Vinny Castilla

The rarefied air in Colorado makes it difficult to gauge power hitters who play there. But after arriving in Denver in 1993, the Mexican-born Castilla made himself into one of the most powerful National League third basemen of the 1990s.

As a skinny shortstop from Oaxaca, Mexico, Castilla had a hard time landing a contract with a major-league team. “Scouts were always looking for pitchers,” he remembered later. “They wanted the arms. They wanted another [Fernando] Valenzuela. So if you were a position player, you could really get lost.” His contract was eventually purchased from Saltillo of the Mexican League by the Braves in 1990.

In the Atlanta organization, Castilla competed for attention with top prospect Chipper Jones, who had not yet made the move to third base. And since the Braves already had Rafael Belliard and Jeff Blauser ensconced at the major-league level Castilla was left unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft, over the objections of manager Bobby Cox.

Still, Castilla never displayed any significant power until the Rockies moved into Coors Field in 1995. “No one in the organization predicted he’d ever hit more than 15 home runs,” said Chuck LaMar, the Braves assistant GM at the time. Used exclusively as a shortstop in his first season with the club, he hit just nine home runs in 337 at-bats. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, he hit .331 — his highest average at any level — but tallied just 3 round-trippers and 18 RBIs in 130 at-bats. Hard work in his native Mexico during the players’ strike paid off when Castilla shifted to third for the 1995 season, replacing the departed Charlie Hayes. No longer a dead-pull hitter, Castilla quickly brushed off a proposed platoon with Jason Bates and by the All-Star break his gaudy numbers earned him a starting spot in the All-Star Game when Matt Williams went down with a foot injury.

He feasted on fastballs. Castilla’s 32 homers that season were the most ever by a Mexican ballplayer, eclipsing Aurelio Rodriguez’s 19 round-trippers for the 1970 Senators, and he continued his tear in the NLDS, batting .467 with three homers and six RBI in a losing effort against the Braves. Castilla had even a better year in 1996 after a slow start, slamming his 40th homer on the last day of the season to join Ellis Burks and Andres Galarraga as just the second trio of 40-homer teammates in baseball history. (Davey Johnson, Hank Aaron, and Darrell Evans were the first to accomplish the feat with the 1973 Braves.)

Castilla’s stat line in 1997 bore an eerie similarity to his totals of 1996. Both seasons he posted identical numbers in the Triple Crown categories — 40 homers, and 113 RBIs, and a .304 batting average. In 1998 he was even more productive, socking 46 round-trippers and driving in 144 runs. But since he played his home games in homer-happy Coors Field, Castilla never really won respect as one of the elite sluggers in the game.

The Rockies began the 1999 season with an Opening Day series in Monterrey, Mexico, where Castilla was heartily cheered during each at-bat. Vinny responded with four hits. But the season was less inspiring. Distracted by family problems in the spring, trade rumors during the summer, and a sore back all season, Castilla’s average dropped below .300 for the first time since 1993. But he once again topped 30 homers and 100 RBIs — among third baseman, only Eddie Mathews and Mike Schmidt had socked 30 homers in as many consecutive seasons.

Despite his consistent power and status as the last player remaining from the Rockies’ original roster, Castilla was shipped to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in mid-December as part of a four-team trade that brought pitcher Rolando Arrojo and third baseman, Jeff Cirillo, to Colorado. In Tampa, his new teammates included veteran sluggers Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco, and Fred McGriff — quartet fans quickly dubbed “The Bay Bombers.”

However, this quartet quickly soured. Canseco, Vaughn and McGriff both played way under expectations and Canseco was gone before the end of the season. Castilla, known as a durable player in his days in Colorado, was suddenly plagued by a rash of injuries and was on the disabled list three times, and batted only .221 with only six homers.

Toward the end of the 2000 season, Castilla boldly proclaimed that he would be the Comeback Player of Year in 2001. Unfortunately, he could barely bat more than his 205-pound body weight, and swatted only two homers in his first 24 games. By early May the Devil Rays had released him. Picked up five days later by the Houston Astros, Castilla rediscovered his form in hitter-friendly Enron Field, batting .282 with 12 homers in June and July.