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updated: 7/30/2013 10:02 AM

Castillo the third '97 Cubs pitcher to pass away

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  • Frank Castillo, who pitched for the Cubs from 1991-97, drowned Sunday near his home in Arizona. Castillo was 44.

    Frank Castillo, who pitched for the Cubs from 1991-97, drowned Sunday near his home in Arizona. Castillo was 44.
    Associated Press


There's not much you'd want to remember about the 1997 Cubs, especially after they began the season 0-14.

By that time, opening-day starter Terry Mulholland was 0-2, No. 2 starter Steve Trachsel was 0-3, Frank Castillo 0-3, Kevin Foster 0-1 and Geremi Gonzalez was a month away from his major-league debut.

Those pitchers made the most starts of anyone for the last-place Cubs in 1997 -- and three-fifths of that rotation is now deceased.

Foster and Gonzalez died in 2008 and Castillo, 44, passed away Sunday, drowning in Bartlett Lake near his Scottsdale, Ariz., home. Authorities said Castillo was on a pontoon boat with a friend when he decided to go swimming.

"I'm just numb," said former Cubs trainer John Fierro, who got the news while in Boise visiting his son Jonathan, a trainer for the Cubs' short-season, Class-A affiliate. "I played golf with Frankie a lot the last few winters.

"He was a happy guy enjoying life, enjoying his kids. I don't think he was a great swimmer, but I don't know what happened. Just very sad news."

Evanston native Foster died at 39 of renal cancer, only 13 years after his father died of liver failure at 49 while waiting for a transplant.

Gonzalez was only 33 when he passed away after being struck by lightning in his native Venezuela.

And with Castillo dying Sunday, a majority of that rotation is now gone.

"It goes to show you how fragile life can be," said former Cubs GM Jim Hendry, who worked with all three men during his first few years in the Cubs' farm system. "They left this Earth way too young.

"When you see what's going on in Philly with the brain tumors and now this, it's just an eerie feeling. People you knew well when they were very young, and all performed at the highest level of their sport at a young age, are all gone."

Castillo's family released a statement, saying, "Frank was a wonderful son, terrific brother, and an extraordinary father to his two beautiful girls. Everyone who knew Frank loved Frank. We are devastated by this loss."

The living tend to portray the dead in glowing terms, sometimes when inappropriate, but I covered those Cubs teams and can tell you that the Frank Castillo I knew was a terrific guy. While he wasn't a saint, he was as nice a player as you could meet among major-leaguers.

He made it to the big leagues in 1991 with a brilliant changeup and had his best season the following year.

Though he went just 10-11 for a 77-85 team -- the Cubs had the fifth-worst offense in baseball and scored 13 runs in his 11 defeats -- Castillo followed Greg Maddux everywhere he went and soaked up as much knowledge as he could. He finished 1992 with a 3.46 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 33 starts and 205 innings.

Maddux left after that season and Castillo was never the same pitcher. He finished his career with an 82-104 record over 13 years with six teams, though the bulk of his career (161 starts) was spent with the Cubs.

He's best remembered for being one strike away from a no-hitter on Sept. 25, 1995, at Wrigley Field, when the Cardinals' Bernard Gilkey tripled to right-center on a 2-2 fastball over the outer portion of the plate.

"The thing that goes through your mind over and over again is that you will probably never get that chance again," Castillo told me after a sleepless night. "And then you think about that pitch until you can't even think about it anymore.

"I got him down 0-2 and threw him a great slider, but he didn't bite. Then, I threw probably the best pitch I threw all night. It was a great changeup and he didn't even move. He spit on it.

"I was like, 'Wow, if he's not going for that I'll have to throw a fastball.' That was the right pitch in that situation. I was too nervous and too pumped and I overthrew it and it sailed on me. It was too high and it got too much of the plate.

"Still, a lot of hitters will miss that or pop it up, but he hammered it."

That was the closest Frank Castillo came to fame in baseball, but he had a decent career and made a lot of friends along the way.

"Frankie worked for us the last couple years in Mesa with the young kids, and he was really good with the young pitchers," Hendry said. "He wanted to coach. He wanted to give something back to the game.

"He was a really good person who treated everyone great, whether you were a rookie or a fan or a writer. Good teammate, good guy. Win or lose, same guy every day. Got the most out of his ability. But I think of him as a good guy."

Everyone I spoke to about Castillo, including several teammates, said the same thing Monday.

The last time I saw Frank was in Arizona a couple of years ago and he was doing great, which only makes the news more shocking.

You write about and cover a lot of people over the course of a long career and some you like and some you don't. Some will live a long life and some won't, but you don't expect to hear about guys you saw come up to the majors as kids dying so young.

"He was in the prime of his life. He was young and healthy and happy," Fierro said. "He loved his kids. He had so much to look forward to."

Yet another reminder that tomorrow is promised to no one.

Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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