By: Will Burchfield
Nicholas Castellanos trudged through last season with a distant, sometimes surly demeanor. It was clear there was something weighing him down. He hinted at personal troubles as the months wore on, and in August he acknowledged they were spilling onto the field. In hindsight, it’s a marvel that Castellanos played as well as he did.
His father was going through brain cancer, Castellanos revealed to the Free Press on Wednesday. Central nervous system lymphoma. As the eldest child of divorced parents, Castellanos assumed the responsibility of overseeing his father’s treatment.
All while trying to play baseball in the big leagues.
He’d fly home to Florida on off-days and then fly back to Detroit — or wherever the Tigers were at the time — for the next day’s game. This was in the first half of the season when Castellanos was struggling mightily at third base. Errors piled atop personal anguish. Meanwhile, Castellanos kept it all to himself.
His father, Dr. Jorge Castellanos, consumed his thoughts. Baseball consumed his days.
“I felt like I was split in half,” Castellanos told the Jamie and Stoney Show in a candid interview on 97.1 The Ticket. “I could never be wholly mentally and physically in the same place. I’d be physically getting ready for a game, but mentally I was across the country trying to be over there.”
Some athletes under personal distress use the game as a sanctuary. For a few hours, at least, life goes back to normal. A burden is lifted. This wasn’t the case for Castellanos, then 25 years old. Even as he tried to separate baseball from family, he carried pangs of anxiety onto the field.
“I struggled with that a lot,” he said.
To make matters worse, his father shared precious little details. Jorge Castellanos was as taciturn and guarded with his son as his son was with his teammates. They each put up the same walls.
“I was very angry. I was very hurt,” Castellanos said. “For some reason he tried to keep it to himself, tried to just keep it under wraps because he didn’t want to worry myself or my brother, who was also playing minor-league ball at the time. He didn’t want to be looked at as a burden, so I was also frustrated that I found out as late as I did.”
A hitter by nature, Castellanos looked fine at the plate through the first half of the season. But he made a galling 14 errors in the field. He eventually found the nerve to open up with his teammates, and their support took some of the weight off his shoulders. Then came the real blessing.
On Aug. 21, Castellanos found out his father’s cancer was in remission. Gamma knife radiation therapy had worked wonders.
“They pretty much melted away his lymphoma, and he responded incredible. Only the infected places started to dissolve and everything else started to regrow and stay intact,” Castellanos said, via the Free Press.
In his first game after receiving the good news, Aug. 22 versus the Yankees, Castellanos hit two home runs. He also played smoothly at third base. With a clear mind and a free spirit, Castellanos would hit .356 with 10 home runs and a 1.04 OPS the rest of the way. He’d make just one error in the field, even amid a transition to right field.
“I was able to be present where I was,” he said, his pitch rising, his voice full of hope. “All of a sudden I’m at the baseball field and I’m thinking about baseball, and that’s a beautiful thing when you’re mentally locked into what you’re doing.”
Jorge Castellanos continues to beat back cancer, and Nicholas Castellanos continues to batter baseballs. He’s hitting .381 with four home runs and a 1.48 OPS through nine games in spring training. And he’s getting the hang of things in right field.
Life’s good at the moment for the 26-year-old, not long after it couldn’t get much worse.
“My dad’s doing great right now. His treatment went great and he couldn’t have responded literally any better, which was awesome from where he was,” Castellanos said.
He’s able to laugh about Jorge’s secretiveness now, at the way he kept urgent information private. He understands it was a father’s way of being strong for his son. Castellanos has a four-year-old son of his own; he would protect him at all costs.
Parents want to be the buttress of their children’s lives. They fear those roles reversing. Worse, they fear becoming weight too heavy to bear.
“And you just want to relate to them and be honest,” Castellanos said. “But I think it’s funny, too, man, because then he goes and literally picks through my life with a fine-tooth comb. All of a sudden, he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re so annoying, why do you ask so many questions?'”
Castellanos seems eager for this season, as eager as he’s ever been. He’s a leader on a young team. He’s a hitter ready to explode. He’s a son and a baseball player, both at the same time, and one doesn’t have to drain the other.
“I’m looking forward to playing baseball every single day,” he said.
What a difference it represents from last season, when Castellanos just wanted to be somewhere else.
“There was just a lot of unaddressed emotions that I was trying to work through that I really didn’t know how to process. But it’s all a learning experience at the end of the day. That’s something now that I’ve been through,” Castellanos said, “and I feel like I’m wiser in certain aspects because of it.”