vinny Castilla. Hurdle recalls that he wrote in his
report, "Nothing special...might make it as a utility player."
Hurdle now laughs about that appraisal, but he doesn't back away
from it. "Tell you what," he says. "There were a few guys who
thought a lot less of him than I did."

"I always had confidence in myself, but no one ever believed in
me," Castilla says. "No one gave me a chance. When they told me
I was nothing but a utility player, I said, 'Fine, I'll be the
best utility player in the league.'" Castilla had played two
years in the Mexican League when the Braves purchased his
contract in March 1990. "The Dodgers, Pirates and Reds all
talked to me," he says, "but no one wanted me that much." He
says the Braves got him for just $20,000: $3,000 paid to him and
$17,000 to the owner of his Mexican team.

His first season in the States was with Atlanta's Class A
affiliate in Sumter, S.C., and it was nearly his last season on
U.S. soil. He hated everything about Sumter. He couldn't find
any decent Mexican food, and he couldn't speak enough English to
order at McDonald's. In Mexico he'd been getting $2,000 a month
and a free car; in Sumter he got $800 a month and extremely
depressed. "It was a bad situation," says Castilla. "I didn't
know why I was there, but my father wrote me a long letter
saying that everything I wanted was in America. He told me that
if I wanted to reach my dream, to play in the big leagues, I had
to stay."

Sumter may have been the last place Castilla was spotted without
a smile on his face. He has a good glove and a powerful bat, but
his greatest strength, according to Hurdle, is "that
face--always smiling, always happy to be at the ballpark."
Castilla shot from Sumter up to Atlanta in less than two
seasons, earning a September call-up in 1991. After a season in
Richmond and another September stint with the Braves, in '92, he
caught the biggest break of his young career: The Braves left
him unprotected in the '93 expansion draft, choosing instead to
hold on to Deion Sanders and Jeff Blauser, among other players.
The Rockies drafted Castilla in the second round, hoping they
had at least satisfied their need for a serviceable utility
infielder. Anything else Castilla gave them would be gravy.

In his first season in Colorado, Castilla platooned at shortstop
with Freddie Benavides and had nine homers and 30 RBIs in 105
games. In his second season he played all four infield positions
and hit just three home runs in 52 games. It was as if Will
Hunting were still mopping floors. "Then he shows up in spring
training in 1995 and starts ripping balls over the wall," says
Walker. "It was like, Who the hell is that guy?"

That guy was Colorado's new third baseman. The Rockies chose to
not re-sign Charlie Hayes and told Castilla the job was his,
dropping him into their Macho Row lineup, with Walker, Burks,
Dante Bichette and Galarraga. Castilla says it was the first
time someone had shown faith in him. The chance to play every
day, in the thin air of Coors Field, surrounded by all those
strong hitters, further boosted his confidence. A minor
adjustment in his batting strategy also paid off. "Art Howe was
our hitting coach in '95, and he really taught me a lot," says
Castilla. "Before, I tried to pull everything; I'd hit either a
home run to left or a weak ground ball to short. Art taught me
to go the other way, and I learned how to hit for power to the
opposite field."

In the strike-shortened 1995 season Castilla hit .309 with 32
home runs and 90 RBIs, establishing himself as a deadly fastball
hitter. Hurdle isn't exaggerating when he says Castilla is the
best fastball hitter he's ever seen. "He could pull a bullet,"
Hurdle says.

Triple digits. According to Castilla, that's what it takes to
get him out with a fastball: a 100-mph pitch. In Houston in
April 1997, against rocket-armed reliever Billy Wagner, Castilla
hit a home run that lives on in Rockies lore. The sign in the
Astrodome that displays the speed of each pitch read 97, but
you've got to throw harder than that, Cuz. "Vinny says, 'It
better be 100 if you want to sneak the cheese by the rat,'" says
Walker. To be safe, better make it 101.

Every ballplayer strives for consistency, but Castilla has taken
this quest to the outer limits. In 1996 he hit .304 with 40 home
runs and 113 RBIs. In '97 he did it again. Exactly. In his
three-year run as a full-time third baseman, Castilla has put up
better numbers than All-Stars Caminiti, Jones and Matt Williams
(chart, above), and the Rockies are drowning in gravy. It is
hard to argue with those who call Castilla the best-hitting
third baseman in the game, and even harder to understand how he
got there.

Here's what the 6'1", 200-pound Castilla has not done to get
there: lift weights, ingest creatine, hire a personal trainer,
go on some radical nutritional kick. His Zone diet calls for him
to feast on fastballs in the strike zone. He has the body of an
old-time baseball player, which is a nice way of saying he won't
be doing any underwear ads. "Hey, what works for Mark McGwire
does not work for everyone," says Hurdle. "Vinny's built, but
he's not all bulked up. He's built for baseball. Like George
Brett. And he knows how to put the barrel of the bat on the ball
and how to get it out of the park. He's got the perfect lift on
the ball. It's like he's using a golf club with a 13-degree loft."

Mets pitcher Armando Reynoso played with Castilla in Mexico and
in the Braves' system before they were both taken by Colorado in
the expansion draft. They remain close friends, but even Reynoso
can't deny that Castilla's emergence as a superstar has left him
stunned. "The first time I played with Vinny in Mexico, he was a
skinny guy, maybe 160 pounds," says Reynoso. "But he got bigger
and stronger. He could always hit the fastball. Now he can hit
anything." Reynoso says Castilla has become the baseball hero in
Mexico. "It used to be Fernando [Valenzuela]. Now it's Vinny."

Last off-season Castilla signed a four-year, $24 million
contract with the Rockies. He took less than his market value
(and much less than Matt Williams's five-year, $45 million deal
with the Arizona Diamondbacks) so he could stay where he's happy
and where his big league dream came true. His wife, Samantha, is
from Colorado, and their baby boy, Vinicio Jr., was born two
years ago.

Castilla was never supposed to make much money anyway. He was,
after all, just a utility infielder...nothing special. No one
saw it coming, Cuz. No one knew you could rake.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS IF NOT NOW, VIN? Castilla, who was rarely fooled in April, started May with homers number 12 and 13 against the Mets. [Vinny Castilla in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS BABY TALK Castilla, with wife Samantha, proves he can also do major damage with a charge card. [Samantha Castilla and Vinny Castilla] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS [Vinny Castilla and teammates in dugout]

THE RAKE'S PROGRESS

Castilla has hit for power and average--what he calls
raking--better than any third baseman in baseball over the last
three seasons (through Sunday).

HR RBIs BA

Vinny Castilla (Rockies) 125 351 .306
Ken Caminiti (Padres) 99 335 .302
Chipper Jones (Braves) 84 331 .295
Matt Williams (Diamondbacks) 83 271 .292

Colorado's hitting coach says Castilla, a great fastball hitter,
"could pull a bullet."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)