Benito Santiago seemed to be at the end of his string when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning against Cincinnati last Thursday night in San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. With a 32-game hitting streak on the line, San Diego's rookie catcher had fouled out in the first, lined out in the third and bounced back to the mound in the fifth. But Padres manager Larry Bowa had noticed the Reds' Dave Concepcion playing deep at third.
"Look at all that room," said Bowa. "Why not bunt?"
"Nobody's expecting it," piped in Santiago's teammate Carmelo Martinez. "Just go up and bunt."
"O.K., pero one question," said Santiago, a Puerto Rican who speaks a Spanish-spangled dialect of English. "Define bunt."
By any definition the move was downright brilliant. Reds pitcher Frank Williams was so surprised that he fell off the mound. Santiago beat Concepcion's throw by a yard. Very few people expect a guy to bunt in his last chance to keep a five-week hitting streak alive, and a catcher at that. It was, in fact, Santiago's first bunt hit in the majors.
On Friday the Padres' 22-year-old shoo-in for Rookie of the Year doubled in the first inning against Fernando Valenzuela. When the streak finally ended on Saturday at 34, it was the 15th-longest in major league history and the longest ever for a Padre, a Latin, a rookie or a catcher.
During Santiago's spree, from Aug. 25 through Oct. 2, he batted .346 with five homers and 18 RBIs. For the year his figures were .300, 18 and 79. He even stole 21 bases. He caught 146 games, too. Unfortunately, he did all this for the worst team in the league.
Unlike Milwaukee's Paul Molitor, the designated hitter whose 39-game streak recently captivated the baseball world, Santiago had to play every game at the toughest position on the field. "Every player but the catcher gets to rest and contemplate his next at bat," says Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn, whose .370 average led the majors. "Benny constantly had to squat, block foul tips and cushion the impact of oncoming base runners," says Bowa. "It's not for nothing a catcher's equipment is called the tools of ignorance."
Santiago has long stringy arms, small hips and legs that look too fragile for a catcher but are really full of knotty muscle. "The reason he doesn't get hurt," says Bowa, "is that he's so skinny, foul balls don't hit him square."
Santiago's strong arm was his ticket to the major leagues. This season he threw out master base stealer Vince Coleman three times, second only to San Francisco's Bob Brenly. He once nabbed Tim Raines after backhanding a breaking ball in the dirt. "The best throw I've ever seen," says Gwynn. And Santiago is adept at the pickoff; he nailed both Andre Dawson and Mike Schmidt at second without even rising from his crouch.
As a youngster in Ponce, P.R., Santiago, then a shortstop, had to be talked into catching for his Little League team when the regular catcher failed to show up for the game.
"Benito," said the coach, "you want to go behind the plate?"
"You crazy, man," said Benito. "Don't put me there."
Coach wrote him in as catcher anyway. Benny had three hits and threw out a few guys at second. "Since then," he says, "I am always the catcher."
Pretty soon Santiago was behind the plate for the Fajardo Raiders, an American Legion team composed of his country's top amateurs. His manager, Luis Rosa, was the Padres' chief scout in Puerto Rico. Santiago was so taken with Rosa that he signed with San Diego as a 17-year-old free agent.
He had a hard time in the Instructional League. "For two months I didn't speak nothing," he says. "And I don't understand nothing about nothing nobody say." He picked up English by listening to Berlitz tapes, talking to teammates and watching the movie Scarface. "I learned a lot from that," says Santiago. "Stuff like, 'Hey, man, what's happening? Hey, man, what you looking for? Hey, man, what you doin' over there?' " He doesn't yet talk politics with first baseman Steve Garvey or thermodynamics with physicist-pitcher Eric Show. But then they don't speak Spanish to him, either.
As was true of his countryman and longtime hero Roberto Clemente, Santiago swings at bad pitches. Clubhouse wags expect him to strike out on a balk someday, or on an intentional walk. "Benny's only rule," says first baseman John Kruk, "is Thou Shalt Not Draw a Pass." Santiago walked just 16 times in 572 plate appearances. Bowa would like him to be more discriminating, but fears curbing his aggressive style.
Santiago may have inherited a kind of stubborn irascibility from the father he never knew, a truck driver named Jose who fell off the top of his rig, refused treatment and died when Benito was three months old. Santiago's irascibility surfaced last June when he gave reporters a rather undiplomatic assessment of the Padres' pitching staff. He said that the team's best pitcher was reliever Goose Gossage, followed by Ed Whitson and Andy Hawkins. "Other than those three," he explained, "they stink."
Several of the stinkers responded by crossing up Santiago, throwing different pitches from the ones Santiago had called for, and thus contributing to his unseemly totals of 14 errors and 12 passed balls. When Santiago went out to complain, he was given the cold shoulder. San Diego was 12-42 with the worst ERA in the National League (5.07), the most walks (214) and the fewest complete games—one. Still, Santiago took responsibility for every home run and stolen base. "He tried to do too much," says Martinez. "He had to relax."
In fact, the whole team did loosen up eventually. The Padres won 53 of their last 108, and Santiago was charged with only 8 errors and 10 passed balls. "I used to try to throw everybody out," he says. "Now if I can't get the runner, I hold onto the ball."
Santiago's hitting streak ended when he took the collar on Saturday, going 0 for 3 against Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers. Amid the swirl of attention before and after the end of his skein, Santiago remained blithely unimpressed. When the Padres rewarded him with a two-day weekend in Palm Springs, Calif., for being their top rookie, he said, "Hell, why would I go to Palm Springs? I live in Puerto Rico."
On Thursday Santiago took a tip from his skip and laid one down to extend the streak.
Dealing with distractions like this made Santiago's record all the more impressive.