Castillo feels like 'new man' this spring
Embattled second baseman ready to prove doubters wrong
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A brief conversation with David Wright over, Luis Castillo turned to head to the trainer's room, a destination that became far too familiar to him last February. Before he took a step, Castillo skipped. Imagine that. Both feet left the floor and then he jogged -- no, pranced -- away as if he were showing off.
If not, at least he was unwittingly demonstrating a fundamental difference between the 2008 model of Luis Castillo and the new one, just off the assembly line. New wheels. The invisible anvil is gone, so, too, the conspicuous limp and the occasional grimace.
"You could see the difference on the field," Jose Reyes said. "We ran at the same time. He was like a little boy."
Even the most grizzled veteran player finds a sense of renewal on his first day of training camp. Castillo wore that sense on his sleeve and on the legs of his baseball pants. And he skipped -- all the way from Mets exile to a place in the team's immediate future.
Here, miles from the talk shows and angry e-mails, Castillo is a player with a future again and not only an unrewarding last year the Mets public hasn't forgiven.
"I'm a new man, right now," Castillo said late Wednesday morning. He is the Mets' second baseman-designate, their leading man, too, if manager Jerry Manuel follows through on his planned overhaul of the top of the Mets' batting order.
Manuel believes in body language. He reads it. He gets his information from it -- though he uses it mostly for opposing players. None of those are in Mets camp. If Manuel had listened to Castillo's body while it was running through the physical tests of the day, he would have heard the resurrection of it. But even without that monitoring, Manuel still noticed a difference.
"He looks light," the manager said. "Not only physically ... mentally and spiritually, too."
It is this manager's job to talk up this player. Manuel already has acknowledged that several times in these first days of camp. He suspects Castillo needs an injection of confidence and a booster shot of appreciation. Castillo, though, sounds as if he has that part of this restoration project licked.
"I know I can do way better [than last year]," Castillo said. "It was a bad year for me. When you have a bad year, you have to be quiet."
But he has broken the relative silence of his circumstances with a hybrid of promise and prediction.
"I feel I can play like I played before last year," Castillo said. "I feel I can have a good year that people will see. This year, I'm prepared."
That, too, is part of the contrast of 2009 and now. Now Castillo acknowledged he was unprepared for the '08 camp. He arrived then as a 210-pound reclamation project not sufficiently removed from surgeries on both knees. His put his weight at 193 pounds Wednesday.
"I feel so different. I feel so different," he said. "The way I feel now, I can steal some bases, take some pitches and play the game like I can play it. I feel great. I feel so happy."
It was Castillo's first day in camp and Reyes', too. And with Manuel's "team comes before the individual" edict echoing throughout the clubhouse, of course both players embraced the singleness of purpose the manager has advocated. Reyes had batted second for an extended period in 2003; he pointed that out and didn't utter a but.
"I'm OK with it. I have to do what they want," Reyes said.
He had heard of the possible change before he left the Dominican and his new daughter.
"I'll try to do what the team needs to be good," Reyes said.
Asked for his preference, Reyes wisely sidestepped a real answer and said, "We'll see what happens."
Filling the leadoff role would be a return to the past for Castillo. He hardly was opposed to it. The new assignment had the feel of opportunity.
"That's why I worked hard," he said, "to have a good year."
Castillo added, "Last year, I tried to play too soon. I didn't take the time I should take."
The veteran second baseman felt pressured to be ready for Opening Day because of the four-year, $28 million contract he signed in the fall of 2007.
"I didn't want people to think of the contract, four years," Castillo said, "and say I wouldn't play because I signed for four years."
But he thought about it to his own detriment.
"It wasn't a good reason to start [the season] when I did," Castillo said. "It was a bad year for me."
No one disputed that point.
"He was so hurt," Reyes said. "It isn't easy to perform. I passed through that [in 2003 and '04] when I was hurt. You feel bad, not because you have an injury, because you can't play. You feel like you aren't a member of the team. Everybody knew he was hurt. No one said anything bad."
The Mets investigated trading Castillo and found zero interest. The remaining $18 million obligation on his contract was formidable disincentive for any club that had need for a second baseman who can still turn a double play. A public clamoring for the club to sign free agent Orlando Hudson was loud, though not always audible, because the public was screaming for Manny Ramirez more.
Castillo wonders what noises await him at Citi Field. Even an extraordinary performance in the exhibition games isn't like to make his first reception in Queens particularly favorable.
"It was hard last year when everyone was against me," he said. "That's why I said, 'Don't trade me.' I want to show them I can play. I can play here."
Castillo was perceived to be a gamer when he arrived in 2007. A Mets executive said last summer, "That's what we thought we got, but we haven't seen it this year."
"I liked to be called that," Castillo said. "No one says that now, because last year was bad for me. I want to be one again."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.