Minneapolis – Nick Castellanos, mercenary?
That’s not the term he uses. He says he’s in limbo.
“What am I going to do but go play baseball and try to help my teammates?” he said in the quiet of the Tigers clubhouse, hours before the double-header against the Twins.
The raw truth of the situation is that Castellanos is a bat for hire. The Tigers have made it clear he is not part of their future and have been actively trying to trade him since the end of last season. So, what’s his recourse?
He grew up in the Tigers organization and up until last season hoped he would be a Tiger for life, much like one of his mentors, Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline. Now, it’s become brutally obvious the Tigers don’t share that vision.
So, he went out and changed agents, hiring the more aggressive Scott Boras Agency, which all but ended any chance of Castellanos extending his contract with the Tigers.
He’s rather stoically swallowed, at least publicly, how he feels about all this, how it hurt him. He’s always hidden behind a wall of politically correct answers: It is what it is. I can only control what I can control. You don’t always get your Plan A.
But on Saturday, he was asked what all of this has done to his soul, how it’s impacted his love of the game.
“I don’t really know how to answer that,” he said. “But it’s uneasy. You do everything you can to not let it affect you. If I am going to say it doesn’t affect me, I’d be lying. I’d be giving you a media answer. The only thing I can control is going out and handling my business for me and take each at-bat the best I can for me.
“And in doing that, I can help the team win.”
Before last season, Castellanos was all in as one of the leaders in the Tigers clubhouse. He felt he had the experience and the cache to be the hands-on, vocal leader, the guy who stood before the cameras and cellphone recorders and took on the hard, post-game questions, the guy who went locker to locker to check the pulse of his teammates, the guy who spoke for the group — in good times and bad.
These days, he mostly comes in, does his work and leaves. He’s rarely at his locker after games. He’s knows he’s a lame-duck right fielder, and as such no longer HAS the obligation or the right to play that role.
And yet, when Brandon Dixon hit that walk-off home run to beat the Royals last week, look at the video. A jubilant Castellanos was among the first to greet him at the plate.
“I love these guys, no doubt,” he said. “Even more so because I see how they are all still young in their major league journey. It’s hard to explain, but I understand them because I’ve been there. Obviously there’s going to be a lot of emotion for me because I want these guys to do good.”
The business of baseball has embittered Castellanos, hardened him to certain realities. But it has not usurped his love of the game itself.
“As soon as I’m between the lines, I love what I’m doing,” he said. “Now, are there 25 or 30 guys showing up solely for the purpose of pursuing a World Series trophy? We’re going to say yes on the record, that’s the media answer.”
But the true answer is no. That’s a fantasy. Just in this Tigers clubhouse, there are young players more worried about finding their footing, their place, at the big-league level. There are players on one-year deals who are trying to resuscitate their careers with the end-game of being traded to a contending team, flipped for prospects.
The truth is, other than Miguel Cabrera, there are no foundation pieces on this rebuilding roster right now. Even pillars like Matthew Boyd, Shane Greene or Joe Jimenez could be in different uniforms by August.
So, if Castellanos is a mercenary, he’s not alone.
“There are a lot of different personalities and a lot of different motivations for why people are showing up in this clubhouse,” he said.
Castellanos said he holds no grudges. He understands what the Tigers are doing, and why they are doing it. He gets the business of it, he really does. He just doesn’t much like the business of it.
“It’s just unfortunate that a children’s game like baseball, which is supposed to be played out of the love of sport and competition, is entangled with business,” he said. “As soon as you do that, you create a new monster.”
If you want to see the smile back on his face and the sparkle back in his eyes, get him talking about his son Liam.
“I will say this, the most fun baseball games I get to watch are the ones my kid plays,” Castellanos said. “Watching Liam play, watching those kids run around and dive in the dirt. Watching those kids wake up early every weekend and give it everything they have for a piece of plastic, hopefully, at the end of it — it’s freakin’ awesome.”
Castellanos understands how this might sound to some fans, but he’s not trying to curry sympathy. He doesn’t take what baseball has given him and his family for granted. He’s not at all ungrateful. He’s just dealing with his first real taste of disillusionment.
Who can’t relate to that, regardless of comparative income levels?
“This is the world we live in, and I am blessed to be doing this,” he said. “I’m not (griping) about it. I’m not blind to the fact that I’m 27 years old and I get to play baseball for a living and I make a large amount of money that everyone knows about.”
Still, his dream has been deferred. He viewed himself as a foundation piece in the Tigers’ rebuild and now he’s been thrown into limbo, put in a position to play the game for himself, to improve as a player, improve his chances of being traded, hopefully to a contending team.
Not how he pictured it going.
“Like I said in that TigerFest interview before the 2018 season, in life you don’t always get Plan A,” he said. “But I will be able to sleep great at night because I worked my ass off for Plan A. The rest of it is out of my control.
“One way or another, it will work out. Whatever happens will happen, and I will be happy doing it.”