Cleveland — Guys like Harold Castro aren’t supposed to get to the big leagues, let alone get here at age 25 and perform like a seasoned vet.
No, for guys like Castro, signed at age 16 out of a gong show-like tryout in Venezuela, and assigned to the Tigers' Venezuelan Baseball Academy for a year or so until he was old enough to obtain a work visa — the chances of getting to the big leagues are probably less than 10 percent.
And the percentage dwindles when you consider he spent three seasons at High-A Lakeland, four seasons at Double-A Erie and didn’t get to Triple-A Toledo until he was 24. Guys like that don’t end up on prospects lists, they are usually called organizational players — roster fillers.
Which is why, in a moment of desperation last September, the Tigers brought him 2,400 miles from Venezuela, where he’d been for a couple of weeks since the end of the Triple-A season, to fill in for the final six games of the season.
“He was sitting at home in Venezuela doing absolutely nothing and we flew him all the way back here and I put him in the game — and he got a hit,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “That tells you about his make-up. He can handle things.
“He’s not overwhelmed here at all. He handles himself really well.”
Castro ended up playing shortstop and second base, got three hits in 10 at-bats and earned an invitation to big-league camp this spring, where he further endeared himself to Gardenhire and the coaching staff.
“I’ve always said, the kid has a great set of hands,” Gardenhire said. “He can hit, he can play multiple positions and he’s proven it up here.”
That he has. Since being called up from Toledo for the second time this season on June 5, Castro has been a fixture in the lineup, playing everywhere but pitcher and catcher. And he's been hitting. In 100 plate appearances entering play Tuesday, Castro was hitting .344 with a .484 slugging percentage (four doubles, three triples and a home run).
He’s knocked in 13 runs and scored 11 times in that span.
“You have to create the opportunity to play every day,” said Castro, who is thoughtful and soft-spoken, and speaks and understands English well. “That’s what I tried to do when I got called up the second time. I set my mind to play every day here. Just every day I try to do my best to stay at this level.”
Those six games in the big leagues, as insignificant as they may have been in the grand scheme, profoundly changed the trajectory of Castro’s career. It changed, first of all, his status when he went back home to play in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Castro had been a role player for Caracas the three previous winters. But last winter, with Major League service time on his resume, he became one of the key players on a team that ended up playing in the championship game.
In a winter filled with political upheaval in Venezuela, where bus rides to the stadium were accompanied by police escorts, Castro was unfazed. He kept his focus on the game and continued to produce. He played 62 games, counting the playoffs, batting .343 with an .821 OPS.
“We stayed in a hotel and there was pretty good security over there,” Castro said in an interview with The Detroit News in February. “But at the games, there was police or something like that everywhere. All around the stadium and in the stands.
“Scary, yes, a little bit. But this is our work. We have to do it. That is where I live. I don’t have a house in America. That is my home.”
This is part of the maturity, the determination and the urgency Castro brought with him into the season. His mother, two sisters, his wife and young son remain back in Venezuela. They live far enough outside Caracas to be sheltered from the turmoil and violence.
Still, he misses them terribly and worries about them. His father is living with him here in the Detroit area and in Florida, but he hopes to be able to bring the rest of his family over here one day.
“I am probably going to go back to Venezuela when the season is over,” Castro said. “My wife and son are still there. It’s hard. My son has a visa but my wife doesn’t.”
Castro talks to them and FaceTime’s them every day.
“Sometimes you start to think about it and it gets kind of hard,” he said. “But this is my job. So I have to put my mind strong and keep going.”
He’s put himself in a position to be the team’s primary second baseman, at least for the next couple of years. But he might not be entirely content with that.
“No, I like to play everywhere,” Castro said, with a smile. “It helps to keep me in the lineup here every day.”