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Ready for one last blast on Blake Street

Former Rockies set the stage for Castilla's return to Coors

Published September 4, 2006 at midnight

Endings usually have little to do with homecomings, sweet memories and orchestrated farewells. So the send-off Vinny Castilla is having this month with the Rockies is far from the norm, even for a very good player.

Skills erode, injuries become more frequent and the end often comes in a uniform that doesn't look quite right. That seemed like Castilla's fate when the San Diego Padres released him July 21. The Rockies signed him Aug. 14 with an eye toward activating him this month.

"I would never have thought I'd come back for a third time," said Castilla, who lives in the Denver area with his wife, Samantha, and their three sons.

Like so many players, he simply seemed to have faded into retirement, a little earlier than he wanted, a former player all of a sudden with a trove of memories.

In Castilla's case, that meant feeling his way along in the big leagues with the expansion Rockies when they drew unimaginable crowds to Mile High Stadium their first two seasons. And it meant flourishing with them, becoming a feared slugger and one of the Blake Street Bombers, along with Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks, when they moved to Coors Field in 1995.

And now Castilla is back, riding a carriage for one final month toward a glorious sunset he never expected to savor.

"I got the chance to see the start of the organization," Castilla said. "My career pretty much took off here, and it'll be nice to end it here, too. I got to know the fans a lot (more) than the other teams I played with. I'm a Rockie. It always feels great to put the purple stripes on."

Castilla, 39, will spend this month with the Rockies and then retire. There are no illusions, no what-ifs about parlaying a few productive September appearances into another season. Castilla, who hit a two- run home run Sunday in Los Angeles, will segue into a job with the organization. He'll help the Rockies sign players in Mexico, where he is worshipped, work with their minor leaguers, where he can impart knowledge on and off the field, and do whatever he is asked after passing down a familiar corridor the last time.

"It's kind of a cliché, but very few guys get to leave on their own terms," said Walt Weiss, who was Castilla's teammate with the Rockies from 1994-97, retired in 2000 after three seasons with Atlanta and is a special assistant with the Rockies. "And not only leave on your own terms but also the place where you had most of your glory.

"That's a great thing, but he deserves that. He's one of the more special guys I've been around in this game. . . . He doesn't have to be performing great to bring something to a ballclub. And those guys are special. He's very well-respected. Never met a person in this game that didn't like him."

Bowing out quietly

Not that intangibles such as being a clubhouse presence and being universally liked and respected guarantee which exit door a player will take on the way out. Remember Galarraga with the New York Mets? Didn't think so. They cut him toward the end of spring training last year.

He was 43, one home run short of 400, his career over after a nomadic final four seasons. There were stops with Texas, San Francisco, Montreal, his original organization, the Giants again and Anaheim.

To be sure, Castilla did some late- career shuffling after his first departure from the Rockies, going to Tampa Bay, which was disastrous, then Houston for a portion of 2001 to revive his career and on to Atlanta, his original organization and the club that brought him to the majors. After two enjoyable seasons with the Braves, the second reasonably productive, he returned to the Rockies. Castilla led the National League with 131 RBI in 2004, his first Rockies encore, before signing a two-year contract with Washington and getting traded to San Diego in November.

Along the way, Castilla grew from a happy-go-lucky sort, giving a standard "Hey, Cuz," greeting to everyone, into a larger, fuller presence, and became a mentor, particularly to Hispanic players. Weiss sees similarities between Castilla and Galarraga, nicknamed "The Big Cat" and known in the game simply as "Cat," probably because, Weiss said, Castilla, as a younger player, was around Galarraga.

"It was almost like 'Cat' passed the baton to him," Weiss said. "You'd describe them almost the same way. Guys that were always in a good mood, and guys that went out there and performed at a real high level. Extremely respected. You'd never hear a bad word about 'Cat'; you never hear a bad word about Vinny. Just adored by their teammates."

Former Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard, now in Arizona's front office, commended Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd for not only bringing Castilla back into the organization but also for giving him the chance to play this month.

"I think it's great he's going to retire with a Rockies uniform on," Gebhard said. "I'm happy that they get a chance to say goodbye to him, because No. 9 was special."

That chance likely will come Sept. 28, a Thursday afternoon, when the Rockies play their final home game this season, presumably with postseason possibilities long since vanished.

"It's going to be a special feeling here," Walker said upon returning to Coors Field on Aug. 25 for the first time as a former player. "Vinny is one of the most popular Rockies ever, if not the most."

Of Castilla starting that last home game, Walker said, "It'd be a huge moment, almost a tear-jerking moment."

Growing up

The Rockies chose 39 players in the November 1992 expansion draft. Castilla was No. 20, taken in the middle of the second round, right behind Ryan Hawblitzel and just ahead of Brett Merriman, both pitchers.

Castilla, then 25, had played a total of 21 games with the Braves in 1991 and 1992, getting called up in September each season.

"We thought he was a young kid, who might be a shortstop, which we hoped, or could always go play second or third," Gebhard said.

Castilla played shortstop for the Rockies in 1993, with Freddie Benavides also getting time at the position. Weiss became the Rockies shortstop in 1994. Castilla spent two months of that season at Triple-A Colorado Springs before returning in early June. He played all four infield positions before a strike ended the season in August, then took over at third base in 1995 after the Rockies parted company with Charlie Hayes.

From 1995 to 1999, Castilla hit 191 home runs with 562 RBI. He was a two-time All-Star and won three National League Silver Slugger Awards.

He had statistically identical seasons in 1996 and 1997 - a .304 average, 40 homers and 113 RBI - and with Galarraga gone in 1998, he picked up some of that missing production with his best season, when he hit .319 with 46 homers and 144 RBI.

Gebhard remembered talking with Castilla about the length of one of his home runs, when Castilla, switching from sound to sound, said, "Geb, that was a loud one."

"He measured everything by the sound off the bat," Gebhard said. "Then we got on the same channel, and I'd say, 'Vinny, that one wasn't as loud as the night before.' He'd say, 'No, I'll hit a loud one today.' Not a long one."

Castilla was forever reminding his teammates, "You can't sneak the cheese by the rat."

That was baseball parlance for his ability to hit a fastball, or cheese in clubhouse-speak.

On his final at-bat in 1996, Castilla hit his 40th homer to join Galarraga (47) and Burks (40) on that lofty slugging plateau. The 1973 Atlanta Braves - Davey Johnson (43), Darrell Evans (41) and Hank Aaron (40) - were the only other team to have three players hit 40 homers. The Rockies repeated the feat in 1997 with Walker (49), Galarraga (41) and Castilla (40).

"He definitely was one of the best fastball hitters I've ever seen," Burks said. "He could turn around anyone's fastball in his prime. That became a thing around the league, and everybody knew Vinny was a dead fastball hitter, and you could not get a fastball by him. I remember Mark Wohlers throwing 102 (mph) when he was in his prime in Atlanta, and he comes in, and Vinny just turned him around."

After Castilla did the same to Houston closer Billy Wagner, another hard thrower, Clint Hurdle, then the Rockies hitting coach, uttered the descriptive line, "Vinny could pull a bullet."

Castilla said being part of that 40- homer trio in 1996 was a personal highlight, along with leading the league in RBI in 2004. But he said, "I think the best moment, not just for me, I think for the whole organization was when (Curtis) Leskanic got the last out to go to the playoffs in '95."

Leskanic leapt up, legs tucked beneath him in a memorable picture, after San Francisco catcher Jeff Reed grounded to first baseman Galarraga.

The Rockies, trailing 8-2 in the third, won 10-9 to finish 77-70 in a strike-shortened season, one game ahead of Houston in the wild card race.

That's the only time the Rockies, in their 14th season, have made the playoffs. They never have won more than 83 games - just two above .500, the working definition of mediocrity - which they did in 1996 and 1997. Yet, there is a good-old-days fondness for those times when Castilla and the rest of the Blake Street Bombers turned a Coors Field that played very differently and was filled nightly - 203 consecutive sellouts beginning June 13, 1995 - into a hunting ground for opposing pitchers.

"We were such an exciting club; we could be down in the first inning five runs," Burks said, "and we knew as a team that was nothing. Oh, yeah, we were going to come back with that club that we had."

Or as Walker, musing about the heyday of the Blake Street Bombers, said, "What goes through a pitcher's mind when he faces this lineup? It couldn't have been fun, but it was fun for us to watch each other and cheer each other on. There was a lot of high-fiving in those years. I think we all enjoyed it, and it's something you don't forget."

Best years of their lives?

For Vinny Castilla and most of the other members of the Blake Street Bombers, the years spent with the Rockies were their most productive offensively. Their Rockies statistics, compared with the rest of their major league careers:

Dante Bichette

In majors Yrs. Avg. G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI

Rockies 7 .316 1018 4050 655 1278 270 18 201 826

Elsewhere 7 .269 686 2331 279 628 131 9 73 315

Ellis Burks

In majors Yrs. Avg. G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI

Rockies 5 .306 520 1821 361 558 104 24 115 337

Elsewhere 13 .286 1480 5411 892 1549 298 39 237 869

Vinny Castilla

In majors Yrs. Avg. G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI

Rockies 9 .295 1085 4080 610 1203 208 20 239 743

Elsewhere 8 .249 756 2723 291 678 141 8 81 360

Andres Galarraga

In majors Yrs. Avg. G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI

Rockies 5 .316 679 2667 476 843 155 13 172 579

Elsewhere 14 .274 1578 5429 719 1490 289 19 227 846

Larry Walker

In majors Yrs. Avg. G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI

Rockies 10 .334 1170 4076 892 1361 297 44 258 848

Elsewhere 7 .282 818 2831 463 799 174 18 125 463

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