The Rain that had fallen all day in San Diego sent the schoolchildren in their bright yellow slickers scurrying past the crossing guards as Benito Santiago rolled by the schoolyard in a sports car the color of midnight. After five years of drought, the steady rain washed all the brown out of the afternoon and down the storm drains. As Santiago rounded a corner near his home, the sun emerged, and by the time he was out of the car and standing in his driveway, he was bracketed by an enormous pair of rainbows, parallel apparitions that seemed to be growing out of his backyard. For someone who had long struggled with a reputation that was less than saintly, it seemed that a great, colorful halo had suddenly settled over his life. If Santiago noticed any of this as he hurried to the house, he said nothing.
He had just finished his workout on this January day, preparing himself for spring training, during which Santiago will seek to reconfirm his reputation as baseball's best catcher. As a rookie in 1987, Santiago finished the season with a 34-game hitting streak, batted .300 and, on the strength of the best arm of any catcher in the game, was a unanimous choice for National League Rookie of the Year. But the two seasons that followed were troubled ones for the young star.
He had not endeared himself to teammates as a rookie when he said publicly that the Padres pitching staff stunk. In his second big league season he batted just .248. And in 1989, Santiago was benched the week before he started in his first All-Star Game. It was that same year that he appeared bewildered by manager Jack McKeon's repeated admonitions to "grow up," advice Santiago, whose English was limited, evidently took literally. "Jack keeps telling me to grow up," Santiago said warily. "If I grow up any more, I'll be like Big Bird."
It seemed that the harder Santiago flapped his wings to attract attention, the more feathers he ruffled. His troubles were compounded by the fact that Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico and spoke little English before reaching the majors, had trouble communicating with anybody when he really needed to. After a disagreement with then manager Larry Bowa in 1987, Santiago expressed his displeasure by demolishing his dressing cubicle with a bat. He brooded throughout the '88 season because he felt he was being underpaid.
"He was upset about his contract and feeling inadequate because his offensive numbers weren't as good as they had been his first year," says Scott Boras, who became Santiago's agent two years ago. "Some of his teammates isolated him and made him feel stupid. When the questioning began about what kind of person he was, he realized he was in for a difficult adjustment. And the only way he had to express himself was with his baseball skills and with his anger."
"People didn't understand him, and he really didn't understand himself," McKeon says. "It was like raising a kid. Kids can't always grasp what you're saying to them." The problem, of course, is that sometimes they can. Baseball moves toward the millennium with its antebellum customs intact, still treating many of its Latin players like children.
"I told the people here I'm not a bad guy," Santiago says, "but they don't know me. They don't know how I grew up. When I go on the street the people here were afraid to talk to me. They think I'm an ass, or they think I'm stupid."
At times it seemed there was no one in San Diego who hadn't devised a theory about what was wrong with Santiago's attitude. First baseman Jack Clark, who often had Santiago's ear in the locker room, concluded that it was "a Third World kind of thing." Says Santiago, "There were a lot of people talking to me, and my mind started getting busy. I learned that no matter how good you are, if you have something bothering you, you're not going to put up good numbers."
And he didn't. His batting average dropped again in 1989, this time to .236. "Benny needed cultural comfort, he didn't need batting instruction," says Boras. "In Puerto Rico he's an absolute idol. People come up to him and touch him like he's plastic. Getting him comfortable in his new surroundings was vital. I felt a career was in the balance."
Santiago began his career as a shortstop. He had been born with a powerful arm—as a pitcher he had once thrown nine no-hitters in a row—and he loved to throw. "I was always killing cows in Puerto Rico," he says. Santiago threw the ball so hard that he often wore his catchers' glove hands raw by the late innings. He was 14 the first time he filled in behind the plate, and he proceeded to throw out several base runners. And like many players who grew up in the Caribbean, Santiago always believed in getting his cuts at the plate. There is an old saying in Puerto Rico: You don't walk oft an island.