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Santiago, The National League Championships Series' Most Valuable Player, Improves With Age

Santiago Improves With Age

Refocused Giants Catcher Is Making Most Out of Second Chance

By William Gildea

October 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

SAN FRANCISCO -- On the afternoon of Jan. 4, 1998, Benito Santiago almost killed himself driving his sporty yellow Ferrari. That day not far from his home in south Florida, the longtime major league catcher smashed his car into a telephone pole. He suffered numerous internal injuries, damaged his right knee and underwent several operations. He felt lucky to be alive and his recovery took several tedious months. His baseball career was in doubt, to say the least.

"It was something bad and I went through it. It put me on the sidelines, but I never gave up," Santiago said this week after driving in four runs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series to help jump-start the San Francisco Giants to a 2-0 lead over St. Louis as the best-of-seven series continues here Saturday. "The doctors at the hospital told me maybe I wouldn't come back and play. But I was always positive and I just told them, I'm going to prove you wrong."

Not only did Santiago recover, he came back a more well-rounded player and, he says, a better person.

Acknowledging a previous liking for an active social life and late nights on the town, Santiago says he's turned into more of a stay-at-home guy with lights out on the early side more often than not. He said the accident taught him to appreciate life. "It's good to be in the stadium," he said, soaking in the playoff atmosphere. "It's good to be playing baseball. I learned not to take things for granted."

At 37, Santiago is among the oldest players in an old starting lineup; no one is under 30 and the average age is 34-plus. And yet Santiago is as spry as ever, active behind the plate, throwing out base runners from his knees as he always did, maybe even a better hitter. He is more attentive, more selective, his swing usually level whereas in the past he often tried to uppercut the ball and pull it. What's for sure, he has become more adept at handling pitchers, a phase of the game he didn't take as seriously in his younger days.

"The main thing I want to do is take care of the pitchers," he said. "I don't want to be behind the plate thinking of my hitting."

Closer Robb Nen placed his trust in Santiago during the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series against Atlanta. The catcher surprisingly called for a first-pitch fastball across the plate to Chipper Jones, who represented the tying run. Fooled, Jones took it for a strike. "I knew then we were going to win," Santiago said. He then called for a slider, which Jones hit on the ground for a game-ending double play. With that, Santiago predicted that the Giants would beat the Cardinals and win the World Series as well.

Santiago attributed his confidence to a youthful exuberance.

"I'm 26," he said, laughing. "That's the way I feel. I just try to go out and have some fun."

At the same time he has become one of the important complementary players surrounding Barry Bonds. Jeff Kent, Rich Aurilia and Santiago play their supporting roles well (Kent sometimes grudgingly), with Santiago batting in the crucial No. 5 position behind Bonds.

Teams often pitch around Bonds and take their chances with Santiago. This season, he batted .278 with 16 home runs and 74 runs batted in. He had five RBI in the Division Series against Atlanta, second to Aurilia's seven. Typically, Santiago made the Cardinals pay in Game 1 of the NLCS when he followed a walk to Bonds with a two-run homer.

Giants Manager Dusty Baker tried several other players at No. 5 before settling on Santiago.

"Benito knows how to handle the bat," Baker said.

"He can go to right field, he can hit a home run, he can drive in runs, he can run a little bit. And Benito doesn't take it personal when they walk Barry and get upset and lose his head and try to hit a home run. I explained to him, in that situation all you need is a single or a double, and then you've done the damage. I didn't make that up on my own. That's what Hank Aaron told me when I was hitting behind him."

"Let me tell you something," Santiago said, "I've been seeing this [Bonds being walked] for the 21/2 months I've been hitting behind this man. I don't like to see that guy go to first base like that because he is the best hitter we have. I would like to see him swing the bat so we can put more RBI up there. But I have a lot of opportunities to make some damage out there at the right time. My concentration is on a high level."

"He's been just a huge part of our offense this year," third baseman David Bell said. "Hitting behind Barry, really, is the most important place in our lineup. The thing I've learned about him is just how competitive he is, how bad he wants to win. There's nobody out here who wants to get to the World Series more than he does." That is saying quite a bit, since Bonds has emphasized repeatedly that's what he wants, too.

Playing better than he ever hoped when lying in a hospital bed in 1998, Santiago made the all-star game this season for the first time in a decade. He's one of the oldest catchers ever to make an all-star game, having been the unanimous NL rookie of the year with San Diego as long ago as 1987 after being a coveted prospect coming out of Puerto Rico. His backup then, Bruce Bochy, now the Padres' manager, recently called him "as good a receiver as there is in the game right now."

Few foresaw his current status during recent years as he moved from team to team. He has played with seven clubs, including two stints with Cincinnati. Since his arrival with the Giants in 2001, his career has taken on a second life. But then, since the auto crash, Santiago considers everything he does part of his second life.

Resurgent Santiago Reveling In Giants Rise

October 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 REUTERS. All rights reserved.

SAN FRANCISCO - At the beginning of the 2001 season, current San Francisco Giant catcher Benito Santiago's career had gone into such a tailspin that he had to ask Giants manager Dusty Baker for a try out.

Monday after the Giants defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 and moved into the World Series to face the Anaheim Angels, Santiago was named the National League Championships Series' Most Valuable Player.

``This is a dream come true and that's what you play for,'' Santiago said. ``It's been a long time behind the plate taking foul tips. It's great but it can be better. Now we have to go all the way.''

Far removed from the flashy player who opened eyes all over Major League Baseball when he won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1987 as a member of the San Diego Padres, Santiago had fallen out of shape in 2000, no longer throwing runners out from his knees and had lost his power at the plate.

After spending seven fairly productive years with the Padres, Santiago had become a journeyman, moving between six different teams in eight years.

His only visit to the playoffs prior to this year was in 1995 with the Cincinnati Reds, who lost in the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves.

But Baker was in need of a veteran catcher and in March of 2001 decided to give Santiago a tryout. He has not regretted the decision, as the now 37-year-old native of Puerto Rico is one of the main reasons why the Giants are on their way to their first World Series appearance since 1989.

``I can't describe that, it's something that I dream about because two years ago I was out of baseball and Dusty called me and signed me up,'' Santiago said.

``I couldn't wait to go to spring training and play for the man. It feels great with everything I went through. My family, they kept my head straight.''


Hitting behind arguably the best player in baseball -- home run king Barry Bonds -- Santiago has had a productive season, hitting .278 in 126 games, while driving in 76 runs and being named to the All Star team.

The right-hander was red hot during the Giants stretch run to the playoffs, hitting safely in 40 of his last 52 games with a .297 average, seven home runs and 32 RBIs.

Once they reached the post season, Santiago has hit safely in six of the nine games, batting .289 with two home runs and 11 RBIs.

In the critical Game 4 against the Cardinals with the Giants ahead 2-1 in the series, Santiago crushed a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.

``It's not easy to hit behind the man,'' said Santiago of Bonds who is the all-time single season home run leader with 73.

Baker is thrilled with Santiago's form in the number five spot. With Bonds being intentionally walked a record 68 times during the season, Baker needed a big RBI man behind him.

He tried Jeff Kent and Reggie Sanders before he turned to Santiago, since when the Giants have flourished.

``Benito's been a big part of out late season surge,'' Baker said. ``He's done a great job in that spot.''

The Giants veteran pitching staff trusts Santiago and he has regained the accolade of being one of the best defensive players in baseball, digging out errant throws behind the plate, diving to snag foul balls and gunning down runners attempting to steal.

The Giants pitching staff had the National League's second best ERA at 3.54. ``A lot of starting pitchers want someone like Benito behind the plate,'' said Giants starter Livan Hernandez. ``He's very smart. When you have someone like that, you have more comfort and you can throw whatever you want.

``A lot of people aren't running to second base, either. It's very important for this team and the game.''

With the production of Santiago and J.T Snow, the first baseman who hits sixth behind Santiago, the perception that the Giants offense is dependent on the production of Bond and second baseman Kent is fading.

``I've been talking to J.T. almost every day,'' said Santiago, a Golden Glove winner who appeared in the All-Star game this year -- his first since 1992.

``I've said, 'we have a chance to do some damage here because they have been walking Bonds so much.' Our talking, it's been paying off.''

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