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Mudville: October 23, 2021 11:58 pm PDT
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John Castino was well on his way to becoming a foundational piece of the Minnesota Twins infield for the decade of the 80s.

The Illinois native was the 1979 Co-Rookie of the Year in the American League, hit .300 in 1980, led the league in triples in 1981 and was a Gold Glove-caliber defender at third base. While the entrance he made into Major League Baseball was more workmanlike than flashy, he proved over a five-year stretch that he was one of the American League’s most dependable players.

Then it was gone. Castino was forced to walk away from baseball just as he entered his prime, missing out on playing for the great Twins teams of the late 80s and early 90s. He suffered a pair of back injuries, both of which required spinal fusion surgery, and his blossoming career disappeared. While Castino was able to come back from the first procedure, the damage had been done and by the time he injured his back again and required a second surgery, it was obvious that playing baseball was no longer going to be part of his future.

He suffered his second back injury on May 7, 1984. Castino hit safely in all eight games in which he appeared that season and had a 13-game hitting streak [and 16-of-17] dating back to the final week of 1983. He went 3-for-4 with a walk, an RBI and two runs scored in his final game, leaving many to wonder what could have been for the rough and tumble infielder.

“I absolutely feel cheated, gosh yea,” Castino, 66, said. “I was 29 years old, I was coming into my prime so I felt cheated for sure. It took me a few years to be grateful for the time I had rather than focus on the time I missed. It just took time and maturity. Actually, it took more than a few years. It took a few decades. I went from feeling cheated to grateful, though, as I just tried to do other things in my life.

“Before my second at-bat while I’m in the on-deck circle one of my buddies comes down from the stands and yells ‘Hey Johnny, your brother Chuck and sister Julie got arrested.’”

“Sometimes it [baseball] is just hard to replace. It’s always difficult to replace an exciting thing you do for a living. It just took me a long time to figure it out. My faith has a lot to do with it. Being grateful is a better place to be. It’s better off in your head and in your heart when you live with gratitude rather than a chip on your shoulder like someone took something away from you.”

No one took anything from Castino, though. What happened to him happened through no fault of his own nor of anyone else. He was a scrappy, determined player who approached the game in a hard-nosed manner and had the misfortune of suffering the type of injuries that may have been easier to come back from had he been playing today with the benefits of more modern medicine.

SO MANY CHOICES

That Castino got to have such an impactful though brief Major League career was interesting in that baseball was his third sport while growing up. He was a die-hard fan of the Bears, Bulls and Cubs while growing up and is quick to point out that baseball was down the list in high school.

“I actually wanted to play with the Bears first,” said the 5-foot-11 Castino. “Then I realized I wasn’t big enough. I was all-conference and all-city in two of the three sports. Baseball was my worst sport in high school. I loved the other two. My passion was for contact sports and once I realized I wasn’t big enough for basketball or football it was baseball, my third love. I was big enough for baseball.”

Castino wanted to play basketball and baseball in college and received scholarship offers from Florida Southern and Arizona before setting on Florida-based Rollins College, which would allow him to play both sports. He was on the basketball team during his freshman season and preparing to play in a Christmas tournament at Northwestern – it would be a homecoming for him – when he suffered an injury had that put him out of action until late in the winter.

He points out that it wasn’t a sports injury, rather the result of “something guys do in college bars”. When he finally got the cast off in late January/early February the basketball season was at it halfway point. So, after a conference with all the interested parties, it was decided he would skip basketball that season and go right to baseball.

“Rollins was good to me,” Castino said. “They allowed me to keep my scholarship to play both sports. I played baseball and in my freshman year, I hit for the cycle in my very first game at Florida Southern. I went 4-for-4 and that kind of convinced me [about baseball]. I thought maybe it was a sign I was supposed to play baseball. I had a great freshman year and two more good years. I wasn’t big enough to make it professionally in basketball, so baseball was my only option.”

Castino certainly made an impression while playing for the Tars. He helped lead the team to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and is viewed by many as the best player in school history. He is the school’s all-time leader in RBIs [170], triples [18] and slugging percentage [.620], according to the Rollins College baseball website. He was also a charter inductee into the school’s sports Hall of Fame.

The Twins saw something they liked and made Castino, who had only begun playing third base that season, a third-round selection in the 1976 First-Year Player Draft. He eventually became what was, at the time, the sixth player in school history to reach the Major Leagues. Three others have joined him since.

Minnesota quickly dispatched him Wisconsin Rapids of the Class-A Midwest League, where he joined the Twins in the middle of their season. However, the first impression he made on Harry Warner, his new manager, was not a positive one. Warner was an old-school type who spent 17 years as a player in the minor leagues, never rising above Double-A.

While Warner would eventually become a coach at the Major League level for the Toronto Blue Jays, he was in the final year of a 17-year run as a minor league manager when he and Castino crossed paths. Castino addressed Warner as “coach” the first time they met and that immediately put the skipper in a negative frame of mind.

“Wisconsin was a lot of fun,” Castino said. “I walk into the locker room and say I am here, I am the third baseman and I have this big cut all the way around my head. The night before I was water skiing with my brothers and the rope tangled under my head and pulled me under the water. He says what the #$@# did you try to do, hang yourself? I said no coach, it was an accident water skiing.

“I went out on the field disenchanted after thinking they were going to welcome me. And he says to me by the way, you’re not playing tonight. I was not happy at that moment. I dressed and went out on the field and [Steve] Scooter Benson and Greg Field were out there. They introduced themselves and said they heard him yelling at me. They told me don’t worry about that guy, just have fun. They are still some of my closest friends today. I went to Greg’s wedding a few months ago and I talk with Scooter all the time.”

Castino didn’t let Warner’s gruffness impact him too much. He appeared in 65 games that summer, hitting .286 with six homers and 41 RBIs. The Twins thought enough of what Castino did in Wisconsin – Warner’s grumpiness not withstanding – to send him to Orlando of the Double-A Southern League to begin 1977.

The jump over High-A ball didn’t quite work out for Castino. He struggled in the Southern League, hitting .189 in 36 games, earning a trip down to Visalia of the Class-A California League. Castino blames himself, mostly, for what happened in Orlando, saying he tried too hard to improve and ultimately it would up hurting him.

The Rookies Of The Year Celebration: Honoring Baseball's Freshman Phenoms, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Secaucus, NJ<br /> Andre Dawson, and John Castino (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage) April 28, 2007

“I was too anxious and ambitious,” Castino said. “All I wanted to do was do great. I dieted too much, I lost weight, and I was running all the time. I just tried too hard. I was anxious and trying to hit a home run every time up. So, they told me you’re going to Visalia to calm down a bit.

“There was Scooter again [in Visalia] and I lived with him. We had a great time and I started figuring things out. I learned not to be so anxious about being great and that I didn’t have to hit a home run every time up. And, by chance, I wound up hitting more home runs per at-bat. I had a good two months there. So whether I was promoted or demoted, I learned something everywhere I went and to do better at the next level. I think that’s the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Castino hit .327 with 16 homers and 64 RBIs in 72 Cal League games. He stole 13 bases and became more of the complete player that would arrive in Minnesota in 1979. First, however, there was one more stop to make and that was back in Orlando in 1978. His second go-round in the Southern League proved to be a much better experience. He stayed off the Interstate this time, hitting .275 with 11 homers and 63 RBIs in helping Orlando to an East Division title.

He finished 10th in the league in hits [136] and RBIs to earn a spot on the SL All-Star team. He was also beginning to be recognized as one of the slickest fielders in the minor leagues, earning the Rawlings Silver Glove as the best infielder in the minor leagues.

“Anyone who had been in the Southern League knows it was the toughest league to play in,” Castino said. “You were constantly on the bus, 12-16 hour rides, it was hot, it was humid and you didn’t get much sleep. But I had my faith and I had my buddy Greg with me.

“I was all over making plays and throws at third base, though, and having a good time. My fielding was always really good. I was aggressive and quick and never had injuries until my back. I got to play against [Alan] Trammell and [Lou] Whitaker. They were fun guys to watch. They were great guys and tough competitors. I loved to play against tough competitors because it brought out the best in me.”

That would prove most definitively to be the case in 1979.

NEW YORK - CIRCA 1983: John Castino #2 of the Minnesota Twins bats against the New York Yankees during an Major League Baseball game circa 1983 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Catino played for the Twins from 1979-84. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

THE MAJOR LEAGUES AND ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Castino was headed for the minor leagues at the beginning of the 1979 season. When Mike Cubbage, the Minnesota third baseman, began having back issues of his own Castino was added to the Major League roster as an insurance policy and when the season opened in Oakland, he made three consecutive appearances as a late game defensive replacement. He had two chances in four innings and handled both easily before earning his first start on April 10 at California. If the nerves were there, they didn’t show too much as Castino went 1-for-3, picking up an RBI double off Frank Tanana and scoring a run in the fifth.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Castino said. “I had a roommate, Rick Sofield, and he went 2-for-5 and was calling his family and friends, telling them he was hitting .400 in the big leagues. He was calling everyone, he had a lot of girlfriends. After he was done, I told him we have a long way to go. After everything I had went through, I knew it was the wrong attitude to get excited about one game. I knew it was going to be a long season.”

Castino spent a great deal of time learning that season while playing under veteran manager Gene Mauch. He learned quickly that Mauch was a no-nonsense guy. One incident that stands out is a June 21 game in Milwaukee. The score was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the seventh and the Brewers had first and third with two outs when future Hall-of-Famer Paul Molitor dropped a bunt down the third base line. Castino fielded the bunt and recalls that his throw may have pulled first baseman Ron Jackson off the bag.

Fellow future Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount, who was on third, scored on the play while Castino was charged with an error. He also incurred Mauch’s wrath as Yount’s run proved to be the game-winner.

“He drops a bunt 12 feet down the line and the catcher doesn’t move,” Castino said. “I made as good a play as I’ve ever made and I may have pulled Ronnie Jackson off the bag. Most coaches would have said ‘he beat you, but you made a great play.’ But Gene calls me into his office after the game and dresses me down. I thought it would have been the opposite. The entire team heard it, but I kept my mouth shut.

“The next day we go to Chicago and before the game I wanted to get there early and talk to Gene. He was already in the dugout when I got there so I got dressed fast, went out and said ‘Skipper – see I had learned my lesson – you realize that nobody could have made that play I made in Milwaukee.’ He told me if that ever happens again, I’d find my ass in [Triple-A] Toledo. I’m thinking Jiminy Christmas, this guy is tough. That told me to play hard and keep my mouth shut from now on and not worry about what he thinks.”

Mauch put Castino in the lineup that night in what was a homecoming for the youngster. Castino’s brother, Roger, brought two busloads of friends from New Tier East High to cheer him on. They arrived with a banner that read “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and paraded it around Comiskey Park.

John Castino #2 of the Minnesota Twins fielding against the Texas Rangers in July 1980 in Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

Castino went 2-for-4, which started a stretch that would push his batting average from .239 steadily upward to .285, at which he finished the season. But the evening was not all positive.

“Before my second at-bat while I’m in the on-deck circle one of my buddies comes down from the stands and yells ‘Hey Johnny, your brother Chuck and sister Julie got arrested’. I found out after the game it was true. A fight broke out in the bathroom and came out into the hallway. My dad had to get them released for brawling and fighting. My brother Chuck had some bruises, but he said he gave them worse than he got.

“That day cemented me as the regular third baseman going forward. Mike Cubbage and I were platooning most of the time before that.”

The Twins would go on to finish fourth in the AL West and Mauch left midway through the following season. Castino’s big second half, however, didn’t go unnoticed. In addition to hitting .285 he had a .331 on-base percentage to go along with five homers and 52 RBIs in 393 at-bats.

It was good enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors, which he shared with Toronto’s Alfredo Griffin. Each player garnered seven first-place votes and their stats were close. Griffin hit .287 with a pair of homers and 31 RBIs with a .333 OBP. The only difference was that Griffin did it in 624 at-bats.

“After the season was over, I might have felt I had a chance [at Rookie of the Year] but during the season, I didn’t know what to expect,” Castino said. “It surprised me a little because I didn’t play a full season. My first month I was platooning with no offense. There was not a strong group of rookies in ’79. If there was a Molitor or a Yount playing, there would have been no way I would have won or shared but I did.

“After the season [Cincinnati Bengal] Cris Collinsworth and I were receiving our Rookie of the Year Awards. We both lived in Orlando, and we were at a banquet honoring us and right after the event [Minnesota Twins owner] Calvin Griffith comes up to me with reporters and people standing around. He walks up to me and says ‘I got you by the balls. Sign the contract I sent you or you will be out of the game’. Everyone was standing there with their jaws open. I actually used that in my first arbitration meeting, but he did have me. I made $21,000 my first year and he sent me a contract for $27,000 whereas [Alfredo] Griffin signed for $80,000. It wasn’t great but that didn’t matter to Calvin because he was Calvin Griffith. He was tough to play for. What I respect about him, though, is that he told you what he thought.”

Castino responded to Griffith by having a career year in 1980. He had career highs in batting average [.303], hits [165], homers [13], RBIs [64] and slugging percentage [.430]. His effort, combined with Griffith’s public taunts, helped Castino win his arbitration hearing following the season. His salary for 1981 would be $210,000 and he would be one of the established stars in what was a star-starved Minnesota lineup.

Houston Jimenez and John Castino at the Metrodome. (Photo via ESPN)

The chaos of the strike-shortened 1981 season was the backdrop for what would be a life-altering year for Castino. The Twins finished seventh and fourth in the two half seasons, Minnesota would have a pair of managers for a second consecutive year, and Castino injured his back which would result in the first of what would be several surgeries over the next four decades.

Castino hit .268 with six homers, 36 RBIs and a league-leading nine triples. However, it was a Sept. 2 game at Metropolitan Stadium against the Yankees that changed his life and his career arc. He suffered a hairline fracture in his back while diving for a ball hit by Dave Winfield. During a post-game examination to determine the extent of his injuries – which revealed that he had suffered the fracture – it was discovered that he was also suffering from a condition known as spondylolysis, which is a stress fracture in the bone that joins the vertebrae in the back.

“The first time Winfield was up I dove high and came down on my midsection and it was like someone stuck a knife in me,” Castino said.

Despite suffering the injury, Castino played out the rest of the month and did well, hitting .295 [23-for-78] in what was arguably his best month of the season. He underwent spinal fusion surgery following the season and was in a body cast for much of the fall and winter. Still, Castino was determined to be in Spring Training in 1982.

“I got the body cast off in January and went to Spring Training because no one told me not to,” Castino said. “The doctor thought I was crazy, crazy to play again – especially then. I was thin and weak and didn’t have a chance to build up my arms and legs from my groin to my upper ribs. I couldn’t exercise, I just did hand grips. I didn’t have the guidance for rehab in 1981 and I just made some stupid decisions.

“After the first surgery, I should have been more tentative, but I was diving for balls right away. These days, they are a lot smarter. You take two years and do the rehab.”

While Castino was back in the starting lineup almost immediately – he missed a few April games – he was not the player he was during the previous three seasons. He hit a career-low .241 with six homers and 37 RBIs.

The Twins also moved him to second base to accommodate Gary Gaetti, a power-hitting infielder who was best suited to play third. Castino appeared in 96 games at second, 22 games at third and six in the outfield [five in left, one in center].

“Gary Gaetti came up my fourth year and he only played third,” Castino said. “They tried him in left field, and it didn’t work out. [Manager] Billy Gardner put me in left field once and I never told anyone this, but I couldn’t see the ball. My eyes had started to go bad and I couldn’t see. I’d watch the pitcher’s arm move and the bat.

“I didn’t play there much otherwise I probably would have said something because I couldn’t see the ball until it got past the infielders. If someone hit the ball and they ran that way toward the outfield, I went in that direction. I told skip I couldn’t play left just put me at second base. I stayed there for a couple of games and made a few diving plays and he said okay, you’re my new second baseman.”

Castino experienced a return to normalcy, at least it seemed that way on the surface, in 1983. He hit .277 with 11 homers and 57 RBIs. He had 156 hits, the second-most in his career, and career-highs in plate appearances [640], at-bats [563], on-base percentage [.348], walks [62] and doubles [30].

There were, however, signs that all wasn’t right with Castino. His back had begun bothering him in different ways.

“After the first year [following the first surgery] I was fine,” he said. “I was a little stiff and weak, but I had no pain the second season. The pain was coming back, though, on a different level, higher and lower [than the point of the surgery]. The stress was going on beyond the existing fusion and I knew something was wrong and that it was something that would be trouble long term with my career.

“I had a friend in New York City who was watching one of our games and the announcer said there is something wrong with Castino. He’s not diving for balls; normally he’d dive for the ball. I think he’s worried about getting injured again. My friend approached me and told me that and I said there was some truth to that. I was afraid of getting inured again and I didn’t want to bang hard and end up with another spinal fusion.”

Castino’s fears were realized early the following season. He missed the first month of the season because of his back but started hot upon his return, hitting in each of the first eight games in which he appeared [12-for-27, .444]. But Castino reinjured his back while diving head-first into home on a ninth-inning sacrifice fly by Darrell Brown on May 7. He scored the run but ended his career in Anaheim on the same field he had collected his first hit.

He underwent a second spinal fusion surgery but knew the end had arrived.

“After the second operation I cried,” he said. “It was tough because I pretty much knew it was over after the second one.”

Castino, being the honorable man he is, still had three years left on a four-year contract he had signed prior to the 1984 season and wanted to honor the contract even though he was no longer capable of playing. So, he accepted a position in the front office as an assistant to new team owner and President Carl Pohlad. The new gig didn’t last very long.

“In my very first meeting in Spring Training, we were talking about which players should be cut,” Castino said. “The president turns to me and said Castino, who are the guys on this team doing drugs and partying on the team. I was just their teammate a month ago. You could tell everyone in the room was sympathizing with me. Of course I knew who was partying and doing drugs and all that, but I never said a word. I slept on it and the next morning I turned in my resignation.

“The press wanted an explanation, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t think it was appropriate to embarrass anyone. I just said it was not the right timing for me. I had to get away from the game. My heart was still in it as a player and you can’t flip that in 24 hours. If I had played for a long time and planned on being an executive, then that would have been different.”

Castino worked in real estate briefly after retiring then returned to Rollins to complete his undergraduate work. He was a straight-A student that final year without baseball serving as a distraction. He then attended the College of St. Thomas where he earned a Master’s degree and was once again a straight-A student.

He went to work as a financial planner and spent nearly three decades in that field. Castino underwent several more spinal surgeries and retired when he was 58, more from the pain caused by sitting in an office all day than a lack of desire to continue work.

Castino still watches some baseball but not much.

“It’s too hard for me to watch,” he said. “One inning seems like an hour.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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