Below is an interview I conducted with Castle days ago from Mesa, Ariz.
Steve Holley: George, what are your overall thoughts on this 2005 Cubs team? How do you feel about the team Jim Hendry and Dusty Baker have assembled?Footnote: Included in Castle's published works are: I Remember Harry Caray, Sammy Sosa: Clearing the Vines, and The Million-To-One-Team: Why the Chicago Cubs Haven't Won a Pennant Since 1945. They are all highly reccommended.
George Castle: Well, they've taken a lot of criticism over not making any big player moves in the offseason, especially by not getting a big free agent and then ridding themselves of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou. I do agree with Jim Hendry that getting Nomar Garciaparra was a big acquisition, because he wasn't healthy last year. A healthy Nomar returning to his Red Sox standards is a big addition and a more versified run-producer than either Sosa or Alou, who were basically right-handed power hitters that in many cases could not drive in a run from third base and struck out a lot.
Steve Holley: What are your concerns about this years team, in particular the uncertainty at closer.
George Castle: I know they were not in awe of Troy Percival, because they did not like the fact that he gives up a lot of fly balls. They thought he was on the decline and I know they weren't high on Armando Benitez, either. They had tried to trade for Dan Kolb, but Atlanta just beat them to the punch. What they're aiming at now is getting Joe Borowski back; it's his job to lose. They've assembled a good base of talent with their front four starters. For my money, when they've had three or four quality starters through the years, they've always been in contention.
Steve Holley: What are some of the things you're working on this offseason?
George Castle: I'm continuing my coverage with the Times. I'm also working on a book about how baseball is viewed through broadcast and media. I'm trying to solidify a book on the Cubs' starting rotation this upcoming season, and I'm also working on "Diamond Gems." It's now on 25 stations, mainly in the Midwest but also in Denver, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. I'm also ready to promote another book that is coming out May 1 titled Where Have All Our Cubs Gone?
Steve Holley: I wanted to ask you a little about that book. Tell us about it.
George Castle: It's a profile of approximately 40 former Cub players, managers and executives that is mainly focused on what they're doing now. There was a similar book that came out last fall that really just rehashed their careers, but my book focuses on life after baseball for guys both famous and not so famous. One chapter is about life after infamy with Ernie Broglio, who of course was traded for Lou Brock, and how he teaches fundamentals by using what is known as a pitcher's arc. A concluding chapter is a nostalgic one about the families of the late Cub icons Kenny Hubbs and Vince Lloyd. For anybody who grew up with the Cubs from the 50s through the 90s, you'll really have a good trip through history. It has features of Dallas Green and Jim Frey just to name a few others. I took a lot of the photos myself. The first profiles in the book are of Fergie Jenkins and Andre Dawson.
Steve Holley: I'm sure you've been asked this many times—in your opinion, was Sammy Sosa a distraction to his teammates, and was a trade necessary?
George Castle: Yes, he was. For whatever reason, starting at the end of 2002, Sammy's attitude went into the toilet. He had made himself the best right-handed hitter in baseball in 2001 and posted 64 home runs, but starting at the end of '02, Sammy started leaning more to the selfish side. I think he thought he could take a short cut to the corked bat episode in 2003, which came suspiciously after he struck out eight times in two days against the Astros in that big series the weekend before. He thought he could help smooth his image by going back to the minor leagues after the injury last year, but he never really recovered from the corked bat. He also stayed too far away from the plate, probably a result of the 2003 beaning with Salomon Torres in Pittsburgh, and he balked at being dropped down in the order, which caused Dusty Baker to tread lightly. If you're talking about being a team guy, Sammy just fell down.
Steve Holley: Obviously one of the biggest traditions of Cubs baseball is the great broadcasters we've had the joy of listening to over the years. Have you had the chance to meet with the gentlemen who are going to be broadcasting games this season, Len Kasper and Bob Brenly? If so, what are your impressions of them?
George Castle: Well, I've met Len on a couple of occasions. He seems to be a nice guy, but I haven't heard him call a game. As for Brenly, I got to know him as a player and coach. He served two years as an analyst in 1990 and '91, and he's very honest and bright. If the Cubs couldn't have Stoney, Brenly was their best bet. I think he'll definitely be a very forthright and honest analyst, which is something I look forward to hearing. In Steve's case, the one problem he had was that when he had disputes with players, he didn't go into the clubhouse and settle it the next day like Marty Brennaman of the Reds. And I think that's where the relationship broke up.
Steve Holley: In your opinion, was there more to the Stone-Mercker story than what was reported?
George Castle: No. I talked to both, and there isn't a more outstanding guy in baseball than Kent Mercker. The original complaint was actually against Chip Caray for giving too much credit to Roy Oswalt. Kent called and was complaining about what Caray had said, but Stone took it personal. From what I was told, there were grumblings about Stone in 2003 that were never made public.
Steve Holley: We talked about the Cubs' closer issues; now let's talk about the uncertainties at the leadoff spot. What are your thoughts there?
George Castle: Well, Dusty seems dead set on Corey Patterson. Unfortunately, I don't think he has enough plate discipline to be a leadoff hitter. I'd like to see Dusty give more of a shot to Jerry Hairston, who has more experience in that role. I just feel that Jerry should be given more of a shot this spring. After all, that's what Spring Training is for: experimentation and tryouts. I guess Jerry is unfamiliar with Dusty, but I think Corey would be best served batting sixth or seventh. Again, he just doesn't have the plate discipline. He has the speed certainly, and it's great when he makes contact, but he just strikes out too much. For political reasons alone, I think you'd want to play Hairston since you got him for a guy like Sosa.
Steve Holley: Are you at all surprised at the steroid accusations that have come out recently? What can be done to resolve the issue?
George Castle: I'm not surprised at all, Steve. We were wondering about this in the 90s when Sammy was repeatedly asked those questions in 1998. Jerry Narron, the former Rangers manager, once suggested Chicago fans knew which players in their town were taking steroids in 2002. I took that tape to Sammy and he didn't want to comment. It's unfortunate that it crept into the game, and I think baseball is very tardy in doing something about it. When Bud Selig admitted in '98 that he knew about this, he had an obligation at that point to crack down; not wait another 4-5 years for a tougher policy. I think a few will try to stay ahead of the curb and use steroids, but there's so much heat that anyone using them will think twice. I think the average person feels that steroids are a nuisance but would rather see the games go on. I don't think they're totally outraged to the point where they're going to abandon the game.
Steve Holley: George, it was great speaking to you again and thanks very much for your time.
George Castle: Great speaking to you, too, Steve.