Editor’s note: During spring break this year, a dozen University of Kansas School of Journalism students visited the Colorado Rockies during spring training in Arizona. The students wrote features on several Minor League Baseball players. The Valley Press will be featuring a few of their stories of current JetHawks players. Find more of their stories at j500rst.dept.ku.edu.
When Luis Castro was 7 years old, he never imagined the country that introduced him to baseball — and later a new life in the U.S. — would have the problems it has today.
Baseball was his first memory. A young Luis sat snug against his grandpa at a baseball tournament in Caja Seca, Venezuela.
“My grandpa was my inspiration,” Castro said. “He passed away seven years ago but my dad played baseball and my mom played softball, so that’s why I grew up playing.”
When he was younger, he would take his dad’s glove and bat. Castro really liked how the tools of the game felt and it cemented his bond with baseball.
“My favorite thing about baseball is hitting. I love to hit and really enjoy it because it’s a part of myself,” Castro said.
His family always wanted him to play baseball especially his dad, who always played as an amateur but never professionally.
Luis didn’t go to college but playing baseball opened other doors and possibly a way out of Venezuela.
“I went to high school but signed with the Blue Jays when I was 16 years old,” Castro said.
That was in 2012, when a young Venezuelan teenager set foot in the U.S. His first destination was Clearwater, Florida, where he would get a physical to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Because English was his second language, he struggled his first two seasons.
“It was really hard because I didn’t know anything; just the basic stuff I learned in high school,” Castro said.
Learning a new language wasn’t the biggest barrier he would face coming to the U.S. The excitement was met with guilt because he left the only place he ever knew and the people he loved most.
Rated the No. 9 international prospect in 2012 by Baseball America, Castro agreed to play for the Toronto Blue Jays, who would pay the Venezuelan an $800,000 signing bonus. Castro almost found himself at a loss in a country he just met when he didn’t pass the physical. When the Blue Jays doctors spotted an issue in his knee, they cancelled the contract.
Castro had no idea what was happening.
“They said I had something in my right knee that I didn’t have in my left knee,” Castro said. “They think in five years I might get an injury or something like that, so that’s why they didn’t give me the contract.”
This was devastating news for the Venezuelan teen, whose future in baseball was not looking bright.
“Honestly, I almost didn’t play baseball anymore for that reason,” Castro said. “That feeling was really hard and hurt my feelings a lot and my mom and dad’s.”
Castro still doesn’t know what the problem in his knee is about. But that didn’t dissuade the Colorado Rockies from signing him for a bargain at $50,000 three weeks later. Castro has moved on from the financial setback, making a name for himself in the Rockies organization with no knee issues.
“I never got surgery in my knee, they wanted me to, but I didn’t want to because I felt good and never wanted to remember that feeling again,” Castro said.
Everything was starting to look up for Castro in the U.S. but things back home took a downward turn.
Venezuela’s political crisis was growing.
The country had been dealing with political problems involving hyperinflation, power cuts, and food and medicine shortages for years.
“You can’t find food if you don’t have money so you can’t give to your family,” Castro said. “The only people that can eat really good in Venezuela are people that have a lot of money. If you have a lot of money you will be good but what about the other people?”
The place he used to call home was trying to implement socialist policies aimed to help the poor. When the policies backfired it affected the poor, by capping the price of flour, cooking oil and toiletries.
This really hit home for Castro because he missed his mom’s cooking. She taught him to cook four years ago and all he could remember was the last meal she cooked for him.
“I miss her steak with grilled onions, cheese, salad and plantains,” Castro said.
Even though he doesn’t talk to his family every day — because of the problems in Venezuela — they always reassure him that they’re fine.
Although Castro can’t help but worry for Venezuela’s future, this season he only has one thing on his mind. So far with the high-Class A Lancaster JetHawks, the first baseman has 70 hits and leads the California League with 17 home runs, 54 RBIs, 61 runs, .607 slugging percentage and .440 on-base percentage. He will play in the league All-Star game today.
He does have long-term goals for his family’s future but continues to push at his craft and not let negative things affect him. Without the opportunity to play baseball Castro wouldn’t be able to help support his family by sending money.
He does plan on reuniting with his family when he gets to the big leagues but wants to bring them here and rid them of the worries of the Venezuelan streets.
“I feel really bad because when I was younger Venezuela was great for me. It was the best country but now I don’t know what has happened,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know if I would go back home because I am focused on my plan A.”
Castro said he is blessed to be healthy and continues to work on his game every day. Although his grandpa never got to watch him play professionally, he still remembers the times he did as a kid.
“I always play for him, and in every single game to remember him I put his initials in the corner of first base,” Castro said.