On Monday night, Nick Castellanos stepped up to bat in Great American Ball Park like he had done hundreds of times before. But this time, the right fielder didn't wear the Cincinnati Reds uniform he donned during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Castellanos was a Philadelphia Phillie.
Didn't matter. Cincinnati fans cheered him on anyway.
"He's always our favorite, it doesn't matter what team he's on," said Loveland native Katie Holtman, who brought her son, Parker, to the game to see Castellanos, his favorite player, for Parker's 4th birthday. The Holtmans were dressed in Reds gear but held up a sign that read: "We miss you Nick" and "No. 2 is my favorite."
This was the former Reds right fielder's first time back since entering free agency and signing a $100 million five-year contract with the Phillies.
'It’s kind of sad, honestly':Nick Castellanos talks Cincinnati Reds rebuild, opt out
Standing ovation:Nick Castellanos returns to Great American Ball Park
Before the first pitch was thrown, the announcers welcomed the Reds 2021 Most Valuable Player and fans responded with a loud ovation. Castellanos seemed to have never left, feeling right at home in the park with the fans who adored him. The feeling was mutual.
“The fact that I was able to connect with the city and the fanbase so quickly in one real year, I think, was pretty special. I don’t know if that happens very often like that," Castellanos said before the game. "To look back and really think that I was only here for one real season is kind of surreal."
He continued, "I enjoyed my time here. I enjoyed the people that I played baseball with. I enjoyed the coaching staff over there. I definitely enjoyed the city and how they embraced not only me, but my family."
Prior to the 2020 season, Castellanos joined the Reds team with a four-year, $64 million contract with opt-out opportunities. Over only two seasons – one was the fan-less pandemic year – the 30-year-old became a fan favorite.
Here he put up some of the best numbers of his career as a power hitter. He represented Cincinnati in the 2021 All-Star Game and brought home the Silver Slugger Award to Cincinnati for the first time since Jay Bruce did the same in 2013.
Castellanos was good when he played for the Reds, real good. But that wasn't the only reason fans loved him.
“He just seemed like he was having a ton of fun playing here. He wanted to be here. Which I think is not something you can say about a lot of players. That’s why we maybe don’t get a lot of free agents because it's not a major market. Nick actually seemed like he wanted to play here," said Josh Shortt, 45, and a season ticket holder from Erlanger.
Fans were drawn to his zeal and grit, traits that got him into a bit of trouble when he scored on a wild pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals in a move that got him suspended for two games.
They also appreciated his commitment to fans. He'd regularly come out to right field during the first inning and take his hat off and salute the crowd.
Fans remembered that Castellanos would answer questions while out in the field, find ways to help fans keep coveted home run balls and manage to stick around to sign autographs, especially making time for kids. He appealed to parents, young adults and kids like 11-year-old Vivian Patterson of Anderson and birthday boy Parker Holtman, who both said Castellanos was their favorite player.
Rob Roach, a 44-year-old father from Springfield, added that he thought of Castellanos as an "amazing role model."
Roach, who was at the game with his two sons Evan, 10, and Trent, 6, is a family with The Dragonfly Foundation, a nonprofit based in Cincinnati that supports pediatric cancer patients and their families. All three came to the game wearing the shirt Castellanos' son, Liam, designed and his dad wore at the 2021 All-Star game. The shirt was reproduced and sold to fans. Liam donated the proceeds, which totaled more than $18,000, to The Dragonfly Foundation, and Castellanos matched those donations.
Roach always appreciated this and the time Castellanos spent with the "amazing little guys. It's something that really changes their day-to-day outlook," Roach said.
With all of this in mind, in March 2022, when Castellanos signed with the Phillies and Reds ownership didn't make a counteroffer, fans were left heartbroken.
“They got rid of a very good person, not just a good ballplayer,” said Michael Wells, a 65-year-old father from Miamisburg who was there with his 17-year-old son Matthew.
On Monday, he was the same guy they knew. Castellanos walked up to bat to Jon Bellion's "Stupid Deep," the same walk-up song he had when he played for the Reds. When he took the outfield in the first inning, he threw a ball up to a cheering crowd. Then, he took his hat off and waved it around like no time had passed at all since the last time he graced the field along the Ohio River.
Castellanos hasn't been at his best this season, though. He had one hit, two strikeouts and an RBI, and the Phillies beat the Reds 4-3.
As for the future, well, many Reds fans say they hold out some hope that Castellanos may one day return.
“If they could find some way to make it work," said Shortt, "I would absolutely love it."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Fans make it clear: Castellanos welcome back to Great American anytime