In 1994 a Hungarian-born, Venezuelan-based scout named Andres Reiner saw the 15-year-old Santana playing centerfield in the national championships in G�ig�e, and the kid's athleticism and rocket arm captivated him. Johan loved to dive for catches, loved to throw people out; you could feel it just watching him. But that was the strike year, and along with everyone else the Houston Astros had cut back on spending. Reiner pestered Houston's scouting director for the $300 to make the 12-hour drive up to Tovar, got turned down twice, called Houston general manager Bob Watson and was told no again, then called again a week later. Watson caved, giving Reiner the money out of his own pocket just to get him off the phone. "Don't call me again about this kid," Watson told him.
Reiner made the drive. Johan and Franklin were shagging balls off a wall of the house. Reiner knocked on the door and, as Jes�s remembers it, said, "I've come to take your son." Reiner described the Astros' Venezuelan academy he ran in Guacara, near Valencia, how bright Johan's future could be. But Jes�s's own baseball hopes had left him climbing poles in the rain; he had never pushed his boys to play ball, and now here was Johan, so smart, just a year and a half left of high school. Who knows what he could be with an education? As for Johan, who swept up the dust and flour at his uncles' bakery, Reiner had him at hola. "[My father] didn't get to be a baseball player, and right there I have the chance," Johan says. "I was like, 'Dad, maybe you get this opportunity once in your life; you never know. If I fail, I'll go back to school. Let me take my chance.'"
In January 1995 Johan left for the academy. He wasn't like anyone else there. It had nothing to do with his play. Within months he had been converted to a pitcher and impressed the staff with his leadership, intelligence and work ethic. But none of the great Venezuelan baseball talent had come out of M�rida, and certainly not out of Tovar. To the rest of Venezuela, the hills produced soccer players, cyclists and bullfighters, and the people of the Andes were gochos--cowboys, if someone wanted to be kind, but more often the term meant ignorant hillbillies or rednecks. Everyone called Johan Gocho. Jes�s would pray for his son to play well but call Reiner every three days. If it doesn't look as though he's going to make it, he told the scout, send him home. Johan felt miserable the first day, when he saw his dad boarding the bus back to Tovar, and his yearning for home only grew. The boy was too poor and far from Tovar to travel there on weekends, too drained by trying to keep up his studies while playing ball eight hours a day.
After two months Johan, now 16, called his father and said he couldn't take it anymore. He had to either stop studying and focus on baseball, or return to M�rida and finish school. Jes�s told Johan to make the decision; Johan asked his dad to come get him. When Reiner heard the news, he begged Jes�s to wait for two weeks. "And two weeks later Johan called and said, 'Dad, I'm O.K. now. I'm going to stay and play baseball,'" Jes�s says. "To this day Johan has never wanted to talk about it. I still don't know what Reiner said to convince him to stay."
When asked, Santana pauses. He is sitting in the Metrodome dugout, owner of a new four-year, $40 million contract, the richest in Twins history. He is building a house in Fort Myers, Fla., a sprawling place for the wife he has known since he was nine, for his two daughters, for his parents and siblings to come stay for as long as they want. "It was tough," he says finally. "Mr. Reiner said, 'All you're doing is for them. Nothing is going to make them prouder of you than becoming a professional ballplayer and helping them out. You're going to give your family a better life.' Then I felt stronger."
Somewhere, in those two weeks, Santana had also learned how to lie. Jes�s heard his son say he was fine, and believed it, because Johan kept his voice from revealing the gut-twisting pain that he felt. The boy was crying when he spoke and crying when he hung up the phone.
Last season, on the verge of his 20th win, Santana sat down for an interview with a Caracas-based TV crew. The reporter spoke cautiously; he didn't want to offend. "Is it O.K. if I call you Gocho?" he asked.
"O.K.?" Santana answered. "It would be an honor."
In the history of Venezuela, gochos have made their mark as dictators and politicians, but few have ever risen to a level of popular adoration. Santana, the nation's first Cy Young winner, has changed that. He has el gocho embroidered on his glove in red and written on the inside of his jerseys; his friends call him Gocho. "Every time they say 'Gocho' now, the people there feel better," Santana says. "Because the others always thought those bad things, that gochos weren't smart. But it's not that way; gocho doesn't mean people live in cabins and they're shooting people. I'm going to make people proud of being from where I'm from. I'm going to make sure that everywhere I go my people will be represented the way they should be."
When the TV crew returned in May, the same man asked questions. He finished off the interview by screaming live to Venezuela, "Next Friday we will continue with more Gochomania!"