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Sweet Sound of Santana
May 23, 2005
His clubhouse style, like his pregame preparation, is all music, fun and games, but on the mound Johan Santana of the Twins has become the game's most dominant performer
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May 23, 2005

Sweet Sound Of Santana

His clubhouse style, like his pregame preparation, is all music, fun and games, but on the mound Johan Santana of the Twins has become the game's most dominant performer

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Sunday, 11:45 a.m. The place should be as quiet as a church, no? A massive winning streak is on the line today, a man will be knocking on history's door, a man will take the ball and walk out to perform before thousands. He must have silence. He must be left alone. That's baseball's way: No one bothers the starting pitcher. No one talks to him, no one touches him; superstitious teammates don't even look his way.

He's supposed to use this time before a game like a monk, mulling weaknesses and strengths, communing with his arm, staring daggers into his locker until his passion rises and adrenaline builds and he's primed to spring toward the mound like a bucking bronc.... Wait. Who dialed up the volume?... A ella le gusta la gasolina.... �Dame m�s gasolina! Como le encanta la gasolina.... �Dame m�s gasolina!

This can't be good. Those players back there, rapping along with Daddy Yankee near the trainer's room, don't they know better? No: Three of them giggle now as music fills the Minnesota Twins' clubhouse, then lean forward to gather in their throats a pitch-perfect imitation of an enraged baseball lifer and shout in English, "Shut the f--- up!"

Message: No shutting up around here. But won't the starter.... Never mind. The three straighten up, laughing louder as the beat pounds the walls and the singer brags, and you can see. One of them is the starter. Johan Santana steps back to his locker, huge grin on his face. He grabs a clear bottle the size of a rummy's fifth, no label, filled halfway with liquid the color of tobacco juice. He sits down, uncorks it, swishes it once under his nose. He pours a bit into his right palm, then rubs the locally produced liniment into his stomach, calves, upper thighs; once he breaks a sweat, it will give his muscles a nice, tight burn. He stands up, and the music nudges him--�Duro! (Hard!)--and he dances a few quick steps. Soon he will try to win his 18th straight game, two shy of Roger Clemens's American League record. His teammates jabber at him, and he gives it right back. He sits, and with his right hand massages that precious left arm, shoulder to triceps to elbow. It's the only giveaway: He's pitching soon.

Otherwise, it feels like just another day to the 26-year-old Santana, who won last season's AL Cy Young Award by unanimous vote, who became a national hero in his native Venezuela, who is becoming increasingly known as the best pitcher in the world. When he walks into the clubhouse, he greets everyone with his usual "Happy birthday!" no matter if it's anyone's birthday or not. He's also been known to wish his teammates Merry Christmas in July. The point is to say something guaranteed to bring a smile "because when it's your birthday, you feel like you're getting old--but you also know you're getting a present," Santana says. "This is a game, that's what I think. I try to make people laugh. I see people on the team with a frown on their face, I think they'll go out and play with a frown." Sometimes, on the day he pitches, Santana will roam about the clubhouse, flicking unsuspecting teammates on the head with his finger. "You can't help but love a guy like that," says Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter.

Of course, after pitching like a Hall of Famer for nearly a year, a man could set his teammates' clothes aflame and no one would blink. In his 30 starts from June 9, 2004, through May 11, Santana went 23-3 with a 1.84 ERA, held opponents to a .166 batting average and averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings. With a 5-1 record at week's end, he led the league in strikeouts (67) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.8), while having issued slightly less than a walk per game. He possesses the most bewildering changeup in baseball, has reduced the best hitters alive to relying on guesswork, hasn't lost a game on the road since last May. The Los Angeles Angels will stop his 17-game winning streak this afternoon, but without putting a dent in his aura; Santana will surrender just two hits in eight innings--both solo home runs--lose 2-1, and concede no disappointment afterward. He'll credit his teammates for supporting him throughout the streak, say that he intends to start another one immediately. The next afternoon, as always on his off days, he'll range around centerfield during batting practice, shagging fly balls for fun.

"He wishes he could hit too, because that's how he grew up playing--and he plays the game as if he's still a kid. I wish more players would," says Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "He's the happy birthday guy. That's what he says, and that's what he feels. It's happy birthday every day."

Five days later, to prepare for a start against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Santana will engage in his usual routine, which, it should come as no surprise, is hardly routine. He has little use for the scouting reports on opposing hitters, doesn't study tapes, isn't interested in any sentence that begins with the words, "The book on this guy...." He's happy to take advice but pitches by feel. He depends mostly on what he reads in opposing batters early, the subtle giveaways--a lean, a take, a glance, a swing--that, as Santana informed a startled Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson late last season, tell him what the batter is thinking. But that's not to say he doesn't prepare.

Indeed, Santana needs quiet time before a start, but he gets it at home, at his town house in suburban Minneapolis. Either the night before or on the morning of the game, he'll check out the lineup of the team he's facing, take in how the hitters have done against him. Then, alone on his bed, he'll pick up his PlayStation Portable, plug in the team he'll soon be pitching against for real, and go to work. His wife, Yasmile, knows to leave Johan alone and keep their two daughters, two-year-old Jasmily and newborn Jasmine, away. His father, Jes�s, who stays with Johan when he visits from Venezuela, wouldn't think of approaching him at a time like this. "It's his window into the game," Jes�s says. Traditionalists will blanch at the notion-- Anderson was speechless when he heard--but who's going to argue with the results? In terms of power and control, only two pitchers in their 20s have ever had a season comparable with Santana's 20-6, 265-strikeout, 54-walk year in 2004: Sandy Koufax in 1965 and Pedro Martinez in '99. Not even the dominant seasons of Ron Guidry ('78) and Dwight Gooden ('85) rate as high. That sound you hear? A rush of pitchers scrambling to their kids' bedrooms to check out the pitching tool they'd dismissed as a toy.

"Believe it or not, sometimes I see things in video games that will come true," Santana says. "Particularly in the last year, they're coming up with some good games, so realistic--the stats are so accurate, and you can go from there. I'm sure a lot of players will agree with what I'm saying. Because it gives you ideas. I see the scouting reports, though I don't go by that, and in these video games you can see what the hitters have, how to approach them. It's pretty cool."

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