As I sat watching the British Open with my wife’s family, talk inevitably turned to the absence of one Eldrick Woods from the weekend’s proceedings. Once a staple of PGA coverage, the man they call Tiger has been largely absent from all but the tabloids over the past handful of years. A phenom who had burst onto the scene with poise and confidence befitting a more mature player, Woods has become a punchline.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, a man named Starlin Castro is playing himself into obscurity as younger players overtake him and turn him into an afterthought. Like Woods, Castro had an incredibly hot start and seemed to be the type of player around which a team, though perhaps not an entire industry, could be based. But now something seems lacking.
Let’s go ahead and dispense with the obvious differences, the primary of which is the fact that Woods was the epitome of success in his sport, whereas Castro achieved a much more modest level of achievement. And while the Cubs shortstop has had some notably questionable dalliances, he’s got nothing on parade of paramours the PGA pimp procured.
What strikes me more here is that both men appear to be suffering from some significant mental blocks that have confounded each to the point of athletic impotence. Woods’ issues may well have begun after the US Open playoff in which he hammered his way to victory on a knee that later required surgery. His swing, which put tremendous torque on that knee, would need to be rebuilt as well and would never be the same.
But as physical maladies forced changes, so too did they erode that psychological edge that had both aided and abetted the golfer throughout his career. Not only was Woods no longer as confident in himself, but his competitors no longer feared him. Pressing to get back to the top, he lost focus, which led to further physical issues, and so one. So while his body had certainly betrayed him, Tiger’s mind has been his biggest foe.
Likewise, I believe Starlin Castro is being undone by a mental game that no one has ever held in the highest esteem anyway. All ballplayers are going to experience ebbs and flows, but Castro seems to be too caught up in the errs and flubs. Or maybe that’s just the fans. Either way, he just doesn’t appear to me to be the same player who came up brimming with confidence and who knew he could do something with whatever a pitcher threw him.
Castro tries to be imposing his will these days rather than simply settling in and letting the game come to him. His .240/.273/.309 slash is the worst of his career and there aren’t any signs that things are getting any better. So far in July, Castro is hitting .157/.178/.200. His -0.7 WAR is 155th among qualified major leaguers and 42nd among shortstops with at least 50 plate appearances.
And unless something has changed dramatically in the last few hours, there are still only 30 MLB teams that I’m aware of.
Castro doesn’t have Woods’ injury history or his high profile, but I see the same pressing and the same inability to course-correct when I watch both men compete. Perhaps that’s unfair to Castro, or perhaps to Woods. Either way, this is a parallel my untrained eye can’t help but to draw (though given my artistic skills, it’s really more of a squiggly line).
And that’s what scares me the most about Castro, since I’ve been saying for years that Woods has lost that “it” factor that made him so dominant at his peak. Baseball is weird and it can turn on a dime, but it’s also possible for a guy to lose his edge and wander through eternity in search of a whetstone with which to bring it back.
I know there are many who will give me all sorts of hell for suggesting as much, but it’s not as though this is some take that I just tossed into the microwave and zapped until it was molten. I’m not saying Castro can’t or won’t recover from the deep slump in which he now finds himself, but I’m not saying he will either. And that’s what makes me really sick.
I’ve been one of Starlin’s most ardent supporters over the past few years, but he’s becoming nigh on indefensible. Because of the general meatballishness of the Castro criticisms over that time, it’s become somewhat gauche for those in the baseball intelligentsia to participate in negative assessments of his remaining potential. Yet here I stand, ready to flip my own well-rehearsed script.
But please note that I’m not questioning Castro’s desire to get better. Like Woods, I believe Castro is every bit as vexed by his poor performance as we are. Anyone who watches without myopic bias can see the frustration on his face when he makes an out or doesn’t make a play. What I question is the ability to overcome the struggles at this point; maybe it takes a change of scenery.
A year ago, that thought would have made me cringe, but when I read a recent report that the Cubs had offered Castro — along with Javier Baez — to the Phillies in an attempt to land Cold Hamels, I was not upset a bit. It’d be selling really low on Castro, but the fact that they’d be willing to do so makes me think the front office feels as I do about him. And the fact that the Phils “aren’t enthralled” with the offer reinforces that thought.
In a perfect world, the man is Sisyphus and will continue to roll his boulder back up the side of that mountain. In a real world, however, I wonder whether that rock has finally crushed him; not his body, but his mind. I had been there pushing along with him, but as I’ve taken on more and more of the weight the effort has been less worthwhile.
I want very much to be wrong in this, but I may have laid down my sword at the top of Mt. Castro and have begun the slow journey back down. After fighting tooth and nail against the takes, I’ve realized that this is no longer a hill upon which I wish to die. From here on out, consider me a conscientious objector. Best of luck to the rest of you though, I really hope you win.
The ultimate goal here though is for the Cubs to win, and if Starlin Castro continues to stand in the way of that goal I can no longer back him with anything approaching my past conviction. I will, however, continue to use the picture of him doing the shush face at every possibly opportunity.