Ask Luis Castillo when he last felt completely healthy, and his answer is likely to leave National League pitchers and catchers feeling anything but. "Nineteen ninety-six," says Castillo, the Marlins' second baseman, who through Sunday was ranked second in the major leagues in steals despite having played with a sore ankle since May 24 and last September having undergone his third shoulder operation. He also spent three weeks in April and May on the disabled list with a strained back. "Right now I feel about 85 percent," he says. "When I feel good and I'm on base, it looks like the next one is right in front of me."
Opponents indeed might be wondering if the usual 90 feet between bags is reduced when Castillo gets on, which is often. He led National League leadoff hitters with a .473 on-base percentage, was fifth in the league with a .361 batting average and had 26 steals in 37 attempts. He's also an anomaly in this powerball era, a player who rarely hits the ball in the air—76% of the balls he had put in play this season had been on the ground—much less out of the park. "I don't want to talk about home runs," says Castillo, a switch-hitter who had three career homers after hitting his first of the season (for just his third RBI) last Saturday. "My game is stealing bases."
Though he's only 24, Castillo has been developing his specialty for nearly a decade. He was signed by Florida as a 16-year-old in 1992. Four years later he broke into the majors by hitting .262 and stealing 17 bases in 41 games. He was the Marlins' Opening Day second baseman in '97, but his meteoric rise fizzled that July when, struggling with a .240 average and only 16 steals in 75 games, he was sent back to the minors.
Castillo spent more than a year at Triple A Charlotte and got a second chance with Florida only after Craig Counsell went down with a broken jaw in August 1998. Though Castillo struggled upon his return to the majors, John Boles, who replaced Jim Leyland as manager before last season, named him the starting second baseman the next spring. "I feel more comfortable with Bolesy," says Castillo, who found it difficult to play under the gruff Leyland. "He gives me confidence."
"When his confidence is soaring, he's a special player," says Boles, who was the Marlins' director of player development when Castillo was signed. "One day he'll look in the mirror and see how good he is."
Opponents already know. Castillo hit .302 and finished fourth in the league with 50 steals in 1999 despite missing most of the season's final month with a dislocated left shoulder. This year he had reached base in 41 of his 44 games through Sunday and had six multisteal games, including a four-steal romp against the Padres. "Luis is the catalyst of our offense," says Boles. "As he goes, we go."
Castillo has yet to go at full strength. To protect his chronically injured shoulder, Castillo—who formerly slid headfirst, even when breaking up double plays—learned the feet-first style in spring training. The approach backfired in St Louis, when Castillo jammed that ankle sliding into second. Despite nagging pain Castillo had been successful on eight of 11 steal attempts since the injury. "It's not debilitating; it just needs rest before it completely heals—maybe at the All-Star break," says Boles, who then quickly reconsiders. "That is, if he's not in the All-Star Game."