Young Rays fans have become accustomed to watching good baseball, but before the 2008 turnaround, we old timers “enjoyed” two decades of devastatingly disastrous debacles from the 1990s and early 2000s.
Perhaps the best known “oops!” of early Rays history was ‘The Hit Show,’ when the organization brought in a quartet of the top sluggers from the early 1990’s to lead the team into the 2000s: Fred McGriff (who had been with the Rays since their inception); Jose Canseco (who joined in 1999 and was seemingly on a record pace until his back gave out), and Greg Vaughn (who joined in 2000 and had totaled 95 home runs over the previous two years).
— READ MORE: Moments in Rays History: The Hit Show —
The final member of the “Show” was Vinny Castilla, who had been arguably the top slugging third baseman in all of baseball for the past half decade. And then he became a Devil Ray.
Today we’ll be looking at the least successful member of the Hit Show: his path to the Rays, his early success, and his crushing of our hopes and dreams. So grab your AOL login and slide your Tamagotchi into your parachute pants pockets, because we’re traveling to the 90’s.
During the Spring of 1990, Vinny Castilla was a scrawny 22 year old shortstop with a few years of experience in the Mexican Leagues. He was already drawing interest from several teams north of the border, with the Atlanta Braves ultimately winning the bidding for his services, paying a hefty sum of $20K to obtain his contract. Although he never appeared on top prospect lists, Castilla still finagled his way to the big leagues, debuting just one year later towards the tail end of the 1991 campaign. Castilla would play a total of only 21 games with the Braves through the end of the 1992 season.
Then, the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins came into existence and went through the task of pilfering the unprotected rosters of the 26 other teams in baseball.
With the 40th selection of the expansion draft, the Colorado Rockies selected Vinny Castilla. After struggling through the first season in Denver, Castilla surrendered his shortstop job to Walt Weiss and took over at third base. With the transition, he began to flourish. In 1994, before the strike prematurely ended the season in August, Castilla hit .331/.357/.500. However, that was only the beginning of Castilla’s stardom in Colorado as over the next half decade, Castilla would blossom into one of the best third baseman in all of baseball.
From 1994 through the end of 1999, Castilla had a .303 average and slugged .543 with 194 homeruns over 830 games played, averaging nearly 33 home runs per season. Those are seemingly gaudy numbers, but Castilla registered just 105 wRC+ over that time frame.
Meanwhile, while Castilla continuously crushed opposing pitchers in the friendly confines of Coors Field, on the other side of the United States, the fledgling Tampa Bay Devil Rays were beginning their existence in the not so friendly confines of the American League East.
The Devil Rays tabbed Chuck LaMar to be their first General Manager in 1995. LaMar had made his name known as he helped to build the Atlanta Braves powerhouse. He was known to be an excellent scout, but when it came to making deals, LaMar struggled. It didn’t help that he had a boss, Vincent J. Naimoli, who had a win-now sense of urgency coupled with a a strong reluctance to spend any money. These impulses were not, you might imagine, compatible.
LaMar was given a mandate to bring in recognizable names who would draw fans to watch the expansion Rays, while also keeping a close eye on the bottom line. This led to LaMar bringing in some of the of the aging veterans of the previous decade that had some notable experiences or ties to the area such as Wilson Alvarez, Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff. LaMar did attempt to supplement the roster with some scouting department finds, but with the marquee veterans already taking up spots in the lineup, LaMar was limited in his search. The players LaMar did manage to finagle all underwhelmed with a few exceptions.
With the 1999 season — and Wade Boggs’ quest for 3,000 hits — coming to an end, the Devil Rays had an opening for a third baseman. Boggs’s milestone chase was the main draw over that summer. Now LaMar needed a new draw, and he was willing to flip the couch cushions for a few more pennies to make an investment.
On December 13th, 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made a significant splash. They signed Greg Vaughn to a four year deal and then acquired Vinny Castilla in a four team deal. The first line in an article on the dealings in the Associated Press read, “Tropicana Field might be home-run heaven next season.”
Unfortunately, that would only be true for the lineups visiting Tropicana Field. Opposing teams would mash 109 home runs at Tropicana Field, the 5th most by visiting teams in any baseball stadium during the 2000 season; the Devil Rays only had 76 home runs at the Trop.
Vinny Castilla’s career in Tampa Bay would begin quietly as he strained his oblique in Spring Training and missed the first week of the season. He still managed to get off to a hot start with Tampa Bay as he hit .297/.343/.469 through the end of April.
That would be the high point of his Devil Rays tenure.
Following the initial success, Castilla dealt with a nagging back injury that resulted in multiple stints on the Injured List. Being on the shelf was a rarity for Castilla during his time with Colorado, but he would become well acquainted with the training staff for Tampa Bay. During the 2000 campaign, Castilla played in just 85 games.
After reaching his highwater mark with a .743 OPS on April 30th, Castilla would hit just .208/.236/.277 (.512 OPS) with a lowly 3 HR over 276 plate appearances.
Far from the level of production the Devil Rays had been expecting and well off the level of production Castilla had been accustomed to during his days crushing Coors Field.
“They brought me here to do the same things I did the last five years and it’s frustrating for me not to get the job done. I feel bad for the team, for my teammates, for the fans. This is not what I wanted this season. I wanted to come here and do well for everyone.”
The 2001 season would be more of the same for Castilla, at least with the Devil Rays. After beginning the year with a flourish against the Toronto Blue Jays (5-9, 3 2B & 1 HR), Castilla only hit .179/.207/.250 over his next 87 plate appearances. He ultimately lost his starting job and demanded to be traded or released. Castilla was very vocal about his displeasure with the team and sounded off in the media about that displeasure.
“I just want to get out of here. They don’t play me anymore. If they don’t want me here, then I don’t want to be here, either.”
“I feel like when you go to someone’s house and they don’t want you there. That’s how I feel every time I come to the ballpark.”
“I wasn’t healthy all year, but I busted my butt all winter to get ready for this season. I started the season good, then I struggled for three games and they shut me down. I don’t think that’s fair.”
“I can’t control what they do, but I just don’t want to be here anymore.”
He would play his last game in a Devil Rays uniform on May 8th, going 0-3; he would be released on May 10th.
“The best-case scenario for me is to let me go and find somebody that wants me.”
The best-case scenario came to fruition very, very quickly for Castilla.
He was quickly picked bythe Houston Astros. With the new organization, Castilla seemingly felt reinvigorated as he reestablished himself as a solid power threat in the middle of a lineup and eventually posted the fourth highest fWAR among position players for the Astros. Then, like many others in 2000, used his success at Enron Field to pad his pockets elsewhere.
Despite his lackluster tenure with the Devil Rays, Vinny Castilla signed a two-year deal and moved Chipper Jones off of third base in Atlanta with the Braves.
Castilla’s woes returned during his reunion tour with Atlanta however as he managed to hit just .254/.289/.405 with 34 HR over 290 games played, registering a 77 wRC+. His 2002 campaign was disastrous as he accrued -1.5 fWAR, but rebounded with 1.9 fWAR in 2003, giving him a net 0.4 fWAR overall over the life of the contract. Castilla then went back to his old mashing grounds in Colorado for the 2004 season and he once again thrived in the mountain air as he hit .271/.332/.535 with 35 home runs over 148 games played, garnering some MVP attention in the process.
At the conclusion of his career, Castilla split time between the Washington Nationals, San Diego Padres, and with Colorado, retiring at 38 years old as a member of the Rockies in 2006.
He finished his 16 year big league career, having established himself as one of the greatest Mexican born baseball players in the history of the game. He is among the nation’s all-time leaders in WAR and holds a hefty lead for the most home runs among Mexican players (nearly a 200 HR advantage over the 2nd player in line). He received votes for the MVP award in four different seasons, he was awarded three Silver Sluggers, and was a two-time All Star.
During his time in Tampa Bay, Castilla hit .219/.253/.316 with 8 HR over 109 games; During his time everywhere else, Castilla hit .280/.325/.487 with 312 HR over 1,745 games. Castilla could easily serve as the poster child for the Coors Field effect as he absolutely loved hitting at that ballpark.
Playing in 489 games at that stadium, Castilla hit .333/.380/.609 with 132 homeruns over 2,100 plate appearances. Meanwhile, everywhere else, Castilla hit .254/.297/.424 with 188 homeruns over 5,284 plate appearances.
The writing was there for all to see that Castilla’s success was purely driven by the confines of his environment, but the Devil Rays chose to ignore that in the hopes that Castilla could find success within their organization. It was a disastrous relationship for both sides, but Vinny Castilla was able to resurrect his career and find success much faster than did the Devil Rays/Rays organization.