This was Starlin Castro’s first reaction after getting the call and finding out he was being promoted from Double-A Tennessee to The Show: Are you serious?
Castro showed up in the visiting clubhouse at Great American Ball Park and tried on a pair of gray uniform pants and made sure his blue hat fit just right while his new teammates lounged on a leather couch watching “The Hangover.”
It’s ancient history now, but in 2009 the Cubs had been in first place as late as the first week of August, trying to hang on and win a third consecutive division title. By May 7, 2010, they needed a jolt from a kid who was only 20 years and 44 days old.
Three years later, what the legendary manager said that day still resonates. This was hours before Castro smashed a three-run homer in his first big-league at-bat, the first shot in a record-setting, six-RBI debut across a 14-7 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
“You can’t look at this thing day-to-day,” Lou Piniella said. “It gets too tiring. It gets too cumbersome. You got to look at things over a period of time.
“I know here at times we win three or four games in a row and score 30 runs and we’re going to the World Series. And all of a sudden we score five runs in three games and the season’s about over.”
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Tuesday marked three years since Castro’s call-up, and almost everything else has changed around him. Alfonso Soriano and James Russell are the only two guys from that box score still on the team. And besides Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija, how many other players do you think will still be here three years from now?
Dale Sveum is Castro’s third manager. Last summer, the Theo Epstein administration gave him a seven-year, $60 million contract. But there still isn’t much middle ground with the All-Star shortstop.
He’s either supposed to be Michigan Avenue’s Derek Jeter, a 3,000 hits contender and a core piece on a championship team. Or a change-of-scenery guy who should be moved to another position and traded for the magical package of prospects you’ve never seen before.
“It’s still a work in progress with some mental things that go on at shortstop,” Sveum said. “If he wants to get to another level swinging the bat, there’s still a lot of improvement that can happen to get the OPS higher. It comes and goes with him as much as anything. But there’s still quite a bit of improvement that can happen on both ends.”
Castro entered Tuesday leading all National League players with 567 hits since May 7, 2010, which ranked fifth in the majors. (Miguel Cabrera led everyone with 587.) His 200 RBI during that stretch tied him for sixth among all big-league shortstops.
Castro also extended the longest active streak in the league by playing in his 229th consecutive game, and that Iron Man drive is valuable.
As much as the Cubs say they don’t want “cookie-cutter hitters,” Sveum has specific ideas about what he expects to see at the plate. Castro had reached base safely in 28 of the first 32 games this season, but had walked only five times and put up a .697 OPS.
“It’s timing,” Sveum said. “He has such unbelievable hand-eye coordination that he obviously fouls a lot of balls off and does a lot of (other) things. But he’s got to take more advantage of those hittable fastballs.”
Castro showed his range during Tuesday night’s 2-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. He committed his sixth error trying to make a play on the other side of second base in the fourth inning before the ball popped out of his hand. He also made a play deep in the hole to get a big out for Carlos Marmol in the eighth inning.
Sveum had grown so frustrated with the mental lapses last month that he played along with the idea Castro could be demoted to Triple-A Iowa, sending a message through the media. This is Year 4 in the big leagues now, so there are no more excuses.
[RELATED: Sveum turns up the heat on Castro, Rizzo]
But amid the rush to judgment on Twitter, in the must-have-a-take age of instant analysis, it’s also worth remembering what Piniella said the day Castro arrived in Cincinnati.
“You got to look at things with (the long view in mind),” Piniella said. “We’re not looking at today or tomorrow. We’re looking at something that’s gonna make us better over the long haul.”