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 victory.
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.