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When the Padres signed Santiago from the Fajardo Raiders at 17 and sent him to their Miami team in the instructional league, he didn't walk. "I just took off," he says. "I gotta take my chance to be somebody." His transition from Puerto Rico to the mainland was eased somewhat by the large Spanish-speaking population in Miami, but he was still a stranger in a strange land. "My first year I wanted to give up and go home," Santiago says, "but my mother wouldn't let me."
"He was taken out of high school at 17 and sent to a place where he didn't even know how to buy food," says Boras. "For two years he ordered whatever the person he was with ordered off the menu. He didn't know what he was eating or why he was eating it. That kind of thing puts shadows on you as a person."
Santiago spent the next season in Reno. "I don't speak nothing and we play in the snow," he says, summing up. "I used to run home from the ballpark because it was so cold. I didn't speak a word of English, so who am I gonna talk to? I need to speak English because I am the catcher and I have to talk to the pitchers. I have to take charge. But I never go to the mound, because I don't know what I'm gonna tell the pitcher. Mostly I stayed quiet. Sometimes you feel very sad, but what am I gonna do?"
The entire time he was in the minors, Santiago attended only one orientation class, basic English. "The sad thing is, baseball, hasn't changed," Boras says. "Latin kids still go through the same things. Teams don't want to educate the volume of players they bring along to spring training, so they send the ones they keep to extended spring—where they get some basic instruction in things like managing money and English for a couple of months—and that's it."
Each winter Santiago returned to his family in Santa Isabel, and those visits home were often as troubling as anything Santiago faced among the gringos of summer. Home had never been a clear concept for him. Before Benito was born, his father, Jose Manuel Santiago, fell from one of the cement trucks he drove and crushed his rib cage. After ignoring his condition for nearly eight months, Jose finally went to a hospital to have his ribs examined, only to be told that his medical problems were larger than that. A short time later he died of cancer, soon after Benito was born.
"I saw pictures of him, and he looked just like me," Santiago says. "He loved baseball, from what I hear. The last thing he told my family before he died was to take care of me, because he said I was gonna be a good one."
Jose had also called his friend Modesto Gonzalez to his bedside at the hospital. Noting that Benito's mother, Yvette, already had six children to take care of, Jose asked that Modesto and his wife, Nelida, take Benito and raise him. It was not until Benito was 10 years old that he was told of the exchange—or what had become of his real parents. But the Gonzalezes had become his true family. "I call them Father and Mother," he says of Modesto and Nelida. "I had to wash cars and pick tomatoes because always I want to make my own money. But that family put money on the table for me."
By the time he was a teenager, Santiago was drinking and smoking. "I caused everybody trouble," he says. "I grew up on the streets, and Puerto Rico is tough because of all the drugs. Sometimes I wouldn't go back to my house for two or three days at a time, and always my mother was scared." Santiago spent most of his time with an older cousin, but the two rarely see each other now. "He's in jail for the rest of his life," Santiago says, his voice flat. "They found him guilty for killing four people."
With trouble all around, Santiago heard nothing from the mother who had long ago given him up. "My real mother didn't have no time to visit me,- even though she lived in the same area as I did," he says. She did call once, however, in 1987, after he was named Rookie of the Year. "She started talking about how she's my mother," Santiago says, "and I say, 'My mother is the one who lives in my house, who takes care of me.' I didn't know if I should listen to her."
When the Padres were in New York City to play the Mets, he began getting calls from his four natural sisters who live there. "Always I have questions in my head," Santiago says. "Do I go out with these people I don't really know because they are my real sisters? What do I tell them? I want to tell them, 'You are not family.' Now I'm Benito Santiago, but they don't give me nothing when I'm nobody. I learn from that who's a good friend and who's a bad friend."