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Fish Out of Fans

Luis Castillo is all alone again. Almost two weeks after his impressive run of registering at least one hit in 35 consecutive games came to an end and less than a week before his first All-Star Game appearance, he sits quietly in front of his locker at Pro Player Stadium and reflects. "I had a great time," the Marlins second baseman says. "I felt the difference in the media attention. It was hot. "

Indeed, Castillo admits, as he extended his streak night after night, inching his way slowly but resolutely toward one of the game's most revered marks -- Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak -- the pressure mounted. "The newspapers called me all the time," the 26-year-old recounts. "The press started taking me out of my routine. Everybody wanted to talk about [the streak], but I wanted to keep being the same guy. I couldn't sleep. I wanted it to be tomorrow so I could get to the stadium to see what would happen."

If Castillo -- who went 0-for-2 in last week's All-Star Game but is still batting a stunning .340 at press time-- eventually felt carried away by the import of what he was attempting -- only two players in the past 50 years have come closer to DiMaggio's record -- he appears to have been among the very few in South Florida who did. During the streak, attendance at Pro Player Stadium was typically paltry, often with fewer than 10,000 spectators showing up to see what most baseball fans in the nation regarded as one of the great stories of the season's first half.

Ironically, Castillo's streak, so far the highlight of the first post-9/11 baseball summer, also unfolded against a backdrop of national and international unease and nearly mirrored the schedule of DiMaggio's famous feat. Joltin' Joe hit in his 34th consecutive game on June 21. Castillo hit in his 35th consecutive game on the same date. But there the similarities end. The media might have followed Castillo's streak, but local fans literally stayed away in droves. "I'd come home to play [during the streak]," says Castillo, choosing his words diplomatically. "It was different from the other stadiums we'd been in." Empty.

How empty? Remarkably, the Marlins' smallest-ever weekend home crowd -- 5865 -- assembled (or didn't) on the Friday night Castillo extended his streak to 35. The player, though, is grateful for the fans who did turn out. "I'd see people carrying banners with my name, and that made me feel good."

The lack of local attention is surely the product of more than just South Florida's renowned apathy (though it is that too). Baseball, once the national game, is no longer at the center of the culture or even of the sporting universe. Castillo's streak competed with the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League finals, the World Cup, and the overheated buildup to the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis world heavyweight championship fight.

Then there's the issue of Castillo as protagonist. In this era of Juice Ball, where hypermuscled sluggers routinely hit 60 or more home runs every year, Castillo's talent for slapping base hits all over the field, bunting his way on, and stealing bases goes largely ignored by less-astute fans. Singles -- Castillo's specialty -- just aren't sexy. Sure, fans and media may occasionally glom onto a Punch-and-Judy jaguar like Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners' right-fielder, but usually only when his team is winning an inordinate number of games. Then, the player is called a "spark plug," a "table setter," or, even better, the league's Most Valuable Player, as Ichiro was voted last year. On a team like the Marlins, struggling just to stay in the pennant race, a similar kind of player is easily overlooked.

Castillo, though, understands that too. "A lot depends on the city you're in," he says philosophically before adding: "But I feel good here." Certainly, South Florida, with its sunny weather and large Hispanic population, appeals to the Dominican-born Castillo. But so do fan appreciation and long-term security, something he is unlikely to receive from the Marlins. "Someday, I need to have at least a two- or three-year contract," says Castillo, currently working under a one-year, $3.3 million deal that expires at the end of this season. "Otherwise, you're always under pressure." He says it matter-of-factly, with no hint of resentment. Then, just to make sure the listener understands: "I'm working hard, trying to help the team."

The problem is one of economics. The Marlins, as Casey Stengel once might have quipped, don't have any. Or at least, the team appears unwilling to extend itself financially to sign some of its key players to contracts. The team, after all, traded away its relief pitcher and one of its best young pitchers before the season started in what many saw as a salary dump.

Even at Castillo's career-high salary this season, the first-time All Star is, in baseball dollars, a steal. Which is why he'll probably want a lot more next year. And why we'll probably have to watch his future exploits from afar.

Those just may include another hitting streak. Castillo, after all, has already had two streaks of better than 20 games in his career (he shared the old club record of hitting in 22 consecutive games with ex-Marlin Edgar Renteria) and arguably has not yet reached his full potential. The emerging star smiles and looks up at the triptych of Virgins he keeps on the top shelf of his locker when the possibility is raised of another run at history. "It'll be hard," he says, "but you never know."

Whether he ever hits in 56 in a row, Castillo might catch up with DiMaggio. Two of the past three seasons, Castillo has hit for better than a .300 average and has stolen at least 50 bases. He will almost certainly reach those numbers again this year. Slick-fielding second basemen who make a habit of accumulating stats like that don't just go to the All-Star Game. They go to Cooperstown.

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Gaspar González

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