A Road Less Traveled : Padre Has Risen From Streets of Puerto Rico to Find a Home Behind the Plate

Times Staff Writer

Behind the house where Benito Santiago grew up, past the weeds, discarded major appliances and the two automobiles in the process of being dismantled, 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 gaze across a 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 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."

The mountains behind him, one of baseball's best catchers can now enjoy the view.

But at age 23, there are ghosts hidden in these haunts, and sometimes they rise up to spoil his happy picture.

During the course of a recent Monday afternoon in his rural Caribbean town, 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 most difficult part of 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, and landing on the streets as a child. Handed over to the Padre organization as a 17 year old after two 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 two 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 five minutes with Santiago, it is easy to see why. Of all the Padre stars living in Puerto Rico, his environment is the most culturally distant from San Diego. The other Padres on the island, with their English-speaking friends and educations, can be said to live simply in a different area. Santiago lives in a completely different world.

Despite the $165,000 he made last year, he and his family 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, none speaks much 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 two years ago. They wonder why he struggled to explain his struggles last year.

"Come see where I'm from and you understand me better," Santiago says.

On this day, he is so delighted to see a visitor from San Diego, so happy for a chance to speak English, that for the better part of three hours he cannot stop talking. The conversation begins with Santiago jumping behind the wheel of the visitor's car and offering to give 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 two-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 his father fell from that truck and his rib cage was crushed. The injury was never properly treated, and when Benito 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 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 said. "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 said. "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-walled 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 said. "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 pay back.

"I've got old friends here, you come back, and they say, 'You a big man, give us this, give us that,' " Santiago said. "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 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, whereas 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 said. "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.

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 said. "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 said. "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 hills. 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 three games.

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

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

About dealing with McKeon, he said: "I was wrong to think only of myself. I think Jack may have been a little wrong too, but I was more wrong, and I must think of team more now. I will think of team. I will think of my future."

Santiago finally finishes the tour. He pulls the 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."

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