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Rays reliever Diego Castillo pursuing two dreams: A World Series, and U.S. citizenship

By Jerry Crasnick

If Diego Castillo didn’t throw a 96 mph fastball and a wipeout slider, he might be making a living with a level and a tape measure. He had a flair for math as a boy, and engineering seemed like a worthy pursuit. When he saw the construction workers in their hard hats building schools and sports complexes in his hometown in the Dominican Republic, he envisioned himself drawing up the plans and overseeing the projects.

With time and opportunity, Castillo followed a different career path. At age 20 -- uncommonly old by Dominican standards -- he signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Rays. Six years later, he’s an important piece in a lockdown bullpen as the Rays try to build on their American League East title in pursuit of the franchise’s first championship.

The quest to build a better life for his wife and two daughters entails more than throwing a ball and logging service time toward salary arbitration and free agency. As he piles up strikeouts and builds his baseball resume, Castillo is navigating the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

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"It’s a dream that everyone wants, to be able to live here,’’ Castillo said in Spanish through a translator during a video chat. “I’m going to keep fighting for that and hope to God that it turns out well because it would be something incredible."

As a U.S. government website explains, citizenship entitles a person to vote in federal elections, serve on juries, apply for federal jobs, bring family members to the country and obtain citizenship for children under age 18. An applicant must have a continuous residence in the U.S., be able to read, write and speak basic English, demonstrate good moral character, show a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government, demonstrate a loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance.

In 2018, Minnesota Twins reliever and Dominican native Fernando Rodney posed for pictures holding an American flag and standing beside a Statue of Liberty replica during his citizenship ceremony. Last year, several Cleveland Indians players completed the process. The list included Yasiel Puig, a Cuba native, Oliver Perez, who grew up in Mexico, and Carlos Santana and Hanley Ramirez, both born and raised in the Dominican Republic.

Fernando Rodney

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Yasiel Puig

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Oliver Perez

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Carlos Santana

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Hanley Ramirez

“It’s something that is so important not only to me but my family,’’ Castillo said. “I have two daughters and my wife, and all I want is for them to be able to live and go to school here and advance their lives in a way you don’t find anywhere else. I’ve been living here and I love it here. It’s a lot safer to live here, and I think about my family’s safety.’’

Castillo, 26, grew up the youngest of 10 children in Cabrera, a town of 40,000 located in the Maria Trinidad Sanchez province of the Dominican Republic. While the beaches, waterfalls and lush vegetation are a boon to tourism, many of the locals make their livings through farming. Castillo worked in the rice fields for 100-200 pesos a day as a boy and learned to cook arroz con pollo and other traditional dishes from watching his mother in the kitchen.

“In one aspect it was great, but it was also very hard,’’ Castillo said. “When a mother and father have 10 kids, it’s difficult. That is 10 mouths to feed. It was difficult for my father. He needed to work to care for 10 kids, and that’s a big challenge.’’

Castillo didn’t throw hard enough to impress the scouts as a teenager, and he put baseball on hold to concentrate on academics. His shelf life as a prospect had nearly expired when he made an impression at a 2014 tryout camp in the D.R. Carlos Rodriguez, then the Rays’ director of Latin scouting, and scouting supervisor Danny Santana were among the talent evaluators watching.

“It was at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week,’’ Rodriguez said. “At the very end this guy wearing Yankee pinstripe pants and a Yankee shirt comes trotting out to the mound and I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He wasn’t even on the roster, because he was coming from way up north and they hadn’t even confirmed he was coming.

“I leaned over to Danny and I said, ‘This guy better be blowing 96.’ So the first pitch is 95 and the next pitch is 96. I leaned over and said, ‘OK, we’re going to sign this guy.’’’

The Rays signed Castillo to a $64,000 bonus, took note of his maturity and aptitude for learning and put him on the fast track. After making his debut in the Dominican Summer League, Castillo whizzed through Hudson Valley, Bowling Green, Charlotte, Montgomery and Durham before joining the big club in June 2018.

In his major-league debut, Castillo struck out two and pitched a scoreless inning against Washington. Last year, he threw 5 2/3 shutout innings in the postseason and was the “opener’’ in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against Houston.

Beyond his formidable fastball-slider repertoire and penchant for inducing weak contact, Castillo has impressed his teammates with his studious approach and commitment to the art of pitching.

“He’s always running extra before pitchers stretch,’’ said Rays reliever John Curtiss. “He’s always in the weight room, and he works hard on his arm care and his shoulder program. He kind of acts like a 10-year veteran in terms of how he conducts his business, but not in the way he treats his teammates. He’s just a humble, kind soul.’’

Life in the big leagues can produce some indelible moments. Castillo retired one of his baseball heroes, Albert Pujols, in each of their two encounters. He has yet to meet Pedro Martinez or David Ortiz, two other Dominican role models, but hopes to cross their paths soon enough.

Like Martinez, Pujols and so many other Dominican big leaguers, Castillo wants to use his platform to help the people back home. In March, he reached out to a former coach and bought food to distribute to friends and neighbors in the Dominican Republic who were in quarantine because of the coronavirus. He’s working to establish the Diego Castillo Foundation to help people in his native country deal with housing and medical bills and the cost of higher education.

“Sometimes you forget what guys have gone through to get where they are,’’ Rodriguez said. “Diego kind of embodies all of that. He has a real value system in place. His family, baseball and his teammates have always been his focus, so it’s really gratifying to see where he’s gotten to today. He’s a phenomenal human being.’’

As Castillo raises his family and tends to his career, he never forgets where he came from or loses sight of where he’s going. It’s all part of the plan.

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