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Seven miles north of Fenway Park, Rusney Castillo slides into the driver’s seat of his rented black Maserati Ghibli. It’s 7 1/2 hours before first pitch, but Castillo has learned the rhythms of game days in the U.S. after the Red Sox signed him to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal in 2014. Playing for his hometown Ciego de Ávila Tigres of the Cuban league, the outfielder would show up an hour before the game. Now he tries to beat his teammates to the park.
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Dressed head to toe in Nike gear and wearing a gold chain with his diamond-encrusted initials, he wheels from the garage of his apartment building onto Route 1 toward Boston. Then, 10 minutes later, he drives past the exit for Fenway Park.
If he made less money, perhaps Castillo would turn off there. But due to a rule that confuses even Castillo, the Red Sox are paying him so much that he can’t play for them. So he continues along I-93 and then I-95 on his 50-mile commute to Pawtucket, R.I., home of the Triple A Red Sox. The highest-paid player in the minor leagues has made this drive more than 200 times, over five years. He knows he will make it another 70 or so in 2020, the final year of his contract. But he keeps his three-bedroom apartment in Boston because he believes that he belongs there—and that someday he will play there.
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In August, Castillo won his second straight PawSox MVP award. In the four seasons since his last demotion, he has batted .294 and slugged .429. Manager Billy McMillon regularly advocates for the 32-year-old Castillo when he speaks to the player development officials. But no matter how well he performs, he will remain at McCoy Stadium, ensnared by a tax loophole no one could have foreseen. Through an interpreter Castillo explains matter-of-factly, “Anybody can [hope to] be called up but me.”
When the Red Sox signed Castillo to the richest contract ever for a Cuban free agent, then-GM Ben Cherington thought he would be their centerfielder of the future. But the excellent contact skills and good power Castillo had shown in 323 games with the Tigres failed to translate. He put together an OPS of just .679 in 99 games over parts of three MLB seasons as other outfielders became fixtures at Fenway: 2011 first-round pick Jackie Bradley Jr. in centerfield, ’11 fifth-rounder Mookie Betts in right and ’15 first-rounder Andrew Benintendi in left.
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In June 2016, Boston outrighted Castillo to Triple A, a move that also helped the team’s bottom line: Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, only the salaries of players on the 40-man roster counted toward the luxury tax. By removing Castillo’s $10.5 million from that total and keeping him down for the season, the Red Sox, who were over the tax threshold and facing a 30% penalty, saved roughly $3 million.
Five months later MLB and the players’ association agreed on a new CBA. Under those terms once a player is added to the 40-man roster his salary counts for luxury-tax purposes, even if he is taken off the 40-man again. Team owners wanted this to lower potential tax bills; the union’s primary concern was making sure its major league members got paid. But the change proved crushing to Castillo, the rare minor leaguer making big bucks. By keeping him down, the Sox cut his eight-figure salary from luxury-tax consideration. If they had promoted him this year, they would have to pay around $7 million in taxes. They could face a similar bill for bringing him up in 2020.
Boston doesn’t want to take that sort of financial hit for a part-time outfielder. (In a statement the Red Sox said Castillo “remains under contract, and we look forward to having him in the organization in 2020.”) And no other team wants to pay him eight figures either, so if the Red Sox did trade him they would surely have to pick up a large portion of his salary . . . on which they would also have to pay a luxury tax. So Castillo lives in a bizarre world in which every year Boston invites him to big league spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla.; every year he excels there; and every year he gets sent back to minor league camp.
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San Francisco Giants rookie Mike Yastrzemski made an emotional return to his home state of Massachusetts on Tuesday, playing his first MLB game at Boston’s Fenway Park. The name should be familiar to you: Yastrzemski is the grandson of Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski.
In the top of the fourth inning, Mike Yastrzemski authored a special moment his family and friends will never forget.
With the Giants leading 4-1, Yastrzemski launched a home run to straightaway center field at Fenway, where his grandfather hit 237 home runs in his Hall of Fame career. It was the 20th homer of the season for the 29-year-old.
A Yastrzemski just homered at Fenway.
Can you believe it?
8:30 AM – Sep 18, 2019
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Yastrzemski actually received a standing ovation prior to his first at-bat in the third inning by a Boston crowd surely showing their appreciate for the family of “Yaz,” who is on the short list for greatest players to ever suit up for the Red Sox.
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“The crowd reactions all night were incredible,” Mike told reporters after the game. “I can’t thank them enough for being supportive and showing me some love when I’m on the opposing team. It’s unheard of, and it was really special.”
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For the first time in 36 years, Yaz steps to the plate at Fenway.
7:23 AM – Sep 18, 2019
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Carl Yastrzemski played 23 seasons for the Red Sox from 1961-83. He was an 18-time All-Star who won the 1967 MVP, when he hit for baseball’s “Triple Crown.” He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989, the year before his grandson was born.
“It had to be a great night for a lot of Red Sox fans to see a Yastrzemski out there,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “I’m sure it reminded them of some of the great memories they have. It was pretty cool.”
Yaz & Yaz
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2:52 AM – Sep 18, 2019
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For Mike Yastrzemski, it was an incredible moment to cap a breakthrough year. He made his first big league appearance in May after bouncing around the minor leagues after getting drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2013 following his college baseball career at Vanderbilt.
“I got to walk in here by myself when I got to the field,” he said. “There was a lot of memories of being in the stands. Being in the stands for the World Series, being in the stands for the ’99 Home Run Derby, the All-Star Game, being with family at games. Those things overwhelm you more than actually playing here.”
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Rusney Castillo stands in a dusty dugout in Pawtucket, wearing a shirt that says boston. While he understands his predicament, he continues to believe that he is just one good stretch away from a return to Fenway. He glues himself to MLB Network in his three-bedroom apartment and compiles makeshift scouting reports on his future opponents. He refuses to move to Rhode Island, much to the chagrin of his business manager and roommate, Hector Ramos, who often complains, “Too much driving.” Castillo says Ramos will appreciate the short commute when Castillo is eventually promoted.
Sometimes he wonders how different his life would be if he made less, but he does not want to try to renegotiate his deal. He has a wife and four-year-old daughter who spend most of the year in Miami, and a seven-year-old son who lives with his mother in Cuba. This wealth means they and their children and their children’s children will never go hungry, as he sometimes did as a boy growing up in Ciego de Ávila. He defected in 2013 with two goals: To strike it rich and to play in the major leagues. It is a bitter irony that the first now precludes the second.
He never shows that frustration, the people around him say. PawSox coach Bruce Crabbe, who has worked with Castillo since his 2016 demotion, marvels that Castillo is the first in the batting cage, the first on the field. “He doesn’t have to do a darn thing, but he still does the same things he’s done since Day One,” says Crabbe. “Probably more. There are more gadgets.”
Those gadgets for training—the halved bat whose pieces are connected by a chain, the inflatable platform on which he sometimes stands while in the batting cage—also got the attention of third baseman Michael Chavis, who opened the season in Triple A before being called up in April. Last month he sprained his left AC joint and a rehab assignment brought him back to Pawtucket, where he found himself even more impressed by Castillo.
“He shouldn’t be here,” says Chavis. “He’s a big leaguer.”
Castillo celebrates just as loudly as anyone else when a PawSox player receives the call that will change his life. He knows how much that dream means. He still dreams it.