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Ramon Castro with the Mets


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Ray Ray is getting a second chance in the big leagues being Piazza's backup :banghead .


PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., Feb. 24 - The off-season acquisition who will not make the cover of the media guide batted .135 last year and had his only highlight in court.


Ramon Castro does not have the pristine image of Carlos Beltran, the name value of Pedro Mart?nez, the feel-good story of Andres Galarraga. He cannot play the field like Miguel Cairo or run like Kerry Robinson or hit off the bench like Marlon Anderson.


But there is a chance that his name will be announced over the loudspeaker on opening day. Because catcher Mike Piazza is 36 and because his backup, Vance Wilson, was traded, the Mets may need another receiver, even one who is on probation.


For a while, it was practically assumed that Castro would play only in penal leagues. On the morning of Aug. 28, 2003, during a road trip with the Florida Marlins, Castro was arrested in Pittsburgh and charged with felony counts of rape, involuntary deviate intercourse, sexual assault and unlawful restraint.


A 28-year-old former flight attendant told the police that Castro raped her in his hotel room while the Marlins were in town to play the Pirates. Castro promptly hired J. Alan Johnson, a former United States attorney who was the lead prosecutor in baseball's Pittsburgh cocaine trial in 1985.


Over the next year, Castro maintained his innocence and Johnson tried to prove the sex was consensual. He punched a series of holes in the prosecution's case. Less than three months ago, on Nov. 29, Castro pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of misdemeanor indecent assault. Castro would not have to go to jail and would not have to pay a settlement. He was sentenced to one year of probation.


Castro apologized in court to his wife and three daughters, to the judge and to the victim for "any misunderstanding." Three weeks later he signed with the Mets.


"I feel like it's my first year again," Castro said Thursday. "During that whole time with the case, I knew in my heart that I was right, but I really wanted a fresh start."


The Mets have made a commitment to cultivating a family atmosphere and acquiring players who are a positive influence. Before signing the 28-year-old Castro, they contacted his lawyer and the district attorney's office in Pittsburgh. The club interviewed both lawyers to see if Castro was worth the commitment.


"Believe me, I was looking forward to trying his case," Johnson said in a telephone interview Thursday. "But the resolution the district attorney arrived at was something you couldn't turn down."


In a telephone interview Thursday, Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh district attorney's office, said: "That was the best way to resolve the case. Any time there is a plea agreement, it is discussed with the victim."


The Mets were convinced that other teams were interested in Castro and that they should give him another chance. They signed him to a minor league contract, invited him to major league spring training and traded Wilson so Castro could compete against Jason Phillips for the backup spot.


"We talked to everyone and we did a full background check," said Omar Minaya, the Mets' general manager. "We feel good that he's here."


The Mets are especially encouraged by Castro's throwing arm. Drafted in the first round by the Astros in 1994, Castro backed up Brad Ausmus in Houston, then Charles Johnson and Ivan Rodriguez in Florida. He has had limited opportunities to show why he was the first Puerto Rican player ever to be drafted in the first round.


Castro's best season on the field was his worst one off it. In 2003, he batted .283, enhanced his reputation as a defensive replacement and played on the World Series champion. But his greatest moment may have come in his first at-bat after his arrest. Having flown from Pittsburgh to South Florida, Castro received a surprising ovation from the Marlins' fans when he walked to home plate as a pinch-hitter. When he connected for a home run, against the Pirates, he felt a swell of support in the stands.


"I had come right from the Pittsburgh jail and I was very nervous at how people would react to me," Castro said. "When they started cheering, it made me feel very good."


There have been many bittersweet memories in the past couple of years, some of which Castro is hesitant to relate, others he is eager to share. He is often huddled with younger Hispanic players across from his locker in the Mets' clubhouse, telling his own cautionary tale in hushed tones.


"I want them to learn how they should act," he said. "You know, I don't even like to go out anymore. I don't ever want to lose my family. I don't want to lose my wife."


At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Castro is an imposing figure, but he becomes extremely emotional when talking about his family and the way it was affected by the arrest. He grew up in Vega Baja, about 40 minutes outside of San Juan, across the street from Rodriguez. In most off-seasons, Castro would take his wife and daughters to live at his parents' house in Puerto Rico. Right now, they are staying in Miami with an eye on moving to New York.


"They are going to follow me," Castro said. "Wherever I go."



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