This morning, Andy Martino of the Daily News wondered aloud if fans' dislike of Luis Castillo has anything to do with race. The piece has already set off a flurry of backlash, if its online comments are any indication. (I don't advise reading said comments, however, unless you can risk losing IQ points or what's left of your faith in humanity.)
I appreciate that Martino wrote about a subject most reporters won't touch with a ten-foot pole. Many people think "politics" (for lack of a better word) have no place in sports, as if they existed in a bubble where human nature played no part, and they get very upset when you dare introduce reality into this realm. So kudos to Martino for sticking his neck out there. I also think that race factors into many fans' perceptions and feelings about certain Mets players, consciously or not. If you doubt me, listen to WFAN for more than five minutes.
However, I think Martino could've chosen a better test case, and not just because he has now become an ex-Met.
In the article, Martino relates Castillo's puzzlement at how he was received by many Mets fans, sharing the pain of being booed on Opening Day last year. Despite Martino's thesis, Castillo does not say he thinks race was a factor in this reception, nor does an unnamed friend in baseball (who basically admits Castillo's main problem is not being very good).
Martino gets points for reminding us of the resentment some Mets fans felt when Omar Minaya was still the GM. While Minaya certainly deserved criticism for many of his moves, the tenor of that criticism occasionally manifested itself in borderline racist comments. WFAN programs seriously debated if Minaya "favored" Latin players when assembling the roster. In Martino's own paper, Bill Madden accused the team of being "only interested in signing low-budget Latin players."
Unfortunately, Martino undermines a valid point by using a weak example. You don't have to look very far to find a Met whose reception is colored by race issues, and Castillo was fairly low on this list.
Carlos Beltran has been maligned time and time again for being selfish and not playing hard enough, a charge made against Latin superstars since the days of Roberto Clemente. Jose Reyes is maligned for displaying the "wrong" kind of enthusiasm, even though other players who are just as demonstrative but not as "foreign" are praised for their "fire." Conversely, the All-American-looking Jeff Francoeur received an enormous amount of slack from the press and many fans, even when he engaged in behavior that would surely have been condemned if committed by his Latin teammates.
I do believe Castillo was unfairly maligned at times. As I wrote here, he was hated out of proportion to his crimes for having the misfortune of owning an overpriced contract similar to that of Oliver Perez. The resentment he attracted was acquired mostly through osmosis. Castillo was not a great player, but he was hardly the disaster Perez is. As The Happy Recap tweeted, "Castillo being cut before Ollie is like firing Bobby V. before Steve Phillips."
I'm a little baffled by the deep and personal nature of some fans' hatred for him, but I honestly don't believe race is a large factor in that hatred. Beltran and Reyes are disliked mostly for how they are perceived, which at times has racial overtones. Castillo was disliked for how he performed, and for his ginormous contract. I didn't hear many fans accuse him of being lazy or disrespectful, as they do with Beltran and Reyes, but I do hear fans sighing and tsking when he fails to turn an easy double play or can't hit the ball out of the infield.
If nothing else, I give Martino an A for effort. The issue of fans' perceptions and race is a story that needs to be written. Castillo's struggles with the fan base also make for an interesting story. However, they're two separate stories.