Man With The Golden Gun

Benito Santiago has the arm that all other catchers covet. But his career as a Padre has yet to take off
February 11, 1991

The Rain that had fallen all day in San Diego sent the schoolchildren in their bright yellow slickers scurrying past the crossing guards as Benito Santiago rolled by the schoolyard in a sports car the color of midnight. After five years of drought, the steady rain washed all the brown out of the afternoon and down the storm drains. As Santiago rounded a corner near his home, the sun emerged, and by the time he was out of the car and standing in his driveway, he was bracketed by an enormous pair of rainbows, parallel apparitions that seemed to be growing out of his backyard. For someone who had long struggled with a reputation that was less than saintly, it seemed that a great, colorful halo had suddenly settled over his life. If Santiago noticed any of this as he hurried to the house, he said nothing.

He had just finished his workout on this January day, preparing himself for spring training, during which Santiago will seek to reconfirm his reputation as baseball's best catcher. As a rookie in 1987, Santiago finished the season with a 34-game hitting streak, batted .300 and, on the strength of the best arm of any catcher in the game, was a unanimous choice for National League Rookie of the Year. But the two seasons that followed were troubled ones for the young star.

He had not endeared himself to teammates as a rookie when he said publicly that the Padres pitching staff stunk. In his second big league season he batted just .248. And in 1989, Santiago was benched the week before he started in his first All-Star Game. It was that same year that he appeared bewildered by manager Jack McKeon's repeated admonitions to "grow up," advice Santiago, whose English was limited, evidently took literally. "Jack keeps telling me to grow up," Santiago said warily. "If I grow up any more, I'll be like Big Bird."

It seemed that the harder Santiago flapped his wings to attract attention, the more feathers he ruffled. His troubles were compounded by the fact that Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico and spoke little English before reaching the majors, had trouble communicating with anybody when he really needed to. After a disagreement with then manager Larry Bowa in 1987, Santiago expressed his displeasure by demolishing his dressing cubicle with a bat. He brooded throughout the '88 season because he felt he was being underpaid.

"He was upset about his contract and feeling inadequate because his offensive numbers weren't as good as they had been his first year," says Scott Boras, who became Santiago's agent two years ago. "Some of his teammates isolated him and made him feel stupid. When the questioning began about what kind of person he was, he realized he was in for a difficult adjustment. And the only way he had to express himself was with his baseball skills and with his anger."

"People didn't understand him, and he really didn't understand himself," McKeon says. "It was like raising a kid. Kids can't always grasp what you're saying to them." The problem, of course, is that sometimes they can. Baseball moves toward the millennium with its antebellum customs intact, still treating many of its Latin players like children.

"I told the people here I'm not a bad guy," Santiago says, "but they don't know me. They don't know how I grew up. When I go on the street the people here were afraid to talk to me. They think I'm an ass, or they think I'm stupid."

At times it seemed there was no one in San Diego who hadn't devised a theory about what was wrong with Santiago's attitude. First baseman Jack Clark, who often had Santiago's ear in the locker room, concluded that it was "a Third World kind of thing." Says Santiago, "There were a lot of people talking to me, and my mind started getting busy. I learned that no matter how good you are, if you have something bothering you, you're not going to put up good numbers."

And he didn't. His batting average dropped again in 1989, this time to .236. "Benny needed cultural comfort, he didn't need batting instruction," says Boras. "In Puerto Rico he's an absolute idol. People come up to him and touch him like he's plastic. Getting him comfortable in his new surroundings was vital. I felt a career was in the balance."

Santiago began his career as a shortstop. He had been born with a powerful arm—as a pitcher he had once thrown nine no-hitters in a row—and he loved to throw. "I was always killing cows in Puerto Rico," he says. Santiago threw the ball so hard that he often wore his catchers' glove hands raw by the late innings. He was 14 the first time he filled in behind the plate, and he proceeded to throw out several base runners. And like many players who grew up in the Caribbean, Santiago always believed in getting his cuts at the plate. There is an old saying in Puerto Rico: You don't walk oft an island.

When the Padres signed Santiago from the Fajardo Raiders at 17 and sent him to their Miami team in the instructional league, he didn't walk. "I just took off," he says. "I gotta take my chance to be somebody." His transition from Puerto Rico to the mainland was eased somewhat by the large Spanish-speaking population in Miami, but he was still a stranger in a strange land. "My first year I wanted to give up and go home," Santiago says, "but my mother wouldn't let me."

"He was taken out of high school at 17 and sent to a place where he didn't even know how to buy food," says Boras. "For two years he ordered whatever the person he was with ordered off the menu. He didn't know what he was eating or why he was eating it. That kind of thing puts shadows on you as a person."

Santiago spent the next season in Reno. "I don't speak nothing and we play in the snow," he says, summing up. "I used to run home from the ballpark because it was so cold. I didn't speak a word of English, so who am I gonna talk to? I need to speak English because I am the catcher and I have to talk to the pitchers. I have to take charge. But I never go to the mound, because I don't know what I'm gonna tell the pitcher. Mostly I stayed quiet. Sometimes you feel very sad, but what am I gonna do?"

The entire time he was in the minors, Santiago attended only one orientation class, basic English. "The sad thing is, baseball, hasn't changed," Boras says. "Latin kids still go through the same things. Teams don't want to educate the volume of players they bring along to spring training, so they send the ones they keep to extended spring—where they get some basic instruction in things like managing money and English for a couple of months—and that's it."

Each winter Santiago returned to his family in Santa Isabel, and those visits home were often as troubling as anything Santiago faced among the gringos of summer. Home had never been a clear concept for him. Before Benito was born, his father, Jose Manuel Santiago, fell from one of the cement trucks he drove and crushed his rib cage. After ignoring his condition for nearly eight months, Jose finally went to a hospital to have his ribs examined, only to be told that his medical problems were larger than that. A short time later he died of cancer, soon after Benito was born.

"I saw pictures of him, and he looked just like me," Santiago says. "He loved baseball, from what I hear. The last thing he told my family before he died was to take care of me, because he said I was gonna be a good one."

Jose had also called his friend Modesto Gonzalez to his bedside at the hospital. Noting that Benito's mother, Yvette, already had six children to take care of, Jose asked that Modesto and his wife, Nelida, take Benito and raise him. It was not until Benito was 10 years old that he was told of the exchange—or what had become of his real parents. But the Gonzalezes had become his true family. "I call them Father and Mother," he says of Modesto and Nelida. "I had to wash cars and pick tomatoes because always I want to make my own money. But that family put money on the table for me."

By the time he was a teenager, Santiago was drinking and smoking. "I caused everybody trouble," he says. "I grew up on the streets, and Puerto Rico is tough because of all the drugs. Sometimes I wouldn't go back to my house for two or three days at a time, and always my mother was scared." Santiago spent most of his time with an older cousin, but the two rarely see each other now. "He's in jail for the rest of his life," Santiago says, his voice flat. "They found him guilty for killing four people."

With trouble all around, Santiago heard nothing from the mother who had long ago given him up. "My real mother didn't have no time to visit me,- even though she lived in the same area as I did," he says. She did call once, however, in 1987, after he was named Rookie of the Year. "She started talking about how she's my mother," Santiago says, "and I say, 'My mother is the one who lives in my house, who takes care of me.' I didn't know if I should listen to her."

When the Padres were in New York City to play the Mets, he began getting calls from his four natural sisters who live there. "Always I have questions in my head," Santiago says. "Do I go out with these people I don't really know because they are my real sisters? What do I tell them? I want to tell them, 'You are not family.' Now I'm Benito Santiago, but they don't give me nothing when I'm nobody. I learn from that who's a good friend and who's a bad friend."

He found a good friend in Blanca Rosa Ortiz and married her a year after they met in Puerto Rico. Within another year, Blanca was pregnant. Santiago says he was assured by his wife's doctors that the child was a boy, so while he was sitting in the waiting room during the delivery he began calling him Benny. "Then," Santiago recalls, "the doctor came to me and said, 'We got a lady there.' I was happy, because I gotta take whatever I get." Happy, and yet not quite ready to run out and buy It's-a-girl! cigars, Santiago and his wife named their daughter Bennybeth.

Bennybeth is five now, and she is referred to as Benny. Her 20-month-old brother is Benito Jr., who already comes up to his father's waist. They are one big happy family now—Benny, Benny, Benny and Blanca. But their family life didn't start out so joyfully. "Having kids put me on the right track," Benito says. "Before that I go a little bit wild, always staying out late." That led to fights with Blanca that almost broke up their marriage.

Eager to end the tumult that seemed to surround Santiago like a swarm of angry bees, Boras suggested he see a psychologist. Says Boras, "I've got a guy with low self-esteem to begin with, so my first concern was that he would think I thought he was crazy." In fact, Santiago was relieved. "I didn't have nobody here I could go and talk to," he says, "someone I could open my mind to. Before, it seemed like I couldn't do nothing good, but as soon as I talk to her [the psychologist], my mind feels better. I go there at least three times a week and just relax my mind."

Santiago's mind has been further relaxed by the fact that the Padres finally affirmed their commitment to him last year when they traded gifted 24-year-old catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. to Cleveland. Alomar grew up five minutes away from Santiago in Puerto Rico, and while both were in the Padres organization, Santiago couldn't stop worrying about him. "It was a great trade for us," says one Padres official. "We gave up Sandy Alomar Jr., and in return we got Joe Carter and Benito Santiago." Others, though, felt the trade was just another result of Santiago's tiresome insecurity. "What did he have to look over his shoulder for?" asks McKeon. "He was a proven All-Star and the other guy was in Triple A. What kind of competition is that? What Benny had going on in his mind I don't know."

Before the Alomar trade, Boras urged Santiago to establish some security by shopping for a home in San Diego. Santiago took the advice. "I came around six o'clock, when they have the good view," he says of his first visit to the house, in January '89. "I stood outside and looked at the view for half an hour, then I said, 'I'll take it.' " Santiago bought the house without ever going inside. "I take my chances because sometimes you've got to do something different," he says. "I wanted a new life for me."

The securities of Santiago's new life cannot bode well for one group of interested observers. National League base runners suffered the slings of Santiago's arm even when his head was a mess. Of the 28 pickoffs recorded by National League catchers in 1989, Santiago had 14. He was such an intimidating factor that while the rest of the league averaged 194 attempted steals per team, the Padres' opponents ran only 112 times. "If the pitcher gives me a chance," Santiago says, "I don't think there's anybody in the major leagues who can steal a base on me."

What makes Santiago particularly imposing is his ability to gun down runners from his knees, without rising out of his catcher's crouch, a move he taught himself in the minors. The throw requires astonishing arm strength, but it looks so simple that some have described the style as lazy.

"He's anything but lazy," says Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia. "What he does requires less mechanics because he's only using half his body, but it's very efficient. He does a great job of getting his hips turned even though he's throwing from his knees. He's able to get away with no footwork and just arm strength. And of course he does things with his arm a lot of us only dream about."

One of those things was to sign a one-year contract for $1.25 million last February, after winning what a Padres official calls "the best arbitration case we ever lost." For two hours the night before the hearing Boras went over the case with Santiago. Says Boras, "He looked up at me and said, 'I had no idea I was this good.' " Santiago has filed for arbitration this year again, asking for $2.5 million. But what he really wants is more security—of the long-term variety. "If San Diego don't come with a four-year contract," he warns, "I will be a free agent next year. And I'm not going to be back."

His performance last season is not easily measured. Santiago got off to the best start of his career, boosted by off-season work with a personal trainer, who put him through an ascetic regimen of weightlifting, running, and throwing a medicine ball. "For the first couple of days, I thought I was going to quit," Santiago says. "I said, 'Hey man, I don't want to play no football. To hell with this.' I never do these exercises before, I just stay at home and get lazy. Now I feel strong, like I could play three games a day."

He was hitting .317 with nine homers in mid-June when he was hit by a pitch thrown by San Francisco's Jeff Brantley. During the two months he spent with his left arm in a cast, the Padres nose-dived from seven games behind Cincinnati in the National League West to 12½ games out, and in Santiago's absence opposing teams stole 53 bases in 74 attempts. Santiago returned to the lineup in August but hit just .215 the rest of the way.

In the off-season, there have been new concerns. Luis Gonzalez, whom Santiago calls "my older brother," is in the U.S. Army and has been in Saudi Arabia since October. "I'm worried about him," says Santiago. "I've been watching the news a lot, but sometimes I can't watch. I have to get away."

Santiago has had other travails closer to home. On Christmas Eve, he and his family were returning from a wedding party at a friend's home in Coronado, one of San Diego's most exclusive residential districts. Santiago led the way in a Porsche, and his "sister" Eneida—a Gonzalez daughter—followed in her Toyota. She was pulled over by police for what they described as erratic driving. Santiago went back to explain to the police that Eneida spoke no English.

"Here's Benny, a Puerto Rican in a three-quarter-length leather coat and a white Porsche," says Boras, "so you know what the police were thinking." According to Santiago, when he reached for Bennybeth, who was in the Toyota and crying, the police knocked him to the ground and put a knee in his back, then arrested and handcuffed him for obstructing an officer and on suspicion of drunken driving.

Santiago was taken into custody and held in a jail cell until 5:30 on Christmas morning. It was one of those stories that caused people to cluck disapprovingly when they heard it on the news. When all charges against Santiago were quietly dropped four weeks later, there was little notice paid by the media. "How am I supposed to feel about that?" Santiago asks. "When you have problems like that, it's like you lost everything. Sometimes I feel like I want to be out of here. But wherever you go it's going to be the same. In Puerto Rico they dumped me big-time in the papers about this. San Diego is my home now; and I want to stay. I feel good here. And I have a nice house."

That is the place where the rainbow ends, and Benito Santiago appears ready to go inside.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWith his Porsche and leather coat, Santiago aroused police suspicions. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERBenny, Blanca, Benny and Benny have finally put down roots at their San Diego home. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROIn his throw-from-the-knees style, Santiago has nailed 37% of would-be base stealers.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)