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."