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Flashback: Sweet Sound of Santana

His clubhouse style, like his pregame preparation, is all music, fun and games, but on the mound Johan Santana of the Twins has become the game's most dominant performer.

Posted: Wednesday January 30, 2008 6:19PM; Updated: Wednesday January 30, 2008 6:33PM
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Johan Santana
Red Menace: Santana won his first Cy Young award in 2004 after leading the AL in ERA and strikeouts.
Heinz Kluetmeier

By S.L. Price

Sunday, 11:45 a.m. The place should be as quiet as a church, no? A massive winning streak is on the line today, a man will be knocking on history's door, a man will take the ball and walk out to perform before thousands. He must have silence. He must be left alone. That's baseball's way: No one bothers the starting pitcher. No one talks to him, no one touches him; superstitious teammates don't even look his way.

He's supposed to use this time before a game like a monk, mulling weaknesses and strengths, communing with his arm, staring daggers into his locker until his passion rises and adrenaline builds and he's primed to spring toward the mound like a bucking bronc Wait. Who dialed up the volume?... A ella le gusta la gasolina Dame mas gasolina! Como le encanta la gasolina Dame mas gasolina!

This can't be good. Those players back there, rapping along with Daddy Yankee near the trainer's room, don't they know better? No: Three of them giggle now as music fills the Minnesota Twins' clubhouse, then lean forward to gather in their throats a pitch-perfect imitation of an enraged baseball lifer and shout in English, "Shut the f--- up!"

Message: No shutting up around here. But won't the starter Never mind. The three straighten up, laughing louder as the beat pounds the walls and the singer brags, and you can see. One of them is the starter. Johan Santana steps back to his locker, huge grin on his face. He grabs a clear bottle the size of a rummy's fifth, no label, filled halfway with liquid the color of tobacco juice. He sits down, uncorks it, swishes it once under his nose. He pours a bit into his right palm, then rubs the locally produced liniment into his stomach, calves, upper thighs; once he breaks a sweat, it will give his muscles a nice, tight burn. He stands up, and the music nudges him--Duro! (Hard!)--and he dances a few quick steps. Soon he will try to win his 18th straight game, two shy of Roger Clemens's American League record. His teammates jabber at him, and he gives it right back. He sits, and with his right hand massages that precious left arm, shoulder to triceps to elbow. It's the only giveaway: He's pitching soon.

Otherwise, it feels like just another day to the 26-year-old Santana, who won last season's AL Cy Young Award by unanimous vote, who became a national hero in his native Venezuela, who is becoming increasingly known as the best pitcher in the world. When he walks into the clubhouse, he greets everyone with his usual "Happy birthday!" no matter if it's anyone's birthday or not. He's also been known to wish his teammates Merry Christmas in July. The point is to say something guaranteed to bring a smile "because when it's your birthday, you feel like you're getting old--but you also know you're getting a present," Santana says. "This is a game, that's what I think. I try to make people laugh. I see people on the team with a frown on their face, I think they'll go out and play with a frown." Sometimes, on the day he pitches, Santana will roam about the clubhouse, flicking unsuspecting teammates on the head with his finger. "You can't help but love a guy like that," says Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter.

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