While watching Benito Santiago's exhilarating performance in San
Francisco's five-game National League Championship Series victory
over St. Louis--he hit .300 with two home runs and six RBIs, and
was voted series MVP--the Giants' line on their catcher was that
he's 37 going on 21. But when you count the lines that crisscross
his face, the 17-year major league veteran looks more like he's
37 going on Bob Hope.
"I'm an old man," Santiago said on Sunday, wearing a playful grin
on his otherwise haggard face. "Look at me, look at my body. What
can I possibly do anymore?" Minutes earlier, in the eighth inning
of Game 4, he had answered his own question, launching a
tiebreaking, two-run homer into the leftfield seats at Pac Bell
Park, handing the Giants a 4-3 win and a 3-1 series lead. On
Monday night Kenny Lofton's third hit of the game drove in the
winning run in the bottom of the ninth and San Francisco clinched
its first trip to the World Series in 13 years with a 2-1
But the home run in Game 4, Santiago tearfully admitted on
Sunday, was the greatest moment of his career, one that has
included a 34-game hitting streak and the National League Rookie
of the Year award in 1987, three Gold Gloves and five All-Star
Game appearances. Santiago had hit big home runs before, but none
as meaningful--to his team and to himself--as this one.
In January 1998, while trying to avoid a car that had run a red
light on a Fort Lauderdale street, Santiago lost control of his
Ferrari 355 Spider and crashed into a tree. He suffered a
fractured pelvis, torn ligaments in his right knee and numerous
lacerations to his face and head. For nearly five months he
limped around wondering if he would ever play baseball again.
After a lengthy rehabilitation, he appeared in 15 games for the
Toronto Blue Jays at the end of the '98 season. But his physical
recovery didn't amaze teammates nearly as much as the change in
his personality. The man who once acted like a prima donna,
thought he was God's gift to catching and rarely ran out routine
ground balls was suddenly taking extra batting practice and
putting in extra weightlifting sessions. He also started
complimenting teammates and counseling his backups. "When I was
young, I was a dummy," Santiago says. "I didn't appreciate the
beautiful gift this game is to me. It's sad. I had a lot of
ability, but no common sense. I wasted a lot of good years."
In March 2001, having left the Cincinnati Reds as a free agent
when they decided not to re-sign him, Santiago was sitting at
home hoping the phone would ring but realizing that his career
might be over. He had recently purchased several acres of land in
Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on which he was planning to build the
Benito Santiago Baseball Academy. Then, on St. Patrick's Day, the
Giants called, desperately looking to upgrade at catcher.
Santiago signed a day later, hit .262 in 133 games and this
season batted .278 with 16 home runs and 74 RBIs.
What's more, Santiago brings a dimension to the Giants that few
pitching staffs enjoy: He's one of the last catchers who is
allowed by his manager to call the pitches. In the top of the
eighth with one man aboard on Sunday, reliever Tim Worrell was
certain that Santiago would order him to bust Cardinals
leftfielder Eli Marrero with a fastball inside. "That's what I
wanted to do," Worrell says. "It seemed obvious. But Benito
insisted on a fastball away. He's seen these situations so many
times already that you have to trust him. So I threw his pitch."
Marrero grounded out to shortstop. "He's always right--always,"
says Worrell. "He's the teacher back there."
Perhaps his greatest attribute is patience. As the No. 5 hitter
in San Francisco's lineup, Santiago was usually the man opposing
pitchers opted to face instead of Barry Bonds, who walked a
major-league-record 198 times this year. When pressed, Santiago
admits that the repeated slights are annoying. Such was the case
in the eighth inning on Sunday when, with two outs and none on,
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa ordered righthander Rick White to
intentionally walk Bonds and pitch to Santiago. With the count
full, White threw an 89-mph fastball that tailed inside. Santiago
swung with such force that his body twisted awkwardly. After
watching the baseball sail into the seats, he floated around the
bases, an old man dancing like a young boy.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK ADMIRING HIS WORK After this Game 3 homer, Bonds got an intentional pass in Game 4 to set up Santiago's decisive blast.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SHINING ARMOR Santiago won Game 4 with a homer and called the shots for a consistently effective Giants pitching staff.