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Santiago Puts Problems Behind Him : Padres: Since counseling, his angry outlook on life has been replaced by a much warmer exterior.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Benito Santiago sorts through the dozens of videos atop his TV set, finds one to his liking, grabs a beer, sits back on his couch and relaxes in the comfort of his hotel room.

The curtains remain open in his room as he watches “The Shrimp on the Barbie.” Hotel guests, knowing this room belongs to the Padres’ star catcher, curiously peek with no inhibitions about invading his privacy.

They’re stunned by what they see. Instead of being angered or indignant toward someone snooping, there is Santiago, smiling and waving his hand.

Need an autograph?

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Come on in.

Just want to talk?

Have a seat.

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Let me comb my hair.

Benito Rivera Santiago, at 26, finally has found peace. The torment and rage that seared through his personality for much of his life has vanished.

Gone are the days of Santiago screaming at his manager. Gone are the times he chastised his pitching staff. Gone are the moments when he wanted to grab someone’s face and beat it to a bloody pulp.

“You know, it sounds crazy because of the stuff I went through during the winter,” Santiago softly says, “but I tell you what, I’ve never been happier, more calm in my life.

“What do you think?

“Crazy, huh?”

It was two years ago when Scott Boras, Santiago’s newly hired agent, went to visit Santiago in Jauca, Puerto Rico. He barely knew Santiago, but after spending 10 days on the island, he knew something was terribly wrong.

This was a catcher on the verge of greatness. A Gold Glove winner after only two years, he had established himself as the league’s best hitting catcher.

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But Boras left the Santiago’s home troubled, knowing that although this might be a Hall of Fame catcher in the making, Santiago’s career could be over any day.

“I was scared to death,” Boras said. “Just seeing what Benito had to deal with every day, I wondered how he survived. The Puerto Rican culture is very different anyway, but to see the area where he lived, oh, my God.”

Santiago’s neighborhood, Boras said, was filled with mobsters and drug trafficking. Dope was everywhere. Guns were everywhere. And everyone knew where Santiago lived.

“I know it was a bad neighborhood,” Santiago said. “But my family lived there. So did my friends.”

Of course, few friends remained. His older cousin, the one he hung around while growing up on the streets, is in prison for life. The charge: murdering four people. One of his best friends, also a catcher, was killed in a bar, shot in the stomach while drinking a beer.

“Most of my friends,” Santiago says, “are either dead or in jail.”

Boras convinced Santiago to leave Puerto Rico for good. Live in San Diego, he said. Learn the culture. Learn the language. Get away from your troubles.

Santiago listened and bought a house in Chula Vista, with a view of downtown and the Coronado Bridge. So taken with the view, Santiago simply stood in the back yard for 30 minutes, and purchased the house without stepping inside.

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“Crazy, huh?” Santiago said.

The change in environment helped Santiago adapt. His wife took classes to learn English. He began making public speaking appearances.

“I think it was good to get away,” Santiago said. “Everybody knows me there. They were trying to take me out. It was too easy to get into trouble.”

Even with the environmental change, Boras knew that something was wrong. There was an inferno of hostility raging inside Santiago, and it refused to fade away.

Santiago, full of machismo and braggadocio when surrounded by friends, was quite different when alone. Blanca, his wife, and Boras knew that this was a man who was as insecure as a high school freshman.

The root of Santiago’s anguish goes back to when he was 10 years old, the day he learned that the couple he thought were his parents were only friends of the family.

His father was dead. He fell off a cement truck, crushing his rib cage, and eight months later when he returned to the hospital after chronic pain, learned that he had cancer. He died when Benito was three months old.

His mother, it turns out, was on the other side of the island in Ponce. She already had six kids to raise at the time of her husband’s death, so she gave him to friends of the family.

“I still think about that,” Santiago says. “I wonder why she did that. Why didn’t she keep me? Why didn’t she at least stay close to me? I don’t like thinking about that, but it’s always on my mind.”

Santiago’s mother never even bothered visiting when he was growing up. Says she didn’t have time. She did call once, after Santiago was selected rookie of the year in 1987.

“She started talking about how she’s my real mother,” Santiago said, “but I told her my mother is the one who lives in my house, who takes care of me. I haven’t talked to her in two or three years now.”

Boras, perceiving that Santiago’s suffering was much more complex than he imagined, decided Santiago needed help. He wanted Santiago to see a psychologist, Celia Falicov, an Argentine who practices in La Jolla.

The trouble was mustering the courage to persuade Santiago that he needed help.

“I was very afraid,” Boras said. “I sat around for two days thinking how I was going to say it, and what I was going to say. It was kind of like when I asked my wife to marry me. That took four days.

“I guess the thing that scared me, I guess, is that the one thing I did not want to do is lose the gains I already made with my relationship with Benito. But I also knew what needed to be done. I needed to be honest with him.”

Santiago listened, and much to Boras’ surprise, did not even wince. He wanted help. Now he found a friend who would provide it.

“At first, I wondered how I was going to do that,” Santiago said. “Before, I never open up to my friends, so I wonder what am I going to explain to a lady I’ve never met in my life. But he told me to give it a chance, that it would do me good.

“Now, I’ll never forget what Scott’s done for me. He’s part of my family now. He’ll be with me always.”

Santiago listens daily to the accolades. His pitchers rave about his arm, the one that prevents baserunners from even tempting a lead. Umpires say he’s the best they’ve seen since Johnny Bench. And even Johnny Bench predicts that one day Santiago will be joining him in the Hall of Fame.

“The only thing bad about Benny,” Padre pitcher Andy Benes said, “is that he throws the ball harder back to you than you do throwing to the plate.

“And he doesn’t have to get anybody out.”

Santiago already is acclaimed as the best in the business. He has won three Gold Glove and three Silver Slugger Awards. He has been selected to the All-Star team. And for the past two years, he has led National League catchers in home runs and RBIs, despite missing two months last season with a broken arm.

“The way I’m going now,” Santiago said, “I don’t think I’ll have a problem getting in the Hall of Fame. If I play another 10 to 14 years, believe me, I’ll be there.”

Yet if Santiago indeed is as talented as everyone says, and if he is the greatest catcher in baseball, he wants to know why the Padres are not treating him as such.

He wants to know why the Padres provided first baseman Fred McGriff and right fielder Tony Gwynn with lucrative four-year contracts, and pitcher Bruce Hurst with a two-year extension, but left him fending for himself in arbitration.

“Believe me, they’re making a big, big mistake,” Santiago said. “They could have me for the next 10 years. Look at me, it’s not like I’m 38 or 40 years old, I’m 26. Look at my body.”

The Padres did offer a four-year contract for about $11 million, but Santiago quickly rejected it, saying instead he was seeking a contract similar to Will Clark’s--four years for about $17.5 million. Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager, never budged, and the contract wound up being resolved in an arbitration hearing. Santiago lost, receiving $1.65 million.

“They say I’m not a slugger like Will Clark,” he said, “so I don’t deserve that kind of money. Hey, I don’t care if Will Clark hits 50 home runs, he can’t play defense like me. He’s not behind the plate. Show me another catcher who does what I do.

“Really, I don’t understand what that guy is talking about. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I have three Glove Gloves. Three Silver Sluggers. I’m an All-Star. What more do they want?

“I know people say, how can you turn down $11 million? How can a guy from my background turn down that kind of money? One writer, he make me look like a pig in the damn paper because I turn down $11 million.

“I just want to be paid what I deserve. If I deserve to be paid one penny, pay me one penny. If I deserve $20 million, pay me $20 million.

“But I know I’m worth more than $11 million, come on.”

The Benito Santiago of the past surely would allow his contract frustrations to tear him apart this spring. The Benito Santiago of the past would be moody and rebellious. The Benito Santiago of the past would do what he pleased this spring.

But this Benito Santiago is as calm and even-tempered as if he were the richest man on earth. He’s out early catching pitchers. He stays late working on drills. Whatever he asks, he’s there to accommodate.

“I’m here to play baseball,” Santiago said. “I’m upset at the club. I don’t like what they did. But it’s a business. That’s all. I understand that.

“I hope they understand, too, when I become a free agent in two years. No hard feelings. It’s just business. I like the city of San Diego, and we feel comfortable there, but there are other places I like too.”

Did anyone say the Dodgers?

“I have a place I’d like to go,” Santiago said, “but I’m not going to say anything. If I say I want to go somewhere, the next thing I know, (I) will be traded to the American League.”

Santiago sits back and laughs. Life is good again. Maybe he doesn’t make the money he wants. So he purchased a used Porsche instead of a new one.

It was the same white Porsche that aroused police suspicions on Christmas Eve when he stopped to help his sister, Eneida, who was pulled over for erratic driving in her Toyota. Santiago walked out of his car to explain to police that his sister did not speak English. The next thing Santiago knew, he said, he was lying on the ground with a knee in his back.

While his sister was let go, Santiago was taken into custody and held in a jail cell until 5:30 Christmas morning for suspicion of drunken driving and obstructing an officer. No charges were filed, but that didn’t matter. It was all over the news in San Diego.

“Here’s Benito, a Puerto Rican in a three-quarter-length leather coat and a white Porsche,” Boras said, “so you know what the police were thinking.”

Santiago’s daughter, 5-year-old Bennybeth, who witnessed the incident, still is receiving counseling for the trauma. It wasn’t until recently that she could get into a car without crying.

“That’s not right,” Santiago said. “It’s not fair what happened. But you know what, I’m not angry. I forgive them.

“I did a lot of things that were wrong too. Just like Jack McKeon (former manager), I was wrong about that guy. I said a lot of bad things to him, right to his face.

“He should have slapped my face. He should have thrown me out of baseball. But he didn’t do that. And I appreciate that.

“I’m big enough to apologize. I’ll apologize to anyone who I made mistakes with before. I’m not afraid of that.

“What do you think?

“Crazy, huh?”


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