SAN DIEGO — Fall, 1982. A 17-year-old catcher named Benito Santiago flies to San Diego from his Puerto Rican hometown of Santurce.
He has just been signed by the San Diego Padres. They are conducting a mini-camp. Several club officials have never seen him. They gather around. They gasp.
He doesn't understand one word of English. He doesn't understand one iota about America. And his teeth are falling out.
"You could not believe it," said Tom Romenesko, now the club's farm director. "The kid had no idea."
On Wednesday, five years later. Benito Santiago, now 22, flies to San Diego from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
He is ushered to a podium in front of a half-dozen cameras and a dozen reporters. The bright lights gleam off his designer belt and jewelry. He calmly nods.
"I feel great," he says. "Never (before) in my life could I think about what has happened today."
Then he smiles. The teeth are white and darn near perfect.
The trip has ended. He has gone from the unexplored to the 1987 National League Rookie of the Year.
The Padres' farm system took a national bow Wednesday when Santiago was unanimously named by the Baseball Writers Assn. of America as the league's top rookie, only the fifth unanimous pick in the 38-year history of the NL award. He received first-place votes from each of the league's 24 voters, totaling 120 points. Receiving the next highest number of votes were Pittsburgh pitcher Mike Dunne (66 points) and St. Louis pitcher Joe Magrane (10).
Santiago is the second Padre to receive such an honor. In 1976, Padre pitcher Butch Metzger shared Rookie of the Year honors with Cincinnati pitcher Pat Zachry.
On top of this, last week Santiago became the first rookie catcher to be named to the Associated Press All-Star team.
"I've got to feel good about that," he said. "There's a lot of players out there."
Once it would have been too much, all of this, for the shy, soft-spoken man.
Soon after he joined the organization, he began learning English by listening to tapes and watching movies. He then began to feel as much at ease in public as he did at home plate. And in the spring of 1985, the Padres paid $5,000 to have Santiago's 16 bad teeth crowned.
"He came such a long way in such a short time," said Romenesko. "I'm more proud of him coming out of his shell than anything else."
Then there was this summer, Santiago handled a 34-game hitting streak, the longest in baseball history by a rookie. He handled hitting .300, a mark he reached only by going 2 for 2 against the Dodgers on the season's last day. He hit 18 home runs and had 79 RBIs.
He also handled working with a pitching staff that was never unanimous in its trust of him. Early in the year, he said all but three of the pitchers "stink." Some of them never let him forget it, but he still wound up catching 146 games, most in the National League.
Upon returning home after the season, he was met by more than 100 fans at the San Juan airport. Later, in Santurce, children skipped school to surround him as he walked the streets. Santiago said he is now facing great pressure from the locals to play winter baseball there rather than take a needed rest. It is a matter of birthright vs. common baseball sense. Padre officials are confident he will handle that, too.
"Benny has learned to handle things like he's been in the big leagues 30 years," said Manager Larry Bowa in a telephone interview from his home in Bryn Mawr, Pa. "I don't think too much can bother him."
Certainly not Wednesday's news conference, the first such event in Santiago's career. A sampling:
Question: What about a sophomore jinx?
Answer: "Sorry, I've never heard of that."
Q: When did you think you had a shot to win the award?
A: "Spring training."
Q: What can top this?
A: "Winning MVP? Next year I think I can hit .320, with 100 RBIs and 20 homers."
Q: When can you be physically ready to play again?
A: "Now. I want the season to start. Now."
When the season does start, count on a couple of things: Santiago will not catch 146 games again, and he won't get in many more fights with the pitchers.
"If we can get a top-notch backup, I see him catching 120-125 games, tops," Bowa said. "We have to start thinking about his career."
And about the pitchers--well, remember, Santiago will no longer be a rookie.
"They will trust me more, we will be closer," Santiago said. "Now, I understand, and they understand."