Castellanos carries work ethic instilled by mom
Educator and native Detroiter proud of what they say about third baseman
DETROIT -- Michelle Castellanos looked up at the Tiger statues near the entrance to Comerica Park and cried. She did a lot of that on Opening Day.
She thought she was ready for it, getting the chance to watch her oldest son, Nick, take the field in the big leagues to start a season. He was realizing the dream he told her about when he was 5 years old. All the years of picking up bats around the house, those mornings where she'd shake her head because young Nick would sleep with a bat, all came back to her.
But it's also Detroit's Opening Day. And she grew up a Detroiter, in a family that has generations of Detroiters. She brought her family up to Michigan nearly every summer for vacation. And they had several generations there to watch Nick Castellanos starting at third base for the Tigers.
When the Tigers drafted him out of high school four years ago, it became a whole lot bigger than his dream. And as the Castellanos walked into Comerica Park on that chilly April morning, it was much more than just Nick's day.
"It was extraordinary, I have to tell you," she said. "I was very excited. You have anticipation, you have anxiety, you have fear, you have joy, and you have it all tied into a moment. And you just hope that moment can go well.
"The other part was that overwhelming is standing outside of the stadium on Opening Day and just the hoopla and the parade of it all. It's kind of a like a circus in a way. And I was standing outside there and I was looking at the Tigers out front. I cried. I said, 'I just cannot believe this is happening.' It was just really emotional for me.
"I think on one level it would've happened for me if he was on any team. But for it to be my hometown. ... My family has been Tiger fans 50, 60 years, some of them. To get all together, wearing Tigers shirts, this just doesn't happen. My dad is a Detroit firefighter. My family is ingrained in that city."
It took an awful lot to realize that dream. And as Nick Castellanos fully appreciates, it wouldn't have happened without her support.
"She's been there from Day 1," he said, "from when I played Tee-ball in Miami Lakes Optimists to when I made my Opening Day in the big leagues, taking me all over God's green earth to play in all these tournaments and stuff. Without the help of her and the help of my dad, I wouldn't be here today."
If a parent's job is supporting a child's dream, the Castellanos family did not have to wait long for him to find his direction. Nick wasn't even in school yet when he told his mom he wanted to be a big league ballplayer. He was younger than that when she realized how much he loved the game.
"The kid's first word was 'ball.' I kid you not," she said in a phone conversation earlier this week. "And he just had such an affinity for the game. We had many other things around him to play, but he was always drawn to that. He slept with a bat. I always remembered that."
Nick's younger brother, Ryan, wasn't far behind. Soon, the family garage became a makeshift batting cage, with the family cars parked outside. When they moved, they tore up part of their new backyard to put in a cage.
When they weren't going to games or shuttling the kids to practice, they were throwing batting practice, at least at the start. Michelle's days as a BP tosser ended once Nick smacked a comebacker that left a mark. That also might have been the time Michelle and Jorge Castellanos realized they had a talent on their hands.
"I had the seams of the baseball stuck in the side of my gut," she said. "I think that was probably in junior high."
She was tough, and not just taking line drives. She was the disciplinarian in the family, Nick recalls, and he took the brunt of it when his grades didn't keep up with his athletic pursuits.
"I would say a bad report card was the worst trouble I got into with my mom," he said. "A lot of yelling, a lot of stuff being taken away. Junior high, I got a little lackadaisical in school, just because I knew that nothing really mattered until high school. So seventh grade, I got into a little trouble with my parents with grades. By high school, I was pretty good."
That wasn't just the mothering instinct. That was the teacher. She has spent her career in education, including 14 years in the classroom. She knew Nick's talent, but she also knew he needed a backup plan. When they agreed to let Nick follow his dreams, it came with conditions.
"I'm an educator by trade," she said, "so I was very involved in academics. My role was always that the kids look out for school. Yeah, it was a privilege and an honor to do some of the things that he did, and there are responsibilities that go with that.
"It was hard to balance them out, then when you realize that he does have a gift. You realize that, and then it became a balancing act. He had to stay focused on finishing his tasks first."
That became a regular message she delivered as the scouting reports rolled in and the publicity followed. Nick had a gift, one that could carry him to his dreams, but he had a responsibility that goes with it -- to himself, to others, to the community.
As long as he lived up to his responsibilities, his parents were always there on the other end. If he didn't, Michelle would make sure he knew about it.
The way Nick Castellanos carries himself reflects that, the discipline, the work ethic, the approach. When the Tigers drafted him with their first pick in 2010, Michelle watched her son make the difficult choice between two dreams, knowing what a college education would mean, but also knowing what her son becoming a Tiger would mean to her family back home.
"I'm proud that he has accomplished what he set out to do, and there's a long way to go for him," she said. "But I'm most proud when people speak of his discipline, speak of his awareness. We always told him, 'You are in this arena and it's a gift, but you realize there's a responsibility and an awareness that you have to live up to. It's not a gift that's given freely.'
"When people say that he works hard and that he cares about the people around him, that to me means a lot."
The house is an empty nest for now, with Nick up in Detroit, Ryan playing college ball at the University of Illinois, and their younger sister Jackie heading off to college. Yet Michelle's still picking up his bats around the house.
When Nick and his fiancée, Vanessa, and their young son, Liam, move into their own home, the bats will go with them -- well, most of them.
"Actually, I'm going to keep a couple," Michelle said.