Flashback: Sweet Sound of Santana
Sunday, 11:45 a.m. The place should be as quiet as a church, no? A massive winning streak is on the line today, a man will be knocking on history's door, a man will take the ball and walk out to perform before thousands. He must have silence. He must be left alone. That's baseball's way: No one bothers the starting pitcher. No one talks to him, no one touches him; superstitious teammates don't even look his way.
He's supposed to use this time before a game like a monk, mulling weaknesses and strengths, communing with his arm, staring daggers into his locker until his passion rises and adrenaline builds and he's primed to spring toward the mound like a bucking bronc Wait. Who dialed up the volume?... A ella le gusta la gasolina Dame mas gasolina! Como le encanta la gasolina Dame mas gasolina!
This can't be good. Those players back there, rapping along with Daddy Yankee near the trainer's room, don't they know better? No: Three of them giggle now as music fills the Minnesota Twins' clubhouse, then lean forward to gather in their throats a pitch-perfect imitation of an enraged baseball lifer and shout in English, "Shut the f--- up!"
Message: No shutting up around here. But won't the starter Never mind. The three straighten up, laughing louder as the beat pounds the walls and the singer brags, and you can see. One of them is the starter.
Otherwise, it feels like just another day to the 26-year-old Santana, who won last season's AL Cy Young Award by unanimous vote, who became a national hero in his native Venezuela, who is becoming increasingly known as the best pitcher in the world. When he walks into the clubhouse, he greets everyone with his usual "Happy birthday!" no matter if it's anyone's birthday or not. He's also been known to wish his teammates Merry Christmas in July. The point is to say something guaranteed to bring a smile "because when it's your birthday, you feel like you're getting old--but you also know you're getting a present," Santana says. "This is a game, that's what I think. I try to make people laugh. I see people on the team with a frown on their face, I think they'll go out and play with a frown." Sometimes, on the day he pitches, Santana will roam about the clubhouse, flicking unsuspecting teammates on the head with his finger. "You can't help but love a guy like that," says Twins centerfielder
Of course, after pitching like a Hall of Famer for nearly a year, a man could set his teammates' clothes aflame and no one would blink. In his 30 starts from June 9, 2004, through May 11, Santana went 23-3 with a 1.84 ERA, held opponents to a .166 batting average and averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings. With a 5-1 record at week's end, he led the league in strikeouts (67) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.8), while having issued slightly less than a walk per game. He possesses the most bewildering changeup in baseball, has reduced the best hitters alive to relying on guesswork, hasn't lost a game on the road since last May. The Los Angeles Angels will stop his 17-game winning streak this afternoon, but without putting a dent in his aura; Santana will surrender just two hits in eight innings--both solo home runs--lose 2-1, and concede no disappointment afterward. He'll credit his teammates for supporting him throughout the streak, say that he intends to start another one immediately. The next afternoon, as always on his off days, he'll range around centerfield during batting practice, shagging fly balls for fun.
"He wishes he could hit too, because that's how he grew up playing--and he plays the game as if he's still a kid. I wish more players would," says Minnesota manager
Five days later, to prepare for a start against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Santana will engage in his usual routine, which, it should come as no surprise, is hardly routine. He has little use for the scouting reports on opposing hitters, doesn't study tapes, isn't interested in any sentence that begins with the words, "The book on this guy " He's happy to take advice but pitches by feel. He depends mostly on what he reads in opposing batters early, the subtle giveaways--a lean, a take, a glance, a swing--that, as Santana informed a startled Twins pitching coach
Indeed, Santana needs quiet time before a start, but he gets it at home, at his town house in suburban Minneapolis. Either the night before or on the morning of the game, he'll check out the lineup of the team he's facing, take in how the hitters have done against him. Then, alone on his bed, he'll pick up his PlayStation Portable, plug in the team he'll soon be pitching against for real, and go to work. His wife,
"Believe it or not, sometimes I see things in video games that will come true," Santana says. "Particularly in the last year, they're coming up with some good games, so realistic--the stats are so accurate, and you can go from there. I'm sure a lot of players will agree with what I'm saying. Because it gives you ideas. I see the scouting reports, though I don't go by that, and in these video games you can see what the hitters have, how to approach them. It's pretty cool."
The moment he takes the field, all the looseness disappears. In the Metrodome, "Gasolina" plays over the loudspeakers as he trots to the mound, but Johan Santana doesn't sing or sway now. His face is blank. His pregame antics would make it easy to pigeonhole him as yet another quirky lefthander, or another latino loco, yet on the field Santana cuts about as eccentric a figure as
But Santana gets serious, too, because he knows he's representing more than himself. It's not just that he's the latest example of baseball's great Latino boom, or a flash of good news to a nation starved for it. He's standing here as El Gocho, flag-bearer for the Andean region derided for generations by the rest of Venezuela as a rustic backwater. He's standing here, the son of a good ballplayer who wasn't good enough. He's standing here knowing that he came close to not standing here at all.
There's no mistaking the pride in that stance, a declaration of ownership. Once planted, Santana won't let anything--not even the birth of his second daughter--shake him. Just as he was about to warm up for his start against the Kansas City Royals on April 20, Santana got the phone call telling him that Yasmile was in labor. Ten minutes later he got the good news. Yasmile insisted he finish work before visiting, and though he could hear Jasmine yowling in the background, Johan did as he was told: seven innings, 10 strikeouts, no walks in a no-decision. His teammates weren't surprised; if Santana can surrender home runs and pitch as if they never happened, how distracting can a newborn baby be? More than once during the streak Santana suffered an early multirun inning but never panicked. "A lot of guys fall apart then--'Oh, man, I gave up four in the first: What am I going to do?'--and then it usually snowballs," says Minnesota catcher
Of course, it's easy to be confident when you've got the repertoire of a legend. "
In his first start after the Angels ended his streak, against a young Tampa Bay team grown cocky after taking three of four from the New York Yankees, Santana produced a performance of mesmerizing efficiency: 92 pitches over nine innings, 29 of his 33 first pitches going for strikes, 16 balls total, no walks, seven strikeouts. None of the Devil Rays escaped looking foolish. "When you get a knock off him, it's pretty much you guessed right," says
In the stands in St. Petersburg pockets of fans waved Venezuelan flags. A Venezuelan TV crew has followed Santana for much of this season, and every start is beamed home on national television. But no one is more moved by Johan's success than Jesus. As the momentum of the streak--and the mania in Venezuela--began to build last season, Santana would call home, and his father would come to the phone, try to talk and break down time and again. When Johan asked what was wrong, Jesus said, "You don't know what's going on here. You're so good."
The tears haven't stopped yet. When Jesus, 53, is at home in the 33,000-strong town of Tovar, in the state of Merida, and uncles and cousins come to watch on TV, he will be watching intently one minute and blubbering the next. Jesus spent the month of May in Minneapolis, sitting alone in the stands, "and it happens all the time," he says. "I'll just be overwhelmed. I can't stop, because this is something I dreamed of."
Jesus stops talking, takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes with a worn washcloth. He played amateur ball in Merida, a middle infielder whose impressive range earned him the nickname El Pulpo (the Octopus) and got him a few sniffs from pro teams in Caracas and Maracaibo. But his fame never spilled out of the Andes. He became a repairman for the state power company, working all hours, fixing downed lines, raising five kids poor with his wife, Hilda. He's not bitter about never making it; he watches Johan and recognizes that running style, that agility, those powerful legs. "I look at him, and I see me," Jesus says. "Every time he played, I saw a part of me. A part of me that's better than me."
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
The only gloves in the house were Jesus's discards, so Johan grew up throwing righthanded. He played shortstop on his first team at age 10. His next coach recognized his lefthandedness, and Jesus scrounged around until he found a proper glove, old and beat up; season after season, Johan restrung that decomposing thing, until the stink was too much to bear.
In 1994 a Hungarian-born, Venezuelan-based scout named
Reiner made the drive. Johan and Franklin were shagging balls off a wall of the house. Reiner knocked on the door and, as Jesus remembers it, said, "I've come to take your son." Reiner described the Astros' Venezuelan academy he ran in Guacara, near Valencia, how bright Johan's future could be. But Jesus's own baseball hopes had left him climbing poles in the rain; he had never pushed his boys to play ball, and now here was Johan, so smart, just a year and a half left of high school. Who knows what he could be with an education? As for Johan, who swept up the dust and flour at his uncles' bakery, Reiner had him at hola. "[My father] didn't get to be a baseball player, and right there I have the chance," Johan says. "I was like, 'Dad, maybe you get this opportunity once in your life; you never know. If I fail, I'll go back to school. Let me take my chance.'"
In January 1995 Johan left for the academy. He wasn't like anyone else there. It had nothing to do with his play. Within months he had been converted to a pitcher and impressed the staff with his leadership, intelligence and work ethic. But none of the great Venezuelan baseball talent had come out of Merida, and certainly not out of Tovar. To the rest of Venezuela, the hills produced soccer players, cyclists and bullfighters, and the people of the Andes were gochos--cowboys, if someone wanted to be kind, but more often the term meant ignorant hillbillies or rednecks. Everyone called Johan "Gocho." Jesus would pray for his son to play well but call Reiner every three days. If it doesn't look as though he's going to make it, he told the scout, send him home. Johan felt miserable the first day, when he saw his dad boarding the bus back to Tovar, and his yearning for home only grew. The boy was too poor and far from Tovar to travel there on weekends, too drained by trying to keep up his studies while playing ball eight hours a day.
After two months Johan, now 16, called his father and said he couldn't take it anymore. He had to either stop studying and focus on baseball, or return to Merida and finish school. Jesus told Johan to make the decision; Johan asked his dad to come get him. When Reiner heard the news, he begged Jesus to wait for two weeks. "And two weeks later Johan called and said, 'Dad, I'm O.K. now. I'm going to stay and play baseball,'" Jesus says. "To this day Johan has never wanted to talk about it. I still don't know what Reiner said to convince him to stay."
When asked, Santana pauses. He is sitting in the Metrodome dugout, owner of a new four-year, $ 40 million contract, the richest in Twins history. He is building a house in Fort Myers, Fla., a sprawling place for the wife he has known since he was nine, for his two daughters, for his parents and siblings to come stay for as long as they want. "It was tough," he says finally. "Mr. Reiner said, 'All you're doing is for them. Nothing is going to make them prouder of you than becoming a professional ballplayer and helping them out. You're going to give your family a better life.' Then I felt stronger."
Somewhere, in those two weeks, Santana had also learned how to lie. Jesus heard his son say he was fine, and believed it, because Johan kept his voice from revealing the gut-twisting pain that he felt. The boy was crying when he spoke and crying when he hung up the phone.
Last season, on the verge of his 20th win, Santana sat down for an interview with a Caracas-based TV crew. The reporter spoke cautiously; he didn't want to offend. "Is it O.K. if I call you Gocho?" he asked. "
O.K.?" Santana answered. "It would be an honor."
In the history of Venezuela, gochos have made their mark as dictators and politicians, but few have ever risen to a level of popular adoration. Santana, the nation's first Cy Young winner, has changed that. He has el gocho embroidered on his glove in red and written on the inside of his jerseys; his friends call him Gocho. "Every time they say 'Gocho' now, the people there feel better," Santana says. "Because the others always thought those bad things, that gochos weren't smart. But it's not that way; gocho doesn't mean people live in cabins and they're shooting people. I'm going to make people proud of being from where I'm from. I'm going to make sure that everywhere I go my people will be represented the way they should be."
When the TV crew returned in May, the same man asked questions. He finished off the interview by screaming live to Venezuela, "Next Friday we will continue with more Gochomania!"
When Santana won the Cy Young in November, the people of Tovar poured into the streets. Santana had flown to Caracas for the announcement, but thinking he was at home and angered by the assumption that he refused to show himself, a crowd surrounded his house and began scaling the walls. Santana's family was inside, and the National Guard was called in. Santana had to go on TV to ask for calm. He came home to a daylong parade through the streets of his youth, past the bullring and the two ball fields, to a church where people crushed in to hear him speak.
Kidnapping those close to the rich and famous has become epidemic in Venezuela, and when he met with president
What makes Santana proudest is the fact that major league scouts are now coming to Merida, holding tryouts in a place once thought to be a baseball wasteland. His name has allowed Minnesota to set up an outpost: The Twins have signed three players from Santana's hometown alone. It's appealing, of course, to consider such a cross-cultural exchange -- a Latin superstar set up in snow-white Minneapolis, Vikings fans obsessing over news out of the Andes -- but the fit wasn't always so cozy.
After four years in the Houston organization Santana remained a puzzle: sometimes overpowering, often erratic, a big league talent who couldn't break past A ball. By the time he was 20, he was still, according to then Astros general manager
So the Twins got him for free, and Santana got his big break. As a Rule V player Santana had to stay on Minnesota's major league roster for the entire 2000 season, during which he struggled both out of the bullpen (2-0, 5.34 ERA in 25 appearances) and as a starter (0-3, 9.82 in five tries). But the Twins liked his professionalism and maturity, and Santana stayed in the mix until a muscle tear in his left elbow slowed him up midway through 2001. He tried to stay patient. He had great stuff but couldn't control it. "I used to be a thrower," Santana says. "Now I can hit my spots, recognize better what the hitters are doing. Before, I was just ... hoping."
He started the '02 season at Triple A Edmonton, working almost exclusively on perfecting his changeup with pitching coach
He felt betrayed. He stormed into Gardenhire's office. Treat me like this? Trade me. Santana left steaming. "I wasn't going to let it ruin my birthday," he says. "I went home to see my wife and daughter. My daughter means a lot to me. To go home and see her beautiful face and spend time with her, you forget about everything else. Then I get here, and the nightmare starts again."
Within days, though, Santana turned bitterness into power. He went back to the bullpen with only one thought: shove it down their throats. He didn't allow a run in his first seven appearances, had a 2.41 ERA at the end of June. Back in the rotation on July 11 Santana emerged as the Twins' ace and finished with a 12-3 record and a 3.07 ERA. Last year, after a slow start caused by off-season elbow surgery, Santana struggled, and Minnesota lagged a half game behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. Then he began to air out his motion, trust his arm, and the golden year ensued: 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA after the All-Star break. Santana became the first pitcher to win that many games after the break without a loss. The Twins took the division by nine games.
"I figured he was trying to prove us wrong, and I figured once he got in the rotation and did well, it would come back and I'd hear it: 'I could've been doing this a long time ago,'" Gardenhire says. "And I have heard that. You know what? I agree with him. Maybe we were stupid."
Who knows? Maybe Santana needed that humiliating slap. Maybe, without that final motivation, he would've been content to be good instead of great. Santana is not arrogant; it's not the gocho way. But his pride is as obvious as the beard on his face: After a strikeout, he puffs out his chest and sets his glove on his right hip and turns on his heel, like a matador giving the bull his back. Maybe the Twins were smarter than they knew. When, as in that 7-1 win over Tampa Bay, Santana is on, it's impossible not to feel that you're watching that rare thing: the moment when youth, experience, talent and fire mesh, and excellence looks absurdly easy.
With two out and Santana closing in on just the second complete game of his career,