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Since Major League Baseball established a drug policy in 2004, 59 major league players, including six who got caught more than once, have been suspended anywhere from 10 days to a lifetime. Hundreds more minor leaguers also have been benched for violating the policy.
But none has hurt the White Sox as much as the 80-game ban handed down last week to catcher Welington Castillo.
Make no mistake. Castillo is not on the level of the game's elite catchers like Yadier Molina and a few others. However, the lack of his veteran presence behind the plate, guiding young pitchers such as Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer, certainly won't help their progress especially, since the catching corps now is comprised of the bumbling Omar Narvaez and the unknown Alfredo Gonzalez.
Castillo led all big-league catchers last season when he was with Baltimore by throwing out 24 of 49 would-be base-stealers, about twice the rate of the average catcher and 13 percentage points better than Molina.
Using Giolito as an example, in the 10 games he's pitched, 11 runners have stolen bases while just one has been thrown out. On May 13th, the Cubs swiped five bases with Giolito on the mound and Narvaez behind the plate. For a young pitcher like Giolito, who's walked almost seven batters per nine innings, having a catcher who can limit the running game and cut down a runner or two can be the difference between a win and an early exit.
Offensively, Castillo had career highs last season with a .282 batting average and 20 home runs. He was headed in the same direction this season after signing with the Sox for two years for $15 million. His six homers and a slash of .267/.309/.774 is being replaced by Narvaez' slash line of .174/.278/.510, with nary a round-tripper.
So why would a guy like Castillo not only betray his teammates and fans but also risk losing the $3,750,000 that the suspension will cost him?
He reportedly tested positive for Erythropoietin (EPO), which seems to have two purposes: 1) promoting red blood cell production, and 2) stumping some poor 10-year-old in a national spelling bee. The kidneys produce EPO naturally, but an injection every so often purportedly increases endurance. It was one of Lance Armstrong's drugs of choice.
Catchers take a lot of punishment, and Castillo is no exception; he's had at least eight trips to the DL in his professional career including twice last season with right shoulder tendonitis and a hematoma in his groin after a pitch ricocheted off Didi Gregorius' hand and hit Castillo square in his privates. For the brave of heart, check out the replay here.
" . . . [A]s a catcher, it's hard to perform 100 percent every day because you're sore, you get hit every day, you're so involved in the game," Castillo told the Baltimore Sun a year ago. "But it doesn't matter if you're 100 percent or not. I'm going to give everything I've got . . . "
At age 31 with almost 1,200 games under his belt at all levels, you might understand why Castillo would be tempted by the prospect of healing faster and extending his career via artificial means. Stated another way, it's happened before. Lots of times.
A disproportionate number of the juicing suspensions have been served by players from Castillo's home country, the Dominican Republic. Approximately 10 percent of today's major leaguers are Dominican, yet 40 percent of doping suspensions have targeted ballplayers from the Caribbean nation.
Fellow Dominican Robinson Cano of the Mariners also was benched for 80 games just days prior to Castillo's suspension. Cano tested positively for a diuretic whose purpose apparently is to mask use of PEDs.
The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker last week chronicled the preponderance of PEDs associated with Dominican ballplayers.
"All the (U.S.) scouts want players who are 16 or 17 to throw over 90 miles per hour," said a supplier of drugs in the Dominican when Baker clandestinely interviewed him in 2005. "In the U.S., even when you're 20, the scouts only ask for 86 or 87. That's why so many players make the decision to use the stuff."
Some PEDs such as testosterone are legal in the Dominican while others are readily available via street agents and "buscones," the talent scouts who prey on kids as young as 12 or 13. The goal is a fat signing bonus where the agents take as much as a 40 percent cut. The dream of playing major league baseball has been present for decades in a country where per capita income is just under $7,000 annually.
Patrick Madden of public radio's WAMU in Washington, D.C., spent time in the DR a few years ago investigating steroid use among baseball prospects.
"it's hard to separate baseball from the issue of steroid abuse down there because of just how popular the game is, and the incentives to become a major league baseball player," Madden says.
"And the incentives are so great down there, it's one of those things where you just have to follow the money. I mean, the average signing bonus for a Dominican prospect is $100,000 - the average income for a Dominican family is $25,000. So to make it in baseball - it's a way to really succeed, and that means that the incentives to cheat are high."
Charles Farrell is co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy, who on the same program said, "It is a common belief among every young boy [in the Dominican] . . . that I am going to play in the big leagues. And obviously, not every player has the physical size or speed or strength and if they can see a way to say, I can be a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, then I'm going to do it."
All this could tempt those of us with far greater material wealth and comfort to question the moral compass of the Dominican athletes, trainers, agents and parents who aspire to reap the rewards that grace the world of an elite baseball player. However, there are legitimate reasons why all 30 major league clubs have academies in the island nation, dating back almost 40 years. The combination of raw talent, desire, dedication, expert coaching and hard work have given us the likes of Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz and many, many others.
Yet that doesn't dull the frustration of Welington Castillo's hiatus at this juncture. Maybe it's no accident that he and Cano are close friends who, according to the Baltimore Sun, work out together in the offseason. Castillo said that he texts daily with Cano.
What usually happens in these instances is that the suspended player issues a statement very similar to the one attributed to Castillo that included, "The positive test resulted from an extremely poor decision that I, and I alone, made. I take full responsibility for my conduct. I have let many people down, including my family, my teammates, the White Sox organization and its fans, and from my heart, I apologize."
What I'd like to hear, but never will, goes something like this: "I've been playing this game for a long time and now that I'm getting older, my body is beginning to break down. I'd like to keep going for a few more years, playing at the level I'm accustomed to. When given the chance to inject a banned substance, I made a decision to use a PED rather than see my career wind down before I'm ready. Unfortunately, I got caught. When I come back later this season, I will continue to give 100 percent to help my team and play the game I love as long as I physically can."
Castillo's last game was Wednesday, an 11-1 Sox victory over Baltimore in which Dylan Covey, recalled from Charlotte to replace the demoted Fulmer, won his first major league game in 13 tries. With Castillo behind the plate, Covey hurled seven innings of one-run ball.
Since Castillo's departure, the Sox have dropped three of four, losing the series finale to Baltimore and dropping one-run decisions Friday and Sunday in Detroit which sandwiched an offensive outburst on Saturday, resulting in an 8-4 White Sox victory.
The man behind the plate on any team is the one player on the field who sees the entire tableau. Aside from batted balls, both fair and foul, the catcher touches every pitch, the type of which he also calls. The catcher needs to be a leader, a guy who can encourage and provide confidence in his pitcher, and a respected teammate. Castillo possesses those kinds of qualities. On a poor ballclub with a number of developing young players like the White Sox, he will be sorely missed.
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