Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011
Posted: 7:44 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
Jose Serra looked out across the field and saw the raw athleticism in the 16-year-old kid. But even Serra didnt think Starlin Castro would be this good, this fast.
Jose Estevez, an area scout in the Dominican Republic, had brought Castro from Monte Cristi to Santiago, where around 20 teenagers gathered for a tryout. Serra called his boss, Oneri Fleita, to tell him they found a player.
If you like him, Fleita said, sign him. So Serra offered 35,000. Castros family asked for 60,000. They compromised at 45,000.
Almost five years later, Castro will step into the batters box on Friday night at Busch Stadium, an All-Star shortstop looking for his 200th hit this season.
Its unbelievable, Serra said.
Its impossible to see all the bricks that are laid into the foundation. But if the Cubs are going to build something that lasts, it will be through the work of people like Serra, their Latin American coordinator.
Hes my second father, Castro said.
The Cubs have so much invested in the Dominican Republic that Tom Ricketts personally called Serra after he fired general manager Jim Hendry. The chairman wanted to reassure Serra that his job is safe.
The Ricketts family has purchased 50 acres of land in the Dominican Republic, where they hope to break ground on a new academy in January 2012. Fleita, the teams vice president of player personnel, recently spent 7 million on international signings.
In a dark corner of the industry that has been scarred by scandal and corruption, the Cubs have highlighted Serra, whos supposed to keep the pipeline flowing toward Wrigley Field.
Hes the face of the organization, Fleita said. When Jose Serra signs a player, (the) families there know they can entrust (him with) their child. (Hes) going to be taken care of as if they were present 247.
Serra, 39, doesnt appear to be that much older than Castro. He looks like a 5-foot-11, 160-pound middle infielder who can still turn the double play. He played for Fleita in the lower levels of the Baltimore Orioles system in the early 1990s.
When Fleita became an area scout for the Cubs in 1996, his territory included Georgia, the Florida Panhandle and all of Latin America. He called a contact in the Orioles organization, who suggested he teach Serra just released as a player how to scout. Together they set up shop in the Dominican Republic.
Some three years later, Carlos Marmol would show up at a workout in Santo Domingo. Marmol remembers it being a rainy day, and breaking his bat on his first swing. Serra signed the 16-year-old catcher anyway.
By the time Marmol got to the minor leagues, they would grow so close that he asked Serra to be his godfather when he was baptized into the Catholic faith.
Serra was also influential in convincing a proud, stubborn player to finally try pitching. When Marmol briefly lost his job as the Cubs closer this summer, Serra called with encouragement.
Jose Serra signed Starlin Castro out of the Dominican Republic and Castro calls him, "my second father." (CHICAGO CUBS MEDIA RELATIONS)
Everybody trusts him, Marmol said. He gets the respect. (Hell) be honest with you and he tells the truth.
One club official stressed that Serras skills are not limited to only evaluating 16-year-olds in the Dominican Republic. The Cubs have brought him to spring training and inside the draft room. Theyve sent him to scout college games and high school showcases, the major leagues and the minors.
Serras rising through the organization at a time when the Cubs are trying to build a global empire. Fleitas gone from essentially a one-man operation to overseeing around 20 scouts covering 25 different countries.
The Cubs are in so deep on projects that could take years to finish that Ricketts reacted to interest in Fleita from the Detroit Tigers by giving him a new four-year contract, even without a new general manager in place.
Special assistant Louis Eljaua who helped the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates build new facilities in the Dominican Republic is expected to stay on to supervise the construction of the new academy.
Under the next administration, Fleitas title and portfolio could change, but right now the Cubs felt like they couldnt afford to lose his network.
If Oneris (here), that means Ill be here, Serra said with a smile. I got nothing to worry about.
Serra couldnt have seen it then, but thats probably the most impressive part about Castros game, his ability to stay calm and handle the pressure of playing in Chicago. He has reached base in 34 consecutive games and already notched 338 hits in his first two seasons, a modern-day franchise record for a Cub.
What a bright future, first baseman Carlos Pena said. I just love the fact that even though I know inside he has this inner confidence he understands how good of a player he is hes also humble enough to understand that its always going to take work.
He appreciates the game and respects it and knows how to bow his head when he has to. (Thats) going to be very valuable to his career.
The futures of Castro, Serra and the Cubs all seem to be tied together. Alfonso Soriano has mentioned that Castros mental toughness has separated him from all the other kids coming out of the academy. But they all can dream, right?
The 21-year-old shortstop has become a global billboard for the Cubs. These kids will know nothing about goats or curses or Bartman. In one of baseballs hot spots, the scout will have instant credibility.
Everybody wants to be Starlin Castro, Serra said.
Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.