In a small room deep inside baseball's haunted cathedral sits the youngest player in the major leagues, a Dominican prodigy who knows nothing of black cats, the Billy Goat or Bartman. Curses? The baby-faced shortstop with the golden swing laughs at all that nonsense. Three years ago he was a no-name prospect in his first days in minor league camp and in need of a uniform number. Thirteen was available. A coach said, "You know that's bad luck here?"
"Really?" the kid said. He smiled back. "We'll see."
It's a few hours before first pitch at Wrigley Field, and here is the kid, all of 21, still skinny—his Latino coaches call him zancudo (mosquito)—and baby-faced but now the new hope of the Cubs. In his second major league season he is the toast of Chicago's North Side, where the Addison Street vendors hawk his best-selling number 13 jersey and VIVA CASTRO T-shirts to the faithful who have watched so many phenoms bloom and wilt but have never seen an overnight baseball sensation quite like this. Starlin DeJesus Castro arrived in the majors on the night of May 7, 2010, at age 20. Against the Reds in Cincinnati he hit a three-run home run in his first at bat and a bases-loaded triple in his third to set a record for most runs driven in by a player (six) in his major league debut. He has been slicing up big league pitchers ever since. Last year he finished the season as the 20th player in the history of the game to hit .300 at age 20, and last weekend he finished April with the second-highest hit total in the majors (40) and first among all shortstops in batting average (.348) and runs scored (18), while bouncing between the top three spots in the lineup as if trying to fill all the Cubs' offensive holes by himself.
"It's easy to forget he just turned 21," says Cubs manager Mike Quade. (Castro's birthday is March 24.) "The only time it's been applicable was when the team went to Las Vegas during spring training, and we had to remember to keep him out of the darn casinos."
Castro is not only the face of a franchise that's been desperate for its next big thing since Sammy Sosa skipped town with his boom box seven years ago, but he's also a new face for a younger, faster, more athletic game. The Dawn of the Dazzling Phenom is becoming a familiar narrative—last year saw the spectacular debuts of Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Stephen Strasburg—but the rise of Castro defies all logic. In an age in which front offices and analysts are armed with prospect reports as detailed as CIA databases, here is a talent that's emerged, seemingly, out of nowhere.
As recently as two years ago few outside the Cubs' organization had even heard of the 6-foot, 190-pound righthanded hitter from the fishing town of Monte Cristi. Castro is quiet and shy and speaks little English. (He conducts interviews with an interpreter, third base coach Ivan DeJesus, at his side.) At the plate he is a paradox: an aggressive free swinger (in his career he has taken a cut at more than 30% of the pitches he's seen outside the strike zone) who rarely punches out (with eight strikeouts in his first 124 plate appearances of the season, he had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the National League).
"He's amazing," says Cubs leftfielder Alfonso Soriano. "He went 0 for 4 [on April 15 against the Rockies], and I joked that I never saw him do that before, so he better get four hits the next day. And then he goes out and gets four hits with a home run."
"It speaks to how special he is that he's doing this while playing, arguably, the most demanding position in a city with as much pressure as Chicago," says Quade. "He's not in awe out there. It's like he's playing a street game in Santiago."
Yes, because Castro has been so good, so soon, it's easy to forget that he's still only as old as your average college junior. He's the first player born in the '90s to make a major league roster—the earliest World Series he recalls watching as a boy was Marlins-Yankees in 2003, when he was 13. But then there are also nights like April 25, when in the second inning against Colorado he committed three errors (a bobble, a dropped grounder, a bad throw) and cost his team the game. On cruel nights like those, it's clear to everyone that this golden child—the Cubs' savior, the game's next great shortstop—still has some growing up to do.
The skipper knew that there would be good nights and there would be bad nights. There always are in the education of a shortstop. "Aside from maybe catcher, shortstop is the most demanding position on the field—you can make the case that in that first year, two or three times a week, you're going to see something that's never happened to you before," says Quade.