Cubs should stand by Castillo


But then, we knew that. We knew that Julio Castillo, then a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs' Single-A Peoria team, was guilty of poor judgment last summer when he threw a baseball toward the opponent's dugout during a bench-clearing brawl with the Cincinnati Reds' Single-A affiliate in Dayton, Ohio.

We knew that, at best, Castillo was guilty of poor aim, as the ball sailed into the stands and struck a spectator in the head, giving him a concussion that did not keep him overnight in the hospital but did, according to the fan, give him headaches for nine days.

What we did not know was how the Ohio judge would rule Tuesday in the unprecedented case in which Castillo was charged with two second-degree felonies -- causing serious physical harm and assault with a deadly weapon -- each potentially punishable by eight years in prison. Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Connie S. Price, rendering the verdict after Castillo waived his right to a jury trial, found him guilty of inflicting serious physical harm and not guilty of using a deadly weapon.

The victim, Christopher McCarthy, 45, who reached a settlement paid out by Castillo, the Cubs and the Reds, did not push for a felony conviction. His attorney, Laura Martin, said she and her client were "both a little surprised by the verdict."

Sentencing is set for Thursday, but regardless of the sentence, which is at the judge's discretion, Castillo, a 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic who cannot speak English and has rudimentary reading and writing skills, likely will have a very difficult time ever returning to the U.S. after his visa expires in two to three years. Deportation is a possibility.

Mike Lufrano, general counsel for the Cubs, said the team does not want to comment until after sentencing, but clearly the organization has a tough choice.

Supportive as the Cubs have been by paying for his legal defense and keeping him on the payroll -- Castillo currently is on the restricted list as a member of the Single-A Boise Hawks -- do they keep a convicted felon on their payroll?

Even with the best intentions, and even if they still consider Castillo a legitimate prospect, it would be hard to justify investing time and money in a player who, in three years, might not be allowed to return to the U.S. because his visa is not renewed.

If Castillo has any real ability and doesn't have to do significant prison time, the Cubs should continue to stand by him. They already punished Castillo by keeping him off the field for the past year.

The frothing by some in Dayton and elsewhere has been overzealous at best and, judging from some of the comments that have been posted on the Dayton Daily News' Web site, racist at worst.

And it's fair to wonder whether felony charges would have been brought had the offender been a freckle-faced Dragons pitcher. Two major leaguers -- Cleveland's Albert Belle and Cincinnati's Rob Dibble -- threw baseballs into the stands, hitting fans, in the early '90s. Belle's pitch was intentional, aimed at a heckler, but it wasn't witnessed by umpires, so he wasn't even ejected. Dibble threw a ball into the stands but said he didn't mean to hit the woman who was struck. Neither fan was seriously injured. Both players were suspended and fined by Major League Baseball, and no charges were filed.

"Sports colors everything," said Lori Shaw, professor of criminal law at the University of Dayton. "The cities [Peoria and Dayton] would probably be on the opposite sides of the fence if this was a Dayton player."

No Dayton players were charged in the case, including the six who were shown on court video punching Castillo. Still in uniform, Castillo was arrested in the Peoria Chiefs' dugout and led out of the stadium in handcuffs.

One common refrain has been that Castillo could have hurt someone more seriously, that he could have hit a child, that he could have killed someone. But he also could have hit the fence, he could have hit an empty seat, and he could have hit the man in the shoulder and not done any harm.

It was stupid and wrong and reckless. Castillo is guilty of that. If Dayton prosecutors wanted to make an example of him, a misdemeanor charge would have been suitable, and if he were convicted, hours of community service, anger management, work with victims of head injuries and a suspension from baseball.

But not a life sentence, which is what this effectively could become if he is cast out of the country and out of baseball.

"It seems like a bad precedent for every kid who gets frustrated at a sporting event and hits somebody," said one Ohio attorney familiar with the case. "Is it wrong conduct that should be punishable? Most definitely. But punishable for years and years? That seems excessive."

Shaw argues that the judge was forced to apply the law applicable to the charges. She also makes a valid point that while you can't convict a person because he is not a U.S. citizen, you can't acquit a person for that reason, either.

"It does seem like a very, very harsh sentence," Shaw said. "But even if you're not going to say a baseball is a deadly weapon, he did cause serious harm to somebody. That's what's hard to overlook."

Shaw believes the judge might have been using Castillo as an example to deter violence at sporting events from reaching the levels seen in other parts of the world.

If it's at all feasible, the Cubs should consider using Castillo as an example as well and stand by him.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.