By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Starlin Castro was nervous and admitted as much before he took the field for the first time as a visiting player at Wrigley Field.
The former Cubs infielder and current Yankees second baseman, Castro on Friday returned to the ballpark he called home for his first six seasons in the big leagues. And while it was different, he was happy for the occasion.
“It does feel pretty weird,” Castro said. “It is really good to be back here. There will always be great memories here. This is the team that gave me my first opportunity to be a professional baseball player. I will always be thankful to the Cubs.”
Castro was a three-time All-Star with the Cubs and a part of the rebuild that was taking place after Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the baseball operations department in late 2011. Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo were the cornerstones of that young group, both signing seven-year deals in their third season. Castro was an All-Star in 2011 during his age-21 season, becoming the youngest All-Star in franchise history.
“He was a three-time All-Star here,” Rizzo said. “There was so much turnover. Star and I were really the only constant. We knew we were playing no matter what, and we had a special bond.”
That Castro missed out on the Cubs’ championship in 2016, his first with the Yankees, was difficult to deal with, but his was elated for his former teammates.
“I was happy for my ex-teammates,” he said. “I was happy for the city. The good thing I can see is I was with the team when we made our first playoffs (in playoffs with this core). I felt pretty good when I left because we made the playoffs.”
The 27-year-old Castro has had a strong start to the 2017 season. Entering play Friday, he’s hitting .362 with five homers, 16 RBIs and a .945 OPS. His 38 hits are tied for the most in the American League.
Castro still keeps in touch with some members of the Cubs.
“I have a lot of good friends over there, and we will always be tight,” Castro said.
The feeling is mutual from the Cubs’ side.
“For him to get traded was bittersweet for me,” Rizzo said. “He was one of my buddies. We kind of came up together. He came here before me, but we obviously had some good times together.”
In a classy gesture, the Cubs honored Castro with his old walk-up music before his first at-bat Friday. They also had a video tribute in honor of him before the top of the second inning.
Castro lost his starting shortstop job to Addison Russell in August 2015, and from there the writing was on the wall for his exit. Despite losing that role, Castro kept a positive attitude and responded by hitting .412 that September to help drive the Cubs to the playoffs.
“Right when that happened I tried to keep myself focused,” Castro said. “I wanted to stay positive. It was worse for awhile. Things got better, and I played second base every day.”
Russell will always remember the kindness Castro showed him.
“He handled that change so well,” Russell said. “We both acted professionally. He talked to me outside the field and told me I was a great shortstop. I told him he would be a superstar wherever he went. I will always enjoy seeing him and watching him play.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.