Twin's Castino mans tough third-base barrier

Third base is the Point Barrow, Alaska, of major league baseball. It is the last outpost a base runner touches before reaching home plate. But if the guy who plays it doesn't swing a power bat or come to work in a gorilla suit, he usually achieves the same notoriety as a mailman or, for that matter, anyone who makes home deliveries.

The point is, if you passed third base man John Castino of the Minnesota Twins on his way to the ball park, your first reaction probably wouldn't be -- "Hey, I've got to get this guy's autograph!"

Castino, out of uniform, is wallpaper; he's as individual as paper clips; as exciting as climbing stairs. John could be any 5 ft. 11 in., 175-pound guy except for two things. he's got magic in his glove and the singleness of purpose of a guy who drives railroad spikes.

This is a player almost any fan can identify with because he doesn't make $ 100,000 a year; his face doesn't appear in commercials with Farrah Fawcett; and he buys his clothes off a rack.

Castino's ability to trap a speeding baseball, and not his bat, is what got him to the big leagues and, if he stays, is the thing that will keep him there.

Actually it probably isn't fair to say "if he stays" because last season John shared American League Rookie of the Year honors with infielder Alfredo Griffin of the Toronto Blue Jays.

If you're a casual baseball fan, you might have trouble remembering both of them, since they had a combined total of five home runs. But occasionally writers do recognize the importance of steadiness and defense, which is what got Castino and Griffin most of their votes.

While nobody is trying to pass off Castino as the next Brooks Robinson, John made the hard plays look easy last year and the impossible ones routine. And his throws to first base would have won a roomful of stuffed animals if he had taken his accuracy to a carnival.

Castino made some errors, of course, but only because his superior range helped him deflect several balls that normally would have ended up rattling around as doubles in the left field corner. Next to Minnesota shortstop Roy Smalley, he was probably the Twins' pitching staff's best friend.

Castino is line-drive hitter who usually swings in the No. 9 position for Manager Gene Mauch, although he has occasionally batted as high as second. His .285 rookie average last year was 10 points higher than he had hit the previous season in the minors and surprised a few people.

"I have this theory that if you want something bad enough, the drive for it has to come from within," Castino told me. "I mean you can't expect someone else to do your work for you. So last year I made it a point to know the strike zone, to increase my concentration at the plate, and to take a lot of extra batting practice on my own.

"I don't have a lot of power, but there is no reason why I can't have a lot of self-discipline," he continued. "Last year everything up here was new to me and learning takes time. But this year I know what to expect and how to deal with it. And I'm still willing to go out and work those extra hours on my own if that's what it's going to take to keep me here."

Mauch, who gets as much mileage out of his no-name personnel as any Maine farmer ever got out of a Model A Ford struggle buggy, is a whiz with kids because of his patience. And the way he has allowed Castino to find himself at the plate has already paid rich dividends.

"You can teach a kid where to play the hitters at third base, but his reactions are his own," Mauch explained. "Those you can't teach. John either does or doesn't, but generally anything Castino gets his glove on he turns into an out."

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