When Santana won the Cy Young in November, the people of Tovar poured into the streets. Santana had flown to Caracas for the announcement, but thinking he was at home and angered by the assumption that he refused to show himself, a crowd surrounded his house and began scaling the walls. Santana's family was inside, and the National Guard was called in. Santana had to go on TV to ask for calm. He came home to a daylong parade through the streets of his youth, past the bullring and the two ball fields, to a church where people crushed in to hear him speak.
Kidnapping those close to the rich and famous has become epidemic in Venezuela, and when he met with president Hugo Ch�vez in Caracas, Santana asked for protection. Ch�vez picked up the phone; five bodyguards moved into Santana's house and the house, not far away, where his parents still live. To Santana, who goes nowhere in Venezuela now without security, this is worrisome but comes with the territory. "What can you do?" he says. "It's my country." The flip side is a clout that allows him to donate food for those hit by floods and make ambitious plans for new ball fields, new hopes, in Tovar.
What makes Santana proudest is the fact that major league scouts are now coming to M�rida, holding tryouts in a place once thought to be a baseball wasteland. His name has allowed Minnesota to set up an outpost: The Twins have signed three players from Santana's hometown alone. It's appealing, of course, to consider such a cross-cultural exchange--a Latin superstar set up in snow-white Minneapolis, Vikings fans obsessing over news out of the Andes--but the fit wasn't always so cozy.
After four years in the Houston organization Santana remained a puzzle: sometimes overpowering, often erratic, a big league talent who couldn't break past A ball. By the time he was 20, he was still, according to then Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker, just "a solid prospect," behind the more advanced likes of righthander Freddy Garcia. Houston left him unprotected for the 1999 Rule V draft. "Am I surprised at what he has turned out to be? Yeah," Hunsicker says. "But this is a business of numbers. In hindsight, it was a poor decision." The Twins, bolstered by good reports on Santana out of the minors, had the first pick, but engineered a predraft deal in which the Florida Marlins--who had the second selection and were hot after Jared Camp, a Rule V--eligible pitcher in the Cleveland Indians' system--would draft Santana and then trade him to the Twins for Camp, throwing in $50,000 to cover the cost of Minnesota's selection.
So the Twins got him for free, and Santana got his big break. As a Rule V player Santana had to stay on Minnesota's major league roster for the entire 2000 season, during which he struggled both out of the bullpen (2-0, 5.34 ERA in 25 appearances) and as a starter (0-3, 9.82 in five tries). But the Twins liked his professionalism and maturity, and Santana stayed in the mix until a muscle tear in his left elbow slowed him up midway through 2001. He tried to stay patient. He had great stuff but couldn't control it. "I used to be a thrower," Santana says. "Now I can hit my spots, recognize better what the hitters are doing. Before, I was just ... hoping."
He started the '02 season at Triple A Edmonton, working almost exclusively on perfecting his changeup with pitching coach Bobby Cuellar, and everything began to click: 75 strikeouts in 482/3 innings, a 3.14 ERA. But when the Twins brought him up in midseason, Santana was still so wild that Anderson would plant the catcher in the middle of the plate and hope for the best. Certain by now that he should be a starter, Santana kept working and, despite shuttling from starter to reliever, led the club in strikeouts with 137. He arrived for spring training in 2003 expecting his reward. Gardenhire and Anderson told him that he would be in the rotation. Then, on March 13, his 24th birthday, the happy birthday guy got the news: Minnesota had reached agreement with 38-year-old starter Kenny Rogers. Santana was headed back to the bullpen.
He felt betrayed. He stormed into Gardenhire's office. Treat me like this? Trade me. Santana left steaming. "I wasn't going to let it ruin my birthday," he says. "I went home to see my wife and daughter. My daughter means a lot to me. To go home and see her beautiful face and spend time with her, you forget about everything else. Then I get here, and the nightmare starts again."
Within days, though, Santana turned bitterness into power. He went back to the bullpen with only one thought: shove it down their throats. He didn't allow a run in his first seven appearances, had a 2.41 ERA at the end of June. Back in the rotation on July 11 Santana emerged as the Twins' ace and finished with a 12-3 record and a 3.07 ERA. Last year, after a slow start caused by off-season elbow surgery, Santana struggled, and Minnesota lagged a half game behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. Then he began to air out his motion, trust his arm, and the golden year ensued: 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA after the All-Star break. Santana became the first pitcher to win that many games after the break without a loss. The Twins took the division by nine games.
"I figured he was trying to prove us wrong, and I figured once he got in the rotation and did well, it would come back and I'd hear it: 'I could've been doing this a long time ago,'" Gardenhire says. "And I have heard that. You know what? I agree with him. Maybe we were stupid."
Who knows? Maybe Santana needed that humiliating slap. Maybe, without that final motivation, he would've been content to be good instead of great. Santana is not arrogant; it's not the gocho way. But his pride is as obvious as the beard on his face: After a strikeout, he puffs out his chest and sets his glove on his right hip and turns on his heel, like a matador giving the bull his back. Maybe the Twins were smarter than they knew. When, as in that 7-1 win over Tampa Bay, Santana is on, it's impossible not to feel that you're watching that rare thing: the moment when youth, experience, talent and fire mesh, and excellence looks absurdly easy.