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Castilla: Mexico's Miguel Jordan

The humble Rays third baseman returns home to a hero's welcome from his countrymen.

Vinny Castilla's popularity in his native Mexico can be measured in many ways.

You could keep track of the network television crews that awaited his arrival Friday night; the pictures splashed across the morning papers, including a trivia contest to win one of his jerseys; the people who waited all morning in the lobby of the Rays hotel for an autograph and photo opportunity; the pack of photographers that followed his every move once he stepped onto the field at Foro Sol Stadium.

Or you could just listen.

Castilla might be considered a question mark or a fading star in Tampa Bay, but south of the border it is a different story.

"I don't think people there understand," Mexico City Tigers president Chito Rodriguez said Saturday. "He's a hero in our country."

That was more and more obvious as the day unfolded. Well-wishers calling out to him from all corners of the ballpark. Journalists asking pointed and specific questions during a half-hour interview. And a standing ovation during the introductions before the game against Pittsburgh, and again when he came to bat, and when he singled in the second inning, and even louder when he knocked in a run with a single in the fifth. Castilla finished what he described as "a long day for me" 2-for-4.

"He's the biggest star we have," said Pirates pitcher Francisco Cordova, a native of Veracruz. "Everyone loves him."

Castilla's status here is the result of his impressive accomplishments on the field. But it is just as much a byproduct of the lack of success achieved by his countrymen.

Mexico, despite its vast size and favorable climate, has not produced a lot of major-leaguers. Of the 1,200 players on 40-man rosters at the start of spring training this season, 17 were from Mexico, which is one more than from Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Past Mexican stars have been pitchers, most notably Fernando Valenzuela and Teddy Higuera. That sets apart Castilla, who surpassed Aurelio Rodriguez and Jorge Orta to become Mexico's all-time home run leader.

"Offensively, he's the best Mexican player in the states," Rodriguez said.

Realistically, there might be nothing ever to match Fernando-mania, the feverish pitch of national excitement that accompanied Valenzuela's rise to prominence with the Dodgers.

But Castilla might be close.

Not only is he the biggest name among active players, he has remained humble and made it a point to continue to show his feelings for his people and his country. He has gone back most years to play in the Mexican winter league, and he takes the time to connect with the fans.

"He is today's Fernando Valenzuela," said Reds infielder Juan Castro, a native of Los Mochis. "He's just like Fernando was, a national hero. Fernando was more mythical though, because once he signed he never played in Mexico, so the people didn't see him. Vinny plays in Mexico and the people watch him and love him."

"Right now, you can say he's the biggest star we have in Mexico, and one of the characteristics is that he is one of the most dedicated athletes to the fans," said Edward Almada, a long-time Mexican journalist. "After games he'd stay 2-2{ hours signing autographs. It's very rare to see that in Mexico."

Rays pitcher Rusty Meacham saw it for himself in January, when Castilla joined the Hermosillo Orange Growers for the final month of the winter season. Fans in Tampa Bay might have been disappointed in Castilla's performance in 2000 and fans around the states might be wondering about Castilla's future, but fans around Mexico still show their love for him.

"It'd be the same thing everywhere we went," Meacham said. "The guy couldn't even get to the bus there'd be so many people. He's a huge star, as big as any other star anywhere."

Considering where he came from, it is an amazing accomplishment.

Castilla grew up in Oaxaca (wa-HAH-kah), a city about a five-hour drive to the south that's known more for its art, handcrafts, colorful festivals and even chocolate drinks than sports. Even then, soccer is a much more popular activity.

Castilla's schools had soccer and basketball teams, but no baseball. There was only a small, loosely organized youth league with one game a week, always Saturday.

"My dad played baseball," Castilla said, "and when you are a little boy you want to be like your dad. So I started playing baseball."

Carlos Castilla was an inspiration in other ways. He was an elementary school teacher who worked double shifts to provide for his wife and three children, Carlos Jr., Vinicio and Ileana. "We weren't very poor or very rich," Vinny Castilla said. "I didn't have three pairs of shoes, I had one pair. I didn't have the luxuries the rich kids had, but I had my three meals a day."

Castilla dabbled in soccer, but his passion was baseball, and he kept playing as often as he could. He always had a dream of making it to the grandes ligas, but it didn't seem realistic, not even to his brother. "To be honest, I didn't think so," Carlos said in Spanish. "But it was his tenacity and his professionalism."

Castilla did well enough to be signed by the Mexican League Sarapenos de Saltillo (Saltillo Sarape Makers) in 1987. Three years later, when he was 22, his contract was purchased by Atlanta for a reported $20,000 _ $3,000 to Castilla, the rest to the Sarape Makers.

He had three unremarkable seasons as a minor-league shortstop, where his biggest accomplishment may have been learning English, then was left exposed in the 1992 expansion draft. The Rockies took Castilla with their 20th pick, platooned him at shortstop and second base for most of two seasons, then shifted him to third in 1995.

You might say it was a good move.

Castilla that season started a five-year run that is among the best ever by a third baseman, hitting .302 with 191 homers and 562 RBI. The performance led to two All-Star Game appearances and a four-year, $24-million contract. But Castilla was considered only a moderate star in the United States. His status in his homeland, however, grew considerably.

"He's the man, the biggest Mexican player by far," said Cincinnati pitcher Dennys Reyes, a native of Higuera de Zaragoza. "Everybody loves him. He is a great person with a lot of humility, a national hero."

This weekend trip is Castilla's second time back to Mexico in a major-league uniform. The Rockies and Padres opened the 1999 season in Monterrey and Castilla was the featured attraction, greeted by thousands of adoring fans and newspaper headlines proclaiming Castilla bigger than Mexico's president _ as well as Michael Jordan.

There was more hype then because those were regular-season games, it was Castilla's first return visit and he got four hits. "A very unforgettable day in my career," Castilla said.

But this weekend is something special, too.

"I don't think people in the United States can possibly comprehend when we go to an international country the impact that players like Andres Galarraga and Ozzie Guillen have on the country of Venezuela, and that was shown last year," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "It was tremendous, as exciting a reception for two players as I think I've ever been involved with, and I think you'll see that when (Toronto's) Carlos Delgado and (Texas') Pudge Rodriguez go back to Puerto Rico (for the season opener).

"And when Vinny Castilla goes to Mexico, because Mexico has not produced as many major-leaguers as Venezuela and Puerto Rico, he truly is larger than life. The millions of young aspiring baseball players in that country that look up to Vinny Castilla, I don't think people in the country can comprehend."