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Last October, as Twins manager Ron Gardenhire ducked out of the third base dugout at Yankee Stadium before Game 1 of the American League Division Series, a New York fan yelled, "Hey, Ron! Enjoy Santana for the next year or two! After that, he's ours!" The fan, of course, was speaking of Johan Santana, a 20-game winner who five weeks later would win the AL Cy Young Award and who appeared headed for free agency after the 2006 season. Once Santana was on the market, the 26-year-old lefthander, who was 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA after July 16, figured to command an ungodly sum that only New York could pay. "Son of a gun," Gardenhire recalls thinking at the time, "the guy's probably right."
Then a funny thing happened over the winter: Santana agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract that will keep him in Minnesota through 2008. And that wasn't all general manager Terry Ryan did to preserve a pitching staff that had the league's best ERA, 4.03. Reliable Brad Radke (24 quality starts in 34 outings) re-upped for two years and $18 million, and Ryan locked up the two most valuable members of a potent bullpen with two-year extensions: closer Joe Nathan (44 saves in 47 opportunities) and setup man Juan Rincon (11 wins, 106 strikeouts in 82 innings). Those long-term commitments had a positive impact throughout the Minnesota clubhouse.
"I grew up with the Twins in an era when we'd lose guys like that all the time, and it was depressing,"' says outfielder Torii Hunter, who has been with the organization since 1993. "We'd wonder, Do they really want to win here? But an off-season like this shows how much we do. Now we don't get our butts kicked. We do the butt-kicking."
While passing through AL Central training camps this spring, you heard three names in the Minnesota organization singled out for praise: Ryan, for keeping the core of a division winner intact on a $55 million payroll; Radke, for his consistency (more than 212 innings pitched in eight of 10 seasons with the Twins and 11-plus wins nine times); and Santana, who is easily the most respected player in the division. The latter's desire to stay with the Twins, in particular, grabbed the public's attention. Already in line for a raise from $1.6 million to as much as $6.8 million, Santana, who had a league-leading 265 strikeouts in 228 innings, could've broken the bank as a free agent after two more impressive seasons. So why didn't he give it a shot?
Understand that Santana grew up in Tovar, a small mountain town in Venezuela, came to the U.S. at 17 and still has a small-town attitude, a big-time work ethic and a genuine appreciation for the game. "Merry Christmas!" is his greeting to teammates as he strides into the clubhouse some mornings. During spring training, when players were expected to report by 9 a.m., he was a regular at 7:15, stretching, riding the stationary bike, lifting weights. He is quiet, well-spoken and is admired in a reserved clubhouse.
"I like the way everything is [in Minneapolis]," he said, as he sat at his locker with two Styrofoam bowls of cereal after one of those March workouts. "I like the people, the city. I know I haven't had much experience in New York or Boston, so maybe I don't know how it would be there. I had to decide if the contract made sense. Am I going to get what I'm worth? I thought it was a smart contract for both sides, and I hope we will both be happy."
In New York City to receive the Cy Young in January, Santana was so protective of the trophy that he went directly to his hotel room after the banquet, double-locked the door, closed the blinds and stashed the award where he thought no burglar would ever look for it. "I wanted to make sure it was safe," he said. "I put it under the pillow in the other bed, with the sheet over it."
When Santana reported to camp in February, he thanked Ryan for the contract. Ryan thanked him for signing it. There aren't many perfect marriages in baseball, but this, much to the chagrin of the rest of division, is one of them. -- Peter King