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The moment he takes the field, all the looseness disappears. In the Metrodome, Gasolina plays over the loudspeakers as he trots to the mound, but Johan Santana doesn't sing or sway now. His face is blank. His pregame antics would make it easy to pigeonhole him as yet another quirky lefthander, or another latino loco, yet on the field Santana cuts about as eccentric a figure as Walter Johnson. His windup contains none of the flamboyance of Luis Tiant, nothing resembling Fernando Valenzuela's eye roll, no signature move like the high kick of Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez. Santana makes but one subtle statement before he delivers: He stands square to the batter, flush left of the rubber, legs apart like a high-noon gunfighter. He does this because he's just six feet tall, 195 pounds, and wants to establish a presence. "You have to let them know: I'm here," he says.
But Santana gets serious, too, because he knows he's representing more than himself. It's not just that he's the latest example of baseball's great Latino boom, or a flash of good news to a nation starved for it. He's standing here as El Gocho, flag-bearer for the Andean region derided for generations by the rest of Venezuela as a rustic backwater. He's standing here, the son of a good ballplayer who wasn't good enough. He's standing here knowing that he came close to not standing here at all.
There's no mistaking the pride in that stance, a declaration of ownership. Once planted, Santana won't let anything--not even the birth of his second daughter--shake him. Just as he was about to warm up for his start against the Kansas City Royals on April 20, Santana got the phone call telling him that Yasmile was in labor. Ten minutes later he got the good news. Yasmile insisted he finish work before visiting, and though he could hear Jasmine yowling in the background, Johan did as he was told: seven innings, 10 strikeouts, no walks in a no-decision. His teammates weren't surprised; if Santana can surrender home runs and pitch as if they never happened, how distracting can a newborn baby be? More than once during the streak Santana suffered an early multirun inning but never panicked. "A lot of guys fall apart then--'Oh, man, I gave up four in the first: What am I going to do?'--and then it usually snowballs," says Minnesota catcher Mike Redmond. "That's what makes him so good: He knows if he pitches the way he can, he'll keep us in the game."
Of course, it's easy to be confident when you've got the repertoire of a legend. " Randy Johnson is good, but Santana is great," says Detroit Tigers designated hitter Rondell White. "He's unhittable. I mean, no one is unhittable, but he's pretty close." Everyone's got an out pitch. But Santana has three that he can locate for strikes anywhere, anytime: a 95-mph fastball, a knee-buckling slider and the changeup that, because it is delivered with exactly the same motion as his fastball but travels 15 mph slower, is breathtaking. His teammates call it the Yo-yo, but Santana prefers the Butterfly because that fluttering, floating beauty leaves hitters looking like cartoon Neanderthals swiping at air. "His stuff is absolutely amazing," says former Twins lefty Frank Viola, the 1988 AL Cy Young winner. "If he's left alone and just goes out there, he will be the most dominant pitcher over the next five or six years. He's got a swagger now."
In his first start after the Angels ended his streak, against a young Tampa Bay team grown cocky after taking three of four from the New York Yankees, Santana produced a performance of mesmerizing efficiency: 92 pitches over nine innings, 29 of his 33 first pitches going for strikes, 16 balls total, no walks, seven strikeouts. None of the Devil Rays escaped looking foolish. "When you get a knock off him, it's pretty much you guessed right," says Aubrey Huff, who tripled off Santana in the first inning. "You don't often see a pitcher who throws 95 and puts it where he wants it--and it actually looks faster. But his best pitch is the changeup, and it's the best in the league."
In the stands in St. Petersburg pockets of fans waved Venezuelan flags. A Venezuelan TV crew has followed Santana for much of this season, and every start is beamed home on national television. But no one is more moved by Johan's success than Jes�s. As the momentum of the streak--and the mania in Venezuela--began to build last season, Santana would call home, and his father would come to the phone, try to talk and break down time and again. When Johan asked what was wrong, Jes�s said, "You don't know what's going on here. You're so good."
The tears haven't stopped yet. When Jes�s, 53, is at home in the 33,000-strong town of Tovar, in the state of M�rida, and uncles and cousins come to watch on TV, he will be watching intently one minute and blubbering the next. Jes�s spent the month of May in Minneapolis, sitting alone in the stands, "and it happens all the time," he says. "I'll just be overwhelmed. I can't stop, because this is something I dreamed of."
Jes�s stops talking, takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes with a worn washcloth. He played amateur ball in M�rida, a middle infielder whose impressive range earned him the nickname El Pulpo (the Octopus) and got him a few sniffs from pro teams in Caracas and Maracaibo. But his fame never spilled out of the Andes. He became a repairman for the state power company, working all hours, fixing downed lines, raising five kids poor with his wife, Hilda. He's not bitter about never making it; he watches Johan and recognizes that running style, that agility, those powerful legs. "I look at him, and I see me," Jes�s says. "Every time he played, I saw a part of me. A part of me that's better than me."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Franklin, older than Johan by two years, grew up thick and strong, a catcher in the making, and Jes�s expected him to be the athlete. Johan was skinny, book smart, a future engineer, Jes�s thought. The two boys would walk to the field for their dad's games, carrying his equipment and holding hands, but Johan was the one who imitated his father's every move. "I always wanted to be like him," Johan says.
The only gloves in the house were Jes�s's discards, so Johan grew up throwing righthanded. He played shortstop on his first team at age 10. His next coach recognized his lefthandedness, and Jes�s scrounged around until he found a proper glove, old and beat up; season after season, Johan restrung that decomposing thing, until the stink was too much to bear.