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WORLD SERIES * ANGELS VS. SAN FRANCISCO

Don't Count Him Out

Santiago, who overcame a near-fatal auto accident, relishes the challenge when opponents walk Bonds to get to him

October 17, 2002|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- It is a moment seared in pitcher Andy Benes' mind.

And it was almost seared on his forehead.

The year was 1989. Benes was making his first major-league start for the San Diego Padres. Facing the Atlanta Braves with Benito Santiago as his catcher, Benes had just struck out Lonnie Smith when the runner took off from first.

"All of a sudden," said Benes, "I had to duck because the ball was coming right at my forehead. Benito caught the ball, made his turn and threw a BB to second base. It was almost like a line drive back at me. The guy stealing was out.

"So I go into the dugout and [Santiago] says, 'If you don't want to get hit, you'd better get out of the way.'

"I'll never forget that throw from his knees. That was not something I had seen growing up in southern Indiana. That's for sure."

Benes had learned his first big-league lesson: Don't forget about Benito Santiago.

It is a lesson that has had to be learned by others as well over and over again.

Other teams learned it when they gave up on Santiago after the catcher had a near-fatal auto accident in 1998 and was told by doctors that he would never play again.

St. Louis Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa learned it in the National League championship series against the San Francisco Giants when he repeatedly walked Barry Bonds to pitch to Santiago.

Santiago burned the Cardinals enough, particularly with the deciding two-run homer in Game 4, to win the series most-valuable-player award. He hit .300 in the NL championship series with two home runs and six runs batted in.

And now it is Angel Manager Mike Scioscia who will be faced with the same decision in the World Series. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer: Pitch to Bonds, who hit a record 73 home runs last season and led the league with a .370 batting average this season, or pitch to a 37-year-old catcher whose deeply-lined face makes him look even older, a man who has changed teams eight times in 17 years, usually the sign of a journey- man.

"I love it," Santiago said of batting behind Bonds. "I like to take that challenge. If they want to go after me, let's go."

Few pitchers dared to go after Santiago in the early part of his career. A native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Santiago broke in with the Padres. He was rookie of the year in 1987, hitting .300 with 18 home runs and 79 RBIs. And he made national headlines with a 34-game hitting streak.

It was never quite that good again as he drifted to the Florida Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays.

There were some highlights. Santiago hit 30 home runs with the Phillies in 1996 and he always retained his catching skills, which included the eye-catching ability to throw out runners from his knees and communication skills to the mound that his pitchers loved.

But Santiago loved the night life and his constant partying was hindering his skills.

On Jan. 4, 1998, the party was suddenly over. Santiago wrapped his car around a tree in Ft. Lauderdale, leaving him with head trauma, a fractured pelvis and ligament damage to his right knee.

Play baseball?

"I certainly wasn't thinking of it at that point," he said. "I was just fighting to be alive. There was a lot of pain."

It was 3 1/2 months before Santiago could even walk. But amazingly, he made it back for 15 games with the Blue Jays in 1998.

Santiago went on to play for the Chicago Cubs in 1999 and Cincinnati again in 2000. But Santiago admits he didn't feel like his old self for several years.

Then, while working out in Florida before the 2001 season, Santiago got a call from Giant Manager Dusty Baker, who had heard that Santiago had started to look like he had in his younger days. Santiago soon signed with the Giants.

"Forget all that stuff that happened in the past," Baker told him. "This a new start. Give me all you got and you can be all you want to be."

After the accident, Santiago had left his fellow party animals. Finally in San Francisco, his diligence and vigorous new work ethic earned him a return to the heights of his past glory.

"I was like a wild dog," said Santiago of his high-living days. "I didn't have good, solid people around me. I was going in the wrong direction.

"God has given me another opportunity just to be alive. I'm a different person now. I don't take anything for granted. I'm pleased every day just to wake up.

"And now, after 17 years of playing, to make it to the World Series is like adding a good piece of cake."

So come Saturday's World Series opener, if the Angels walk Bonds, as inevitably they must, the rejuvenated Santiago will lick his lips, savor his piece of cake and stride to the plate, hoping to again show that he is not a man to be forgotten.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

NLCS MVPs

2002... Benito Santiago, San Francisco

2001... Craig Counsell, Arizona

2000... Mike Hampton, New York Mets

1999... Eddie Perez, Atlanta

1998... Sterling Hitchcock, San Diego

1997... Livan Hernandez, Florida

1996...Javy Lopez, Atlanta

1995... Mike Devereaux, Atlanta

1993... Curt Schilling, Philadelphia

1994... Strike

1992... John Smoltz, Atlanta

1991... Steve Avery, Atlanta

1990... Rob Dibble, Randy Myers, Cincinnati

1989...Will Clark, San Francisco

1988... Orel Hershiser, Dodgers

1987... Jeffrey Leonard, San Francisco

1986... Mike Scott, Houston

1985... Ozzie Smith, St. Louis

1984... Steve Garvey, San Diego

1983... Gary Matthews, Philadelphia

1982...Darrell Porter, St. Louis

1981... Burt Hooton, Dodgers

1980...Manny Trillo, Philadelphia

1979... Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh

1978... Steve Garvey, Dodgers

1977... Dusty Baker, Dodgers

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