Former Astros killed in crash
Valbuena, Castillo die in accident on Venezuelan road
Luis Valbuena, the charismatic, bat-flipping third baseman who played an integral part on the Astros’ 2015 wild-card team, died in a car accident following a winter ball game in his native Venezuela on Thursday, along with fellow former Astro Jose Castillo.
The news was confirmed by the Cardinals of Lara, a Venezuelan winter ball team for whom both men played a game on Thursday. Valbuena was 33 and Castillo was 37.
“The Astros family lost two young men yesterday, entirely too soon,” the organization said in a statement Friday morning. “During his two seasons in Houston, Luis was an extremely popular player with his teammates and the Astros staff. He was a productive player on the field and played a key role in the Astros run to the postseason in 2015. Off the field, he was a warm and friendly presence to all who interacted with him. Jose’s time with the Astros was brief, but he also had a positive impact on those around him. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends.”
According to reports in Venezuela, the car transporting Valbuena and Castillo hit a rock in the road. Four men were arrested in con-
nection with the accident, Julio Leon Heredia — the governor of Yaracuy — announced Friday afternoon.
Heredia told meridano.com that the four men were found with some of Valbuena’s and Castillo’s belongings. Heredia saidcriminals or gangs often place large rocks in the middle of the street in hopes of overturning vehicles and robbing those inside.
Neither Valbuena nor Castillo was wearing a seatbelt. Both were ejected from the vehicle, according to onsite reports.
Former major league infielder Carlos Rivero survived the accident. The car was driven by Rivero’s chauffeur, who also survived, according to BeisbolPlay.com. The car was bound for Barquisimeto — a city in northwest Venezuela.
“This is a very sad day for our sport as we mourn the deaths of Luis Valbuena and José Castillo,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “It is clear by all the stories today that they loved baseball and made an impact on their teammates and the Clubs they represented. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to their families, friends and fans, particularly those in their native Venezuela.”
Acquired in a trade that sent Dexter Fowler to the Cubs, Valbuena appeared in 132 games and hit a career-high 25 home runs during the Astros’ 2015 season, the first under manager A.J. Hinch and the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2005.
A versatile defender who played both first and third base, Valbuena became known for his pronounced bat flips following any successful plate appearance — even walks — and infectious smile that permeated the clubhouse.
Tributes poured in from Valbuena’s former Astros’ teammates on Friday morning. Jose Altuve, a Venezuelan, posted pictures of both men on Instagram with a Spanish caption saying, “I can’t believe what’s going on.”
On Twitter, pitcher Collin McHugh called him “such a huge piece of our success story. Part of a lengthy Instagram post in Spanish from Marwin Gonzalez read, “You left this world without an enemy because your principles, your kindness and your charisma would not let you have it.”
In a statement, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow called Valbuena one of “the happiest players in baseball.”
“I will miss Luis’ banter, smile, genuine love for his teammates, and, of course, the bat flips,” Hinch said in a statement. “He was a beloved person whether he was on our team or across the field. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and the lucky ones who could call him a teammate or friend.”
Valbuena slashed .224/ .310/.438 in 2015 and started each of Houston’s six postseason games at third base. He hit a home run in the team’s Game 5, seasonending loss to the Royals in the American League Division Series.
In 2016, Valbuena seemed destined for another career season before sustaining a season-ending hamstring injury. In the 90 games before the injury, which required surgery, Valbuena had 13 home runs and hit .260.
Valbuena played 222 career games as an Astro.
“Luis was always smiling and was one of the happiest players in baseball,” Luhnow said. “He provided joy to his teammates and our fans. He helped our franchise turn a corner in 2015 and provided many cherished memories. We will forever remember him.”
The Angels signed Valbuena as a free agent following the 2016 season. He played all of 2017 and part of 2018 in Los Angeles before he was designated for assignment and released in August.
Castillo was a veteran of five major league seasons who ended his career with the Astros. The infielder played 15 games in Houston before leaving for the Mexican League following the 2008 season.
Luis Valbuena watches his two-run home run during a game in Houston on July 6, 2016. Valbuena hit 25 home runs with the Astros during the 2015 season.