The Curse of the Billy Goat has nothing on the unfortunate fates that have befallen the starting pitching rotation of the 1997 Chicago Cubs.
On Monday we learned that Frank Castillo became the third member of the 1997 Cubs starting rotation to die at a young age. Castillo, who was 44, drowned in an Arizona lake on Sunday. Former teammates Kevin Foster and Geremi Gonzalez both died in 2008. Foster was 39 when he succumbed to renal cancer, while Gonzalez was struck by lightning on a beach at the age of 33.
All three were members of a Cubs team that was born under a black cloud. Despite having a decent amount of talent — with a few pieces changed they’d go on to win the Wild Card a year later — the club set a National League record by losing 14 games in a row to start the season. Castillo would be dealt to the Rockies before the season’s end, and Kevin Tapani came off the disabled list later in the year, so there were essentially seven starting pitchers on the team that year. The survivors are Tapani, Steve Trachsel, Mark Clark and Terry Mulholland.
It’s telling how bad the ’90s Cubs teams were that I always considered Castillo one of their best pitchers. When I actually looked up his career stats today, I realized he was actually a very average pitcher, going 47-62 with a 4.68 ERA over the course of his seven years with the Cubs. Regardless, he is still probably my favorite starter of that early-to-mid ’90s era, though Mike Harkey also gets mad props in my mind.
Castillo’s best year was 1995. It was the only time he finished with a winning record, going 11-10 as the Cubs unexpectedly made a late push to stay alive in the Wild Card race until the last weekend of the season.
The best game of Castillo’s career was a big part of that push. On Sept. 25 he came within one strike of becoming the first Cub to throw a no-hitter since 1972 when freaking Bernard Gilkey ripped a triple for the Cardinals’ only hit in a 7-0 loss.
Other than that game, Castillo was best known for having the hottest wife on the team. I know this because every single time he pitched they would show her on camera, and Harry Caray would proceed to shout sweet somethings into the microphone. (Part of the reason I didn’t see what the big deal was about Brent Musburger’s to-do with Katherine Webb in the BCS Championship was because growing up I was used to hearing the same thing about Castillo’s wife every five days).
It is sad to think that Frank Castillo is now on a peculiar list of pitchers who have left too soon.