- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Vinny Castilla isn’t going to hit 35 homers this season. He’s not going to drive in a league-leading 131 runs like he did a year ago. And he’s not to going to duplicate his .321 home batting average now that he has moved from the thin mountain air of Colorado to the summer humidity of Washington.

But that’s OK.

The Nationals don’t need Castilla to reproduce his 2004 numbers. They just need the 37-year-old third baseman to produce the kind of numbers he consistently has put up over a 14-year career.

“He doesn’t have to carry the team,” manager Frank Robinson said of one of his club’s key offseason acquisitions. “Each player has to carry his own weight. I expect a certain production from him, and that’s all I ask him to do. I ask each player to do what he’s capable of doing — no more, no less.”

Castilla has shown throughout his career, spent mostly with the Rockies and Atlanta Braves, that he’s capable of putting up big numbers. Since becoming an regular in 1995, he has averaged 29 homers, 96 RBI and a .281 average.

The Nationals certainly would take a No.6 hitter who produced like that. That figures to be where Castilla winds up in the batting order. Robinson has not determined who will bat where, but the most likely scenario would have Castilla hitting sixth behind right fielder Jose Guillen and left fielder Brad Wilkerson.

“With our lineup and our depth, I think he’s going to be a perfect fit,” Wilkerson said.

Jim Bowden took heat around baseball when he gave the aging Castilla a two-year, $6.2million contract in one of his first moves as Nationals interim general manager. How could anyone spend that kind of money on a player whose best days appeared to be behind him — one whose batting average at Coors Field was 103 points better than his average everywhere else (.218)?

Castilla, though, insists the home-road disparity has been greatly overblown.

“You know, I hit 35 home runs last year, and I hit 21 of those on the road,” he said. “A lot of people think it was Colorado, but my home run numbers were a lot more on the road.”

But what about the low batting average away from home?

“I don’t know,” Castilla said. “If I knew, I would have fixed it. People can say whatever they want. I just go about my business.”

The Nationals signed Castilla, who has 303 homers, in large part because of the way he goes about his daily business. A no-nonsense veteran, he exudes a quiet confidence that has earned the respect of teammates and competitors.

“He’ll be a great leader,” Robinson said. “He knows what it takes to win, and hopefully that will rub off.”

Castilla arrived at Space Coast Stadium to a hero’s welcome Monday morning. A beloved player in his native Mexico, Castilla was immediately greeted by fellow countrymen Esteban Loaiza and Luis Ayala.

Throw in reliever Antonio Osuna, who is tending to his ill father and has yet to arrive in camp, and the Nationals have a strong Mexican influence. Castilla, who was born in Oaxaca, helped pave the road to the major leagues for other Mexicans.

“He means a lot [in Mexico],” said Loaiza, who was born in Tijuana. “I think a lot of kids that played Little League admire him and want to be like him. There aren’t that many Mexican baseball players who have played in the States. Now the doors are open more because of what we’ve done in the past.”

How far has Mexican baseball come? Earlier this month, a Mazatlan Venados club featuring Castilla, Ayala, Osuna and fellow major leaguers Erubiel Durazo, Elmer Dessens and Miguel Ojeda became the first Mexican team to win the prestigious Caribbean Series on its home soil.

“That was a great experience, for me, for the whole country,” Castilla said. “We had never won it before. That was very exciting. All the fans went crazy. I enjoyed it a lot.”

Revered by his countrymen or not, Castilla isn’t immune to a good-natured prank from his teammates. Throughout his career, he’s worn No.9, and was expecting to be given that number with the Nationals.

Loaiza, though, saw to it that Castilla’s locker in Viera had a fake No.6 nameplate above it when he arrived this week, while right fielder Jose Guillen (usually No.6) had No.9. Castilla entered the clubhouse, saw the mistake and began asking everyone in sight what was going on.

Across the room, Loaiza did his best not to break out laughing, but he couldn’t keep the joke alive for long. He walked over to Castilla and handed him his proper No.9 jersey.

“Here you go, rookie,” Loaiza said to the 14-year veteran.

It might have been his first day with the Nationals, but Castilla already felt like he was home.

“I like the guys that are here,” he said. “And we have four Mexicans. That made it easy to sign. … I’ve played with maybe one or two but never four. That’s nice. That’s very exciting.”

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