One of the best catchers in Mets history was traded Friday night, and nobody seemed to notice or care. There were smiles all around, and the widely held assumption is that a career .650 OPS hitter in the Minor Leagues is more than up to the task of taking his place.
Ramon Castro will be missed. Attention must be paid.
At first glance, referring to Ramon Castro as one of the best catchers in Mets history will be taken as hyperbole. Is it?
Castro hit 33 home runs as a Met in his five seasons with New York. That ranks sixth all-time in franchise annals. The five ahead of him: Mike Piazza, Todd Hundley, Gary Carter, John Stearns, Jerry Grote. That's pretty elite company.
Notice further that while those five played in anywhere from 600 to 1,235 games, Castro hit his in just 269 games as a Met.
Going by OPS, Castro is second all-time among Mets catchers. Only Piazza bested his .773 OPS with the ballclub. Not Hundley. Not Carter. Not Stearns. The catcher was so powerful, his at-bat music was, fittingly, "The Imperial March" by John Williams.
The clubhouse seemed emptier Sunday afternoon. Just a few weeks earlier, Castro had approached me, and said it looked like I'd lost weight. I knew why he said it -- so I'd say the same of him.
"Yep, 25 pounds," he said proudly.
He'd had so many missed opportunities to become a starting catcher. The Marlins, set to hand him the job, unexpectedly got the chance to acquire Ivan Rodriguez instead. Injuries hit Castro at precisely the wrong time when Paul Lo Duca, then Brian Schneider went down.
"Castro was good for us," Luis Castillo said in the clubhouse after Sunday's game. "Sometimes you don't have control of when you get opportunities."
Castillo knew he easily could have been in Castro's position, had Argenis Reyes continued hitting as he did when first called up to the Mets last year.
Even Castro's epic moments with New York seemed to get buried. No one remembers his game-winning home run against the Phillies in August 2005. His three-run homer beat Philadelphia, drew the Mets to within a half-game of the Wild Card. Pedro Martinez was on the mound the next night, and the playoffs seemed possible.
But Martinez got trounced, the Mets hit a tailspin, and Castro's hit got buried in the public consciousness. His home run the next night was forgotten as well.
Castro knew 2009 could be his last chance and came to camp this spring in the best shape of his life. And it seemed like everything had fallen into place for him -- health and opportunity -- when Brian Schneider got hurt.
Then Omir Santos happened.
It's hard not to love an out-of-nowhere success story like Omir Santos. He plays with enthusiasm, and he's had a bunch of big hits for the Mets.
But these stories are always tinged with sadness in baseball. Omir Santos spoiled Ramon Castro's last chance at recognition in New York.
As Santos became the story, Castro quietly did everything expected of him. He was among the first to congratulate Santos after a big hit, and, playing the next day, he'd match him.
When Jerry Manuel pinch-hit Santos for Castro with the bases loaded in the ninth inning April 29, Castro didn't rip the manager, even though he had two hits already that day. He just went out the very next game and homered.
When Santos hit a dramatic home run to beat the Red Sox on May 23, Castro went out on May 24, homered and doubled.
But Castro didn't get the chance to counter Santos after he had the game-winning hit on Friday night. He was on his way to Chicago.
"In a big spot, runners on, you'd always want Ramon up there," Castillo said. "He just hits the ball so hard."
Based on speculative media reports of whispers out of the clubhouse, you'd think Castro was some surly figure hunched in a corner. You'd think he was leaning into Jose Reyes, advocating for Reyes to train less and relax more. It couldn't be further from the truth.
In the Castro-Reyes relationship, the younger Reyes was very much the alpha. Castro patterned his facial hair after Reyes, changed his at-bat music at Jose's behest. Castro's corner of the clubhouse was filled with practical jokes. Sometimes they spilled into the dugout, as when Castillo had a paper cup bubble-gummed to his hat.
So the numbers got lost, with Castro suffering the reverse conventional wisdom that most poor-hitting catchers face. The light-hitting backstops are presumed to be good defenders, even if they are not. And the powerful Castro was assumed to be defensively deficient -- never mind his success throwing out runners, or that Mets pitchers allowed a lower OPS with Castro than with the starting catcher every year from 2005-2008.
But that combination of easy-going and extra-base hits didn't fit with how people believe a catcher should be. A huge bear of a man, always quick with a smile, doesn't seem like the type of fiery leader that can bring a team a championship.
You know, like Lo Duca and the 2007 Mets.
So Castro is gone, and as long as Omir Santos keeps on hitting, the mourning will be minimal. We'll soon get to see if Santos is truly a find and not simply a mediocre Minor League hitter having the best 80 at-bats of his career at precisely the right time.
Meanwhile, Omar can talk about how easy his decision was. Castro can suffer the indignity of having "The Imperial March" played when the light-hitting Ramon Martinez steps to the plate. His Ramon replacement is as unpalatable as when, 18 years ago, the Mets exchanged Darryls, the celestial Strawberry for the ordinary Boston.
And I suspect, when word gets around the league, the free-swinging Santos will stop getting fastballs in 0-2 counts. It's a long season, and soon enough, Ramon Castro will be appreciated by Mets fans and front office alike as he should have been in his time in New York.
He never made an All-Star team or won a World Series with the Mets. But Ramon Castro, one of the best catchers in Mets history, can't be allowed to fall into obscurity. Attention must be paid.