Going Home Provides Lesson in Understanding Benito Santiago

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Back behind the house where Benito Santiago grew up, back through the weeds and discarded major appliances and the two automobiles in the process of being slaughtered, there is a tall wooden fence. At the base of the fence is a log.

When he was a boy, Santiago used to stand on that log, place his hands on top of the fence, and pull himself up. From there, out across miles of flat dry fields, he could look into wonderland.

Out there are hills. Giant, flowing hills of green and purple and gold. Hills as wide as you can see and as far as you can dream.


Hills that are so big, Santiago used to look at them and see mountains. He used to look at them and see an impenetrable barrier between his poor village and the rest of the island, the rest of the world.

On a recent day, Santiago walks back through the yard, stands on that log, and looks over that fence again. Only now it is more like he is staring. His eyes scan slowly from left to right, and then stop. For the longest time, he is silent. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he is looking at those hills for the first time.

“You know, man,” he finally says, sucking in his breath. “Those are pretty nice, aren’t they?”

After a few more moments of silence, Santiago notices a couple of white spots on the hills’ soft slopes and frowns. The spell is broken.

“Look out there, you can build a house out there now,” he says. “Not me. If I live in Puerto Rico, I buy a house right on this block, with my people.”

His mountains behind him, baseball’s best catcher can now enjoy the view. But at age 23, he has yet to decide whether that is good.

During the course of a recent afternoon in his rural town on the Caribbean, Santiago talked about his quick ascent from a drab and reckless past to one of baseball’s brightest futures . . . and the difficulties in moving his grip from one to the other. He said the hardest thing about being Benito the San Diego Padre was that he could no longer be Benito from Jauca.

He talked about wondering, sometimes, which one was better. Which was really Benito.

Handed away by his mother at 3 months old. Handed by himself to the streets as a child. Handed over to the Padre organization as a 17-year-old after just 2 years of high school.

Then handed the world.

And expected to hold it.

“Nobody understand how tough it is for me,” said Santiago, the National League rookie of the year in 1987 and postseason Associated Press All-Star catcher the past 2 seasons. “They think it’s all being a star. They don’t see here. They don’t see where I live, where I come from, what I got to do.

“One day, I write a book. Nobody believe that book, but I write it anyway.”

Partially because of the advice of the Padres, Santiago recently purchased a house south of San Diego in Bonita, the Spanish word for beautiful . He is moving there any day now. He may be leaving Jauca and Puerto Rico for good.

He talks with pride about the good deal he received on the purchase. He talks about the quality of the investment. He wonders about the average rate of real estate appreciation.

Yet he does not once talk about actually living in the house.

“My wife, she really wants to go,” he says, pointing to Bianca, who is holding daughter Bennybeth, age 3. “My wife, she thinks if I stay here any longer, I go crazy.”

After just 5 minutes with Santiago, it is easy to see why. Of the eight Padre players living in Puerto Rico, his environment is the most culturally distant from San Diego. The other Padres on the island, with their English friends and educations, can be said to live simply in a different area than the rest of us. Santiago lives in a completely different country.

Despite the $165,000 he made last year, he and his wife and child still lived this winter with his aunt and uncle and sister--six people in all--in a tiny house on an unkempt street.

Besides Santiago, not one of these people speaks more than five words of English. Santiago can, and has, gone an entire winter without once practicing the language he must use during the summer.

And people wonder why he wasn’t so witty and engaging during his 34-game hitting streak 2 years ago. They wonder why he struggled to explain his struggles last year.

“Come see where I’m from,” Santiago says, “and you understand me better.”

On this day, he is so delighted to see an American visitor, so happy for a chance to speak English, that for the better part of 3 hours he cannot stop talking. The conversation begins with Santiago jumping behind the wheel of the visitor’s car and offering a tour. He drives past a couple of houses with goats in the back yard and onto a main road lined with endless fields dotted by shacks.

“See those guys out there picking tomatoes and watermelons?” he asks, pointing to three figures wearing what look to be sack clothes and wide-brimmed straw hats. “That used to be me. That would be me today.”

He passes a 2-pump gas station with dogs chasing each other around the cars: “That was my station, I worked there too. When you don’t live with real parents, you feel funny about asking for money.”

Santiago’s real father drove a cement truck. One day he fell from that truck and crushed his rib cage. The injury was never properly treated, and when Santiago was 3 months old, his father died. With six girls already under his mother’s care, she had no time for him. She put him in a car and drove him 20 minutes from their home in Ponce to Jauca, where she gave him to his aunt and uncle.

It wasn’t until he was 7 years old that he realized what had happened. And he did not understand.

“They weren’t my real parents, so I didn’t know what to ask of them,” he says. “I had to do things on my own. I had to find out about things from the streets.”

His home life appears settled today, as he refers to aunt and uncle as “Mother and Father” and showers them with gifts. His aunt even flies to San Diego to spend part of the summer with him.

But his is a family problem so complicated, it can never be settled, only rearranged. Lately his real mother has been calling him from Ponce, confusing him so that he’s not even sure how to answer the phone.

“Do I call her ‘Mother’ when my aunt is sitting right there?” he asks. “Do I call her ‘Mother’ when really, she is no ‘Mother?’ I finally decide, I call her nothing.”

If it were only so easy with his natural sisters. Four of them live in New York City and have taken to calling him when the Padres are in town to play the Mets.

“Nobody knows what I go through in New York,” 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 decide, I go see them, but I don’t stay long. I don’t do too much with them. I want to tell them, ‘You are not family.’ That’s what I want.”

He sighs. “I remember people who kick me and ignore me when I’m down. Now that I’m up, I remember who don’t give a damn about me. I’m polite, but I remember.”

He steers the car about 10 minutes from Jauca into Santa Isabel, a small collection of cluttered shops and a park and a peeling high school whose inner courtyard is littered with weeds and trash. It is here that people first gave a damn about Santiago. These streets.

It is here Santiago began drinking at age 14. And smoking. And causing so much trouble that when his aunt reponded to a question about Benito’s childhood by answering, “He never gave me any problems,” Benito’s wife, Bianca, burst out laughing.

“I cause everybody trouble,” Santiago says. “I learn about life through trouble.”

Today there is still trouble here. His early pals still live here, the ones who aren’t jailed or dead. And after all those years of caring about him, now they want a payback.

“I’ve got old friends here, you come back, and they say, ‘You a big man, give us this, give us that,” Santiago says. “Then they say, ‘Try this, try that.’

“I tell them, no way I try nothing. Then they say, ‘Man, that is bull. You are bull.’ It is very hard for me.”

Other Padres on the island worry that Santiago is being too nice to these friends. They say he is difficult to reach during the winter because he is constantly out of the house, perhaps hanging out with his friends.

Santiago had promised Carmelo Martinez he would spend a week working out at his house on the north side of the island. Martinez is still waiting.

The Alomar family lives just 10 minutes from Jauca. Yet Roberto Alomar, when learning that a visitor was seeking Santiago, said, “Good luck. You find him, you get an award.”

Santiago said that yes, he probably hangs around his old friends too much. But he said that, while it has taken time, he’s finally realizing these old friends aren’t always real friends. Especially, he said, if the talk turns to drugs.

“You can’t give up your whole career, everything you’ve earned, for one stupid drug,” Santiago says. “I know this, I’ve always known this. I’m trying to tell other people this.

“That’s one thing good about moving to San Diego. I get away from some people.”

There is a certain sweetness about Santiago that would flourish under different circumstances, perhaps in normal San Diego circumstances.

Take his daughter, Bennybeth, so named because he wanted a boy. Last summer she would constantly beg her mother to rent the animated movie “Lady and the Tramp.” She loved the golden cocker spaniel named “Lady.”

This winter, tied up alongside the Jauca house, is a golden cocker spaniel named Lady.

“My little girl cry for it,” Santiago says. “I don’t want to see anybody cry.”

Yet there is also a certain sharp edge about Santiago that will likely remain no matter where he moves.

Take his relationship with Sandy Alomar Jr., the top Padre catching prospect. While the two are most cordial, there are feelings Santiago cannot hide.

“Sandy Jr. is a good ballplayer, but look at him, look at his family,” Santiago says. “He’s had it so much easier than me. He didn’t lose father, he not lose anything.”

The tour now takes Santiago to his old baseball field, an overgrown grassy area with a wonderful view of those mountains. While strolling around the bases with the wide eyes of silent kids staring at him, Santiago talks about last season and his baseball future.

He began the season in a contract squabble that, he admits for the first time, forced him to hold out. It was only for a few hours one morning during spring training, until then-General Manager Jack McKeon talked him into returning. The year went downhill from there, with Santiago struggling at the plate and complaining about occasional benchings for rest and then finally ending the year in a silent fight with McKeon that kept Santiago benched for the final 3 games.

The Associated Press still named him baseball’s outstanding catcher, despite a .248 average with 10 homers and 46 RBIs. This was because he threw out 45% of potential base-stealers, including 65% while on his knees, with an incredible 8 pickoffs.

But this year he says things will be even better, and much different. Now he has an new agent and a new agenda.

He says he will seek around $350,000, double last year’s salary, and will probably get at least $300,000.

Santiago finally finishes the tour. He pulls the rental car in front of his house, gets out and prepares to pose for a picture.

In one part of the front yard is an entire automobile engine laid out on a cloth. In another part, a dying tree.

“Is there anywhere I can stand so it doesn’t look so terrible?” he asks.

He looks around for a minute. And then, as if suddenly realizing that understanding and accepting his past gives him a great jump in outracing it, he reaches a conclusion. He decides, wherever he stands, it’s not so terrible.

“Go on,” he said to the photographer, throwing up his arms, laughing like a man running down the side of a mountain. “Shoot me anywhere.”