When the season began, Toronto's Eric Hinske was low on the list of rookie third basemen trying to break into a major league lineup. Sean Burroughs of the Padres and Hank Blalock of the Rangers were projected as the next big stars at the position; even Morgan Ensberg of the Astros got more hype. Hinske, 24, was just another prospect looking for a chance to play every day on a rebuilding team. "No one really knew about him," says Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "Not that we minded. We didn't want to put all that pressure on him."
Burroughs, Blalock and Ensberg wilted under the spotlight, and all three were gone from the majors by the end of May. Hinske, meanwhile, is putting together one of the most productive rookie seasons in Toronto history. Through Sunday he was hitting .286 and leading all AL rookies with 13 home runs and 40 RBIs. With 33 extra-base hits he was on his way to breaking the franchise rookie record of 50 set by Shawn Green in 1995. Hinske's .538 slugging percentage was 29 points better than Green's mark that season, which was also a team record for rookies.
Hinske's development may have been enhanced by his relative anonymity as he climbed through the minors, getting more seasoning than many blue-chip prospects do. He was drafted in the 17th round by the Cubs in 1998 and played 2� seasons in their system before a trade to the A's led to a breakout year in 2001. He batted .282 with 25 homers and 79 RBIs for Oakland's Triple A Sacramento River Cats. "He played at every level and honed his craft the right way, which is unusual," says Ricciardi. "Most young kids are rushed."
Ricciardi, a former assistant to Oakland general manager Billy Beane, was impressed by Hinske's discipline at the plate and knowledge of the strike zone. When Ricciardi was hired by Toronto last November, one of his first moves was to deal closer Billy Koch to acquire the third baseman, whose path to the big leagues was blocked by Oakland's rising star Eric Chavez. Hinske needs to work on his defense (he's already made 15 errors), but the rebuilding Blue Jays are pleased with what they've seen so far. "He fits a lot of things we're trying to create here," says Ricciardi. "He's a cornerstone we're trying to build around."
Ageless Benito Santiago
Catching Up At 37
Ponce de Le�n never found the fountain of youth during his journey through the New World, but the Spanish explorer would have been encouraged had he come across Benito Santiago. Born and raised in the Puerto Rican coastal village of Ponce (named for its discoverer), Santiago, the 37-year-old Giants catcher, is having an All-Star-caliber season—10 years after his last midsummer classic appearance. Through Sunday, Santiago was baiting .270, and among National League catchers he was second to the Mets' Mike Piazza in RBIs (38), tied for third in home runs (seven) and was fifth in runs (24).
"It's amazing for him to be at his age and to still be bouncing around like a kid back there," says Padres manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher and teammate of Santiago's in San Diego.
After signing a two-year, $3.7 million deal with the Giants in the off-season, Santiago committed himself to a rigorous six-day-a-week workout routine. At 6'1" and 200 pounds he retains the chiseled physique he had in '87, when he batted .300 and was the National League Rookie of the Year. Back then Santiago seemed destined for Cooperstown. During his six years in San Diego he was an All-Star four times and won three Gold Gloves.
But suddenly Santiago slid into mediocrity, largely due to a questionable work ethic and a poor attitude. He skipped extra batting practice, sparred with pitching coaches and sulked in the clubhouse. In 1993 he played with the expansion Marlins, where he hit a career-low .230, and after another year in Florida, played for three teams in three seasons.
A near-fatal car accident in January 1998, resulting in severe head injuries and a fractured vertebra, and the subsequent rehabilitation turned Santiago's career—and life—around. "I realized how much I loved the game," he says. "I've changed my attitude about a lot of things since the accident. I'm more friendly with teammates, joking around and trying to be helpful. I'm more serious about staying in shape and playing baseball."