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A Chilly Spring : Padre Catcher Benito Santiago Can't Wait Until the End of Season So He Can Leave San Diego as a Free Agent

March 08, 1992|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YUMA, Ariz. — 'It's sad because this is my last season in San Diego. It's not my choice, it's their choice.'

Benito Santiago's eyelids begin to flutter. He relaxes, closes his eyes, sucks in his breath, then exhales slowly, visualizing the future.

They will be sorry. Once he leaves, they will find out what they are missing. Then, they will wish they had treated him better. They will be sorry . Santiago opens his eyes, gently strokes his goatee and smiles. This is his dream. The San Diego Padres can't ruin it this time.

In eight months, it will be Santiago's turn.

No more arbitration. No more arguments with management. No more taunts and obscene phone calls from Padre fans.

Santiago, perhaps the most talented catcher in the game, will be a free agent at the end of the season. He says he will listen to the Padres, if they feel like talking, but knows it probably will be a waste of time.

"You know they won't pay me," he said. "Everybody knows that."

Santiago has been with the Padre organization since he was 17. They brought him to this country. Soon, he will be making more money than he ever knew existed when he lived in poverty in Puerto Rico.

"I feel sad because this is my last season in San Diego," Santiago said. "It's not my choice, it's their choice. They could have signed me. I've given them every chance. Instead, I always have to go to arbitration.

"No more. Those days are over. I want to play for a team that wants me, a team that respects me. A team that treats me fairly.

"Man, that's going to be a nice feeling."

Santiago, a three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, will be one of the most attractive free agents next winter. At least two teams privately say that Santiago will be their No. 1 priority. In Los Angeles, there are two teams that might need help with the expected departures of Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers and Lance Parrish of the Angels.

Benito Rivera Santiago, the skinny kid who was picking tomatoes and washing cars on the streets of Puerto Rico less than 10 years ago, is going to be a very rich man.

How prepared is he for fabulous wealth? Santiago recently took out a $10-million insurance policy.

"I know I can almost set my family up for life just from the money I'm making now," said Santiago, who won an arbitration award of $3.3 million. "In my country, if you make $5,000 a year, you're a rich man. But what am I, stupid?

"You think I let the Padres sign me for nothing? Come on, I'm not Tony Gwynn, who loves San Diego so much he'll stay here for anything. If the New York Mets offered Tony Gwynn $25 million, or (the Padres offered) $12 million to stay in San Diego, I know Tony would stay in San Diego.

"I love San Diego. What city is better to live in the whole country than San Diego? But what am I going to do?

"The (Padre) owners say they don't have the money. I don't believe them. I think they just won't spend it. Believe me, if they keep doing that, and lose me, we could be like the Houston Astros. We could be like a triple-A team.

"You have to spend money to make money, and we don't do that. It's crazy. It's even like that with the football team (the Chargers). It's the best city in the country, and they screw it up."

The Padres could have signed Santiago to a four-year deal for $17.5 million a year ago. Santiago and his agent, Scott Boras, said they might even have settled for about $15 million. The Padres turned them down then and now can't afford Santiago's price.

It will cost at least $25 million, maybe $30 million, Boras said, to get Santiago as a free agent. The Padres aren't even expected to bid.

"We didn't want to be irresponsible and set the benchmark for catcher's salaries and we refuse to do it now," said Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager. "We have fiscal responsibilities too. If we had given Benny that contract last year, we would have given him $1.5 million more than Will Clark.

"Who would you rather have? Come on, there's no comparison. We're not talking Johnny Bench here."

The question is how long it will be before the Padres attempt to trade Santiago.

"We haven't got one offer, not one single offer for Benny," McIlvaine said. "What does that tell you?"

Said Santiago: "It tells me they're looking for excuses. They don't want fans to be upset when I leave. They're going to say, 'He wasn't that good anyway.'

"It's crazy. I give San Diego everything. I give them Gold Gloves. I give them All-Star games. I give them Silver Slugger awards. I give them a 34-game hitting streak.

"But my whole life there, I feel like I've been going against the traffic."

Now, the catcher with the golden arm is headed down a one-way street out of town.

"Maybe the road will go to Los Angeles, no?" Santiago said. "The Dodgers need a catcher, and I would prefer to stay in the National League. If not them, maybe the Angels, it'd be nice to stay in California. I love New York. Miami could be fun, too, because it's the closest city to Puerto Rico."

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