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Crusader Goes To Bat To Honor Clemente…Santiago Catching On To Life's Lesson

Crusader Goes To Bat To Honor Ballplayer


January 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

New York Daily News

A Latino baseball champ has a champion in the Bronx.

Eliezer Rodriguez, 44, is on a crusade to educate city kids about the humanitarian work of Roberto Clemente, the Hall of Famer killed in a 1972 plane crash while taking relief items to Nicaragua.

On New Year's Eve, the 31st anniversary of Clemente's death, Rodriguez embarked on a one-man bike tour of the five boroughs to spread the word about his hero, a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"The idea is to take Clemente's spirit and spread it throughout the city," Rodriguez said as he kicked off his tour from outside the district office of Assemblyman Jeff Klein (D-Pelham Parkway).

"He stood for faith, friendship, loyalty, community and mission. We use his story as a way of teaching kids about these values," said Rodriguez, an attorney.

The Pedaling for Clemente route was 76 miles and 3,000 feet - the exact length of bases run by Clemente, who joined Major League Baseball's exclusive 3,000 hit club on his last at-bat.

The seeds of Rodriguez's mission were planted nine years ago, when he had a dream about a group of kids playing baseball with Clemente. He began researching Clemente and was inspired by his humanitarianism and dismayed that people knew so little about him.

Clemente, a native of Puerto Rico, died at age 38 while bringing 16,000 pounds of food and medicine to Nicaraguans devastated by a massive earthquake. He was the first Latino inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Two years ago, Rodriguez founded Project Club Clemente, a nonprofit organization that visits local schools to educate students about the ballplayer.

The club also is lobbying the Baseball Hall of Fame to rename the 3,000 Hit Club after Clemente, the only player to have exactly 3,000 hits. Another goal is to raise funds to complete Clemente's trip and deliver food and medicine to poor communities in Nicaragua.

Rodriguez said Latinos in the Bronx - home of Roberto Clemente State Park - should take pride in Clemente, but that the ballplayer's legacy is important for everyone: "Latino, African- American or white," he said.

Last week, Project Club Clemente held a holiday dinner to raise money for scholarships that will be given to students active in community service. Clemente Community Awards were also given out to local community groups.

"I wanted to give some recognition to everyday people who rise to the level of Clemente's humanitarian spirit," Rodriguez said.

Santiago Catching On To Life's Lesson; A Nearly Fatal Car Accident Gave Royals Catcher A New Perspective

By WRIGHT THOMPSON, The Kansas City Star

March 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One year shy of 40, Benito Santiago feels young. He doesn't pay much attention to birthdays anymore, and earlier this week another was passing with little notice. Just a few people knew. A teammate or two smiled when Santiago ripped a shot during batting practice, the same kind of missile that caught everyone's attention 18 years ago, when Reagan was president and Santiago was a rookie.

Santiago's idea of a celebration now is a few drinks at home. He tosses his bulky gear aside, slips into the hip clothes of a man half his age and limps off toward the Royals' clubhouse door. A silver cross sways with each step.

About his limp: it's permanent, more rickety old door than a walk, a parting gift from 1,862 games of squatting and rising, rising and squatting, with one career-threatening car wreck thrown in. Like the tattoos on his biceps, commemorating the father he never knew and each of his four children, the walk tells a story.

It's a tale of a cocky kid, convinced a ghost hid behind every door, waiting to take down his dream. Yeah, a cocky kid, swelled with pride, humbled by life, fallen, risen, accused of steroid use, and finally here now, more interested in rings than runs batted in. Before he turns the corner and disappears for the night, Benito Santiago curls his lip a touch, the corners rising into a smile.

"Thirty-nine years old," he says, creases and wrinkles giving his face the look of a wise old shaman, or a war-weary general. "Man, they come quick. My daughter was little..." -- he noticed his teammates' toddlers, wondering where his had gone -- "...and now she's in college. I have a son. He's 14 and 6-foot-3."

Benito Santiago's life has seen more twists and turns than the Pacific Coast Highway. Or, as he puts it: "Like a roller-coaster, you know. Go up and down, up and down, and I've ended up in the same place."

The latest chapter of his life -- a job as the resurgent Kansas City Royals' front line catcher -- began in a swanky South Beach steakhouse last off-season. Outside Smith & Wollensky's windows, the Port of Miami bustled and Fisher Island rested. Inside, Royals general manager Allard Baird and Santiago sat down, face to face.

Santiago had some questions for the Royals GM. Would he start? How was the pitching staff? Were the Royals committed to winning? His time was running short, and he couldn't afford to toil away, losing 90-plus games.

Baird had questions of his own. Everyone had heard stories about Santiago. That he's hard to manage. Selfish. In serious need of therapy. The latest controversy was Santiago's name being tied to the BALCO steroids case about to be tried in U.S. District Court near San Francisco.

The men talked baseball, talked young pitchers, talked about a catcher's intangible qualities. When it was over, Baird realized he was sitting across from a man who never truly appreciated anything until everything was almost taken away.

"He expressed some things he went through," Baird says, "and how he looks at things differently."

He grew up on an island, water on all sides reminding him there was no easy way off. Nothing was easy in Puerto Rico. Before Benito was born, his father fell off a truck he drove to put food on his large family's table.

Tough, Jose Manuel Santiago wouldn't go to a hospital. When he finally did, half a year later, there was nothing the doctors could do. Several months after his son's birth, Jose clung to life. Before he died, he asked his brother to take care of Benito.

"At some point," Benito says, "my nieces became my sisters and my cousins because my brothers and his wife became my mom."

To make money, Benito washed cars, the shiny rides of wealthy people, the shiny rides he'd never have. Simply being around the automobiles made him happy, hinting at an escape. "I just wanted them to take me for a ride," he says.

As Benito hurdled into his teenage years, he started looking for his past. Who am I? What happened to my father? His new family sat him down and told him all of it.

"His brother told me: the same way he was I am," Benito says. "He liked cars. He liked everything clean, and I like that."

To honor his father, Benito has his picture tattooed on his left arm. For the past 18 years, he's left him tickets for every regular-season game. That's the closest Jose Manuel Santiago will ever get to seeing his son play.

In the early 1980s, those games must have seemed a lifetime away. Scouts first discovered Benito at 16. They saw him taking infield practice, his undernourished body still a few years behind his powerful right arm.

"He was a skinny kid who could really throw," says Sandy Johnson, the former San Diego scout who courted Benito.

The Padres waited patiently until Santiago was old enough to sign a contract, then he was off to America, looking for fame and fortune. He moved quickly through San Diego's minor-league system. Finally, in 1986, he got the call.

"The first thing I remember about Benito," says former catcher and Royals skipper Tony Pena, "is we were in San Diego and he came to me and asked, ‘Can you help me?' Then he started asking a lot of questions."

After hitting the big time, Benito bought a shiny new car of his own, a BMW M3. He'd made it. "I put it in the garage and cleaned it so much it almost took the paint off," he says, laughing. "I polished that thing every day."

In his first full year in 1987, Benitomania took hold. He was everything catchers weren't: athletic, flamboyant, loud, arrogant. Suddenly, catching was cool. Kids everywhere wanted mirrored sunglasses behind their mask and the 'tude to go with them.

Benito threw runners out from his knees. For 34 straight games in that magical season, Benito got a hit. He won the National League's Rookie of the Year award. Greatness seemed assured.

For the next four years, Benito seemed intent on sabotaging that promising career. He criticized the Padres' pitching staff. That didn't sit well. In his sophomore campaign, he managed just a .248 average. In 1989, he lost his starting job for a spell and, in 1990, he started the year in Class AAA Las Vegas. For all his talent at the plate, the seamheads whispered that Benito couldn't handle a pitcher, couldn't manage a game.

He lived large and fast. He made headlines when he was arrested for hassling a cop during a traffic stop. Those charges were later dropped, but the skunk was already in the jury box.

"I was a young man," he says now, "not taking care of myself, even when I played good. I never kept my mouth shut when I was supposed to. That created problems for me in my career."

He tried to channel his rookie season but never got his average back above .300. In 1993, he signed with the Florida Marlins. He was back home in Miami, and for two seasons he enjoyed the nightlife.

His aunt-turned-mother warned him. "What are you doing?" she'd ask.

"I didn't listen to her," he says now, softly. "She tried."

He was on a fast road straight to the back of a Trivial Pursuit card. Tired of seeing him squander his incredible talent, she sat him down and issued an ultimatum.

"You've got two ways to go," she told Benito.

He still didn't listen.

Four years and three teams later, he found himself in a 1997 Ferrari Spider, speeding through the streets of Fort Lauderdale. Police would later estimate he was doing between 70 and 90 miles per hour -- almost triple the posted limit.

If Benito wouldn't choose the right road, fate would choose it for him. The sports car spun out of control, and soon after it stopped, Benito was en route to the Broward General Medical Center. When he arrived, he looked like he'd been on Omaha Beach: fractured pelvis, ripped ligaments in his knee, dozens of cuts to his head.

"I was lucky to come out of that alive," he says, still scarred six years later.

Doctors told him his career might be over. He proved them wrong, making it back for the last 15 games of the season with Toronto. In 1999, playing for the Cubs, he started 95 games. The next season, in Cincinnati, he started only 66. But he'd been to the bottom and learned something about himself.

It took a decade-and-a-half, but Benito Santiago finally knew he'd been wrong. He'd wasted the best years of his career. After the wreck, friends and teammates were stunned. A prima donna had stepped into that Ferrari and a team player had been pulled out. "I learned to not take things for granted anymore and to love any chance," he says.

It hardly seemed fair, then, that it looked like he'd changed a day too late. After the 2000 season, eight years removed from his last All-Star Game, Benito was let go by the Reds. He went back home. His playing days seemed to be over. He hung on to the dream, though, despite evidence to the contrary, namely a telephone that wouldn't ring.

The winter meetings went by, and no offers. Pitchers and catchers reported, and no offers. Spring training games began, and still no offers.

When the Giants called out of the blue, needing a solid backup, Benito knew this could be his last chance. He would be paid $500,000 -- a small fortune but less than his career high of $4 million in 1998.

Closer in age to the coaches than his teammates, he beat out two other catchers and won a starting job. In 2002, his career came full circle. Hitting behind the oft-walked Barry Bonds, his at-bats became vital.

He made his fifth All-Star team and was named MVP of the National League Championship Series. Managing a pitching staff was now a strong suit. It was arguably his most successful season since that rookie year; Benito Santiago had been reborn.

The next year, he pushed his batting average even higher and took to wearing a home-made T-shirt under his jersey, with the words of wisdom from the mom he once ignored. The shirt read: "Benito, shut up and play."

Guess what? He can still throw out runners from his knees. He can still swing a mean bat. Teammates such as Juan Gonzalez marvel at his physique. The pounds that normally insulate a ballplayer for his retirement have stayed away. "He looks skinnier every time I see him," Johnson says.

That physique has been the source of some drama this spring training. Earlier this month, a story in The San Francisco Examiner alleged that he'd received steroids during his time with the Giants.

After that story came out, Benito saw the cameras clicking away. His attorney immediately denied all the charges, but that didn't stop the rumor mill. Santiago's 8-year-old son Benito Ivan called, wanting to know if it was true: Was his daddy on drugs? He told the boy, "No." Calls like that kill Santiago, even though he understands the attention.

"I know I have all eyes on me because they think I was doing illegal stuff," he says, adding that time has taught him to keep personal burdens off the field.

"You know what the good thing is?" he says. "I don't take anything with me to the stadium."

Yes, as his 19th season comes closer, he's focused on the future. If he's learned nothing else during his long career, it's how to forget the past. So each morning, after spending the night before playing with one of his daughters, he parks his black Cadillac Escalade in the Royals' lot and comes to work. He speaks up in team meetings, counsels the young pitchers who come to him for advice.

He laughs with Pena, talking a mile a minute in Spanish. Someday, he'd like to be a manager, too. Benito Santiago, the man who couldn't handle a pitcher, wanting to handle an entire team. "I love this game," he says, and suddenly it's very clear. He's done more than grow old. He's grown up.

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