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He found a good friend in Blanca Rosa Ortiz and married her a year after they met in Puerto Rico. Within another year, Blanca was pregnant. Santiago says he was assured by his wife's doctors that the child was a boy, so while he was sitting in the waiting room during the delivery he began calling him Benny. "Then," Santiago recalls, "the doctor came to me and said, 'We got a lady there.' I was happy, because I gotta take whatever I get." Happy, and yet not quite ready to run out and buy It's-a-girl! cigars, Santiago and his wife named their daughter Bennybeth.
Bennybeth is five now, and she is referred to as Benny. Her 20-month-old brother is Benito Jr., who already comes up to his father's waist. They are one big happy family now—Benny, Benny, Benny and Blanca. But their family life didn't start out so joyfully. "Having kids put me on the right track," Benito says. "Before that I go a little bit wild, always staying out late." That led to fights with Blanca that almost broke up their marriage.
Eager to end the tumult that seemed to surround Santiago like a swarm of angry bees, Boras suggested he see a psychologist. Says Boras, "I've got a guy with low self-esteem to begin with, so my first concern was that he would think I thought he was crazy." In fact, Santiago was relieved. "I didn't have nobody here I could go and talk to," he says, "someone I could open my mind to. Before, it seemed like I couldn't do nothing good, but as soon as I talk to her [the psychologist], my mind feels better. I go there at least three times a week and just relax my mind."
Santiago's mind has been further relaxed by the fact that the Padres finally affirmed their commitment to him last year when they traded gifted 24-year-old catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. to Cleveland. Alomar grew up five minutes away from Santiago in Puerto Rico, and while both were in the Padres organization, Santiago couldn't stop worrying about him. "It was a great trade for us," says one Padres official. "We gave up Sandy Alomar Jr., and in return we got Joe Carter and Benito Santiago." Others, though, felt the trade was just another result of Santiago's tiresome insecurity. "What did he have to look over his shoulder for?" asks McKeon. "He was a proven All-Star and the other guy was in Triple A. What kind of competition is that? What Benny had going on in his mind I don't know."
Before the Alomar trade, Boras urged Santiago to establish some security by shopping for a home in San Diego. Santiago took the advice. "I came around six o'clock, when they have the good view," he says of his first visit to the house, in January '89. "I stood outside and looked at the view for half an hour, then I said, 'I'll take it.' " Santiago bought the house without ever going inside. "I take my chances because sometimes you've got to do something different," he says. "I wanted a new life for me."
The securities of Santiago's new life cannot bode well for one group of interested observers. National League base runners suffered the slings of Santiago's arm even when his head was a mess. Of the 28 pickoffs recorded by National League catchers in 1989, Santiago had 14. He was such an intimidating factor that while the rest of the league averaged 194 attempted steals per team, the Padres' opponents ran only 112 times. "If the pitcher gives me a chance," Santiago says, "I don't think there's anybody in the major leagues who can steal a base on me."
What makes Santiago particularly imposing is his ability to gun down runners from his knees, without rising out of his catcher's crouch, a move he taught himself in the minors. The throw requires astonishing arm strength, but it looks so simple that some have described the style as lazy.
"He's anything but lazy," says Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia. "What he does requires less mechanics because he's only using half his body, but it's very efficient. He does a great job of getting his hips turned even though he's throwing from his knees. He's able to get away with no footwork and just arm strength. And of course he does things with his arm a lot of us only dream about."
One of those things was to sign a one-year contract for $1.25 million last February, after winning what a Padres official calls "the best arbitration case we ever lost." For two hours the night before the hearing Boras went over the case with Santiago. Says Boras, "He looked up at me and said, 'I had no idea I was this good.' " Santiago has filed for arbitration this year again, asking for $2.5 million. But what he really wants is more security—of the long-term variety. "If San Diego don't come with a four-year contract," he warns, "I will be a free agent next year. And I'm not going to be back."
His performance last season is not easily measured. Santiago got off to the best start of his career, boosted by off-season work with a personal trainer, who put him through an ascetic regimen of weightlifting, running, and throwing a medicine ball. "For the first couple of days, I thought I was going to quit," Santiago says. "I said, 'Hey man, I don't want to play no football. To hell with this.' I never do these exercises before, I just stay at home and get lazy. Now I feel strong, like I could play three games a day."