Kory Casto Is Fighting for the Final Spot on the Washington Nationals' Roster
Friday, April 3, 2009
CLEARWATER, Fla., April 2 -- Kory Casto does not know if he will make the Washington Nationals' roster. Maybe a decision has already been made. Maybe the front office already knows it will cut him, and nobody yet has delivered the news. Several days ago, Casto overheard front-office officials discussing some sort of final list. It got him thinking. But maybe Casto had his ears tuned to nothing. Maybe a decision hasn't been made. Maybe Casto, with the exhibition season down to its final weekend, really has two more days to play for his job.
He doesn't know. That is the worst part. Casto is 27. He has a wife named Paige, a daughter named Kenzie, a six-year history with the Washington organization, a scattering of 217 major league at-bats, and a self-reliant worldview that, for the first time, has met a challenge that hard work alone might not solve. When Washington's season begins Monday, the Nationals will have 25 on their roster -- 14 position players. Already, the team has identified 13 of those players. For the final spot, the team will pick either Casto or a third catcher. Ask most in the organization for a final list, and Casto is not on it.
The thing about baseball is, it jerks players forward and backward, and then introduces them to a wall. A player can move from the majors to the minors only so many times; after that, he runs out of options, and either he sticks in the big leagues or starts from scratch -- elsewhere, anyway. Casto is out of options. Maybe that's a good thing, he sometimes thinks. ("You get pinned as a bench guy," he said, "and it's hard for the Nationals to reevaluate that. Maybe somebody else could see you with a fresh set of eyes.")
But baseball is never simple, and fresh starts are a myth. History is not. And all of the life experience layering Casto's career remains underwritten by one team, the club that drafted him in 2003, as he and a few buddies back home in Aurora, Ore., tried to track the pick-by-pick progress via a lurching dial-up Internet connection. Casto, a third-round pick, signed with the Montreal Expos for $410,000, five days after the draft. He didn't even have an agent.
Now, because of this franchise, Casto knows what it's like to live in Vermont, Savannah, Ga., and Columbus, Ohio. He knows what it feels like to outlast others: Brad Ditter. Danny Kahr. Doug Vroman. Jason Tuttle. Those were a few of his first pro teammates in Class A; Casto still remembers their names. Casto remembers arriving at that airport in Burlington, Vt., just days after the draft, and seeing two young guys with bags coming down the escalator. He could tell by their look that they played ball. He asked them if they wanted to be roommates. It was that simple. Of course, they're all done with baseball now, because the minors is ruthless like that.
Because of this organization, Casto knows what it feels like to spend an off day on a 16-hour bus ride from Savannah to Lakewood, N.J. He knows almost every road in America. He knows the best sandwich shop in Georgia ("Baldinos," he said. "It's on Victory Drive.") and the best sushi chef in Melbourne, Fla. ("Ask for Big Bobby's seared salmon.") He knows the horror movie motels in Oneonta, N.Y. -- "it was basically one of those murder places where you just feel like somebody will break in the window with a huge knife" -- and he knows just how far a bunch of minor leaguers will walk down a dark road for late night food. (Three miles, though they might just bribe a stranger for a ride back.)
Because of this organization, Casto has encountered good coaches and bad coaches. All have told him something. Sometimes, they've told him opposite things. Moving up becomes complicated. The same people who named him the organization's minor league player of the year in 2005 and 2006 saw him fizzle in the big leagues in 2007, when he batted .130 in 54 at-bats. Then, in 2008, Casto had three separate stints in the majors, none particularly memorable. It's a spotty history that Casto figures he can alter with one chance -- one final, prolonged chance, where everyday at-bats come fast and he hits .320 and drives in 85 runs and never once loosens his grip on the job. Casto thinks about that a lot. He also knows the reality: In his sport, the scars outnumber the opportunities.
In Washington's clubhouse, those like Ryan Zimmerman -- first-rounder, never cut -- are a minority. Part of the lucky 5 percent. But everybody else? Willie Harris was non-tendered by Atlanta, and Joel Hanrahan was let go by the Dodgers. Ryan Langerhans and Pete Orr, among Casto's closest friends on the team, will both start the year in the minors. Even Manager Manny Acta, the guy who summons players to his office and explains the tough decisions, remembers how, as a player, he lost out on a final roster spot with the Houston Class AA team, and needed to restock his wardrobe at K-Mart before reporting to the Class A team. He'd already shipped his luggage to the wrong town.
"It not only hurt me inside, but it hurt me in a lot of ways," Acta said.
This spring, Casto has leaned for support on his wife, whom he calls "fully invested." Casto's father, Scott, said that the uncertainty "is killing him." Casto, unlike any other player invited to camp, has gone on every road trip this spring. He has played in 26 games, four more than anybody else. He has looked good at third base. He has looked lost at the plate, batting .152. Just last week, Washington's clubhouse attendants arranged to ship players' belongings up to D.C. Casto shipped nothing.
"Now how am I going to put any of my stuff on a truck?" he said. "Because I have no idea what is going to happen. I could make the team. I could get put on waivers. I could go to Class AAA. I could be with a different team. So it's like everything that I do is more complicated because I am not Ryan Zimmerman or Adam Dunn, where I can just throw my boxes on there and know that I will be in D.C. in five days. So, what's gonna happen is, if I make the team I will have to rent a trailer, and I will have to pack up all the stuff in a trailer, and my wife will have to drive the car up with the trailer on it, and I don't feel safe with her doing that -- I mean, honestly. But we have no choice, so it's like unforeseen complications that nobody sees. Everybody thinks it's such a glamorous life, but really, I mean, how many guys really love the business part of this game? Because it's brutal, terrible."
Going back as long as he can remember, Casto has played baseball. Some special moments along the way made him think that everything was planned just so. Like right after high school. His family couldn't afford a fancy college, so there he was, weeks away from enrolling at Lower Columbia Community College in Longview, Wash. Just so happened that a college coach from the University of Portland -- a Division I school -- saw him play in a legion tournament. The coach approached Casto afterward in the parking lot, offering an out-of-the-blue scholarship.
In college, work equated with results. He sometimes lingered in the batting cages until 1 a.m. He and two teammates would show up for games an hour before anybody else, just to shine their cleats and talk baseball. He worked for baseball because he knew about effort. And he knew about effort only because his parents made him get jobs. Or actually, many. One summer he worked as a groundskeeper at a golf course, waking up at 4:30 a.m., then playing baseball until night. Another summer, he cleaned computers. One summer, he worked on a farm, picking berries, moving irrigation pipes, harvesting nuts. He worked at Izzy's Pizza. He worked at Abercrombie & Fitch. He worked as a pumpkin harvester.
"That's why I talk about working," Casto said. "I love it, because I'm independent. I know if baseball ends, I could do anything I want. I could be a plumber. Or, I could go as high as my education could take me. I think what people lack today is that experience. Everything is handed to the younger generation, and they don't ever have to sweat. You have 20-year-old kids getting out of school with no real-world experience. Now they go into a competitive situation where they have a job, and they're like, 'This isn't fair.' Well, life isn't fair, really. When you get down to it, the competitive side of the world is there for a reason. To make people better. If you just have the status quo, nobody is going to write a better story. Nobody is going to hit 45 home runs and drive in 120 runs and bat .320. Nobody is going to be the best brain surgeon. It's just a mediocrity."
Casto likes the offseason, because there he can push the status quo. You get better by doing everything you can, then doubling it. Three years ago, fed up with losing to a friend at the bowling alley, Casto performed some research online, bought a bowling ball and shoes, joined a league -- and ended up winning the whole thing, sometimes topping 200. This winter, Casto dedicated the same effort to his workouts. He never vomited -- the other ballplayers in his workout group often did -- but he sometimes collapsed with exhaustion. He added more than 10 pounds of bulk, designed to sustain him through a season.
The motivation was twofold. He wanted to make the Washington Nationals' roster. And, he wanted to leave no margin for regret. At least that way, no failure could be complete.
"Kory has definitely always believed, as far as sports go, that it's up to him," best friend Jarod Grubb said. "That everything is in his hands. And that's a totally responsible and committed attitude to have. He's very thorough. He leaves nothing to chance. But now, for the first time, it's like, maybe there is something that is not in my hands. Maybe there's a purpose for me that is beyond baseball."
"It's not just about the here and now," Casto said. "If I'm done playing and somebody asks a teammate, 'Hey, what was he like?' I want the answer to be, 'He did everything he could.' "