Friday morning at around 1 AM Houston time, tragic news broke across the internet that former Astros players Luis Valbuena and José Castillo were killed in a car crash in Venezuela.
They were traveling back to the home of the Lara Cardinals of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, after having played in and won their Thursday night game. Their car, which included two other passengers that both luckily survived, reportedly hit a rock in the road, which likely caused the vehicle to lose control. The driver was teammate Carlos Rivero, who briefly also appeared in the major leagues.
Valbuena was a career infielder in the major leagues, and after developing through the Mariners system reached the major leagues at age 22. His breakout came with the Cubs in 2014, during which he batted .249/.341/.435 (118 wRC+) with 16 home runs in 149 games. Chicago flipped him to Houston that offseason with pitcher Dan Straily in return for center fielder Dexter Fowler.
In Houston, Valbuena played 132 games during the 2015 season, helping the Astros reach the postseason for the first time since appearing in the World Series ten years prior. He belted 25 home runs that season, a career high. He followed the season up by hitting .260/.357/.459 (124 wRC+) with 13 home runs in 2016 for the most productive stint of his career, albeit in only 90 games.
Valbuena became the baseball equivalent of a cult hit favorite in Houston, mostly for the obvious fun he had playing, and for his frequent and outrageous bat flips. Bat flips after home runs, after line drive outs, and especially after drawing a walk.
Castillo played for five seasons in the major leagues, and ended in 2008 with a line of .254/.296/.379 and 39 career homers. He appeared in fifteen games with the Astros before ending his American professional playing career.
The Astros fans’ family’s best wishes and prayers go out to the families of Valbuena and Castillo. In a small way all of our lives were touched by these men that most of us have never met - baseball players work their way into our homes and into our schedules and lives. We get to know their faces, and by observation, their personalities.
The burden of their too-young passing will be borne by their families, but for baseball fans, we still wish to convey our sadness and remembrances of the small ways that these strangers touched our lives through the television screen and radio speaker.
Rest in peace.
Update 11:43 AM
Authorities are now saying that Valbuena and Castillo’s deaths may have been an intentional criminal act.
The rock is thought to have been purposely placed in the spot in hopes it would lead to an accident and allow those who orchestrated the trap to rob the vehicle’s occupants, Mexican newspaper El Universal reported, citing a preliminary report from authorities.
The act is a common tactic for robbers in Venezuela, El Cooperante, a news outlet based in Caracas, reported.
Venezuela is an increasingly dangerous country that is dealing with violence, starvation, and poverty caused by the policies of a totalitarian Socialist government. Its economy has tanked so badly in the past few years that it has led to widespread starvation and a crime rate at which the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security reported as 73 dead from violent crimes every day in 2017, almost twice as many as in the United States in 2016.
If Valbuena and Castillo’s deaths are the result of the rampant crime due to a dictatorial government that has ruined its own country, it makes the situation even more tragic. An accident is one thing, but if this proves to be intentional, that’s something else entirely.
Update No. 2, 3:37 PM:
Four suspects found with Valbuena’s and Castillo’s personal belongings were arrested by police, state governor Julio León Heredia wrote on Twitter.
A team official told reporters Friday that Valbuena and Castillo had personal business to attend to and chose to transport themselves separately.
“They had appointments of some sort at the United States Embassy,” Gustavo Andrade said in Spanish. “They departed by their own means after [Thursday’s] game.”