One Year After Beaning, Santiago on a Roll

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It used to gnaw at him daily, but Benito Santiago says he has put the painful part of the memory behind him.

That was then, and then was a long time ago as far as the Padres' All-Star catcher is concerned.

One year ago today, off to his best start ever, Santiago took a Jeff Brantley pitch off his left forearm and wound up spending two months on the disabled list with a cracked ulna.

Santiago returned Aug. 10 but hit just .215 with two home runs and 20 runs batted in the rest of the season.

Before the injury, his only major one in four-plus seasons, Santiago was hitting .317 with nine homers and 33 RBIs.

"I try to forget about (the beaning)," Santiago said after going two for three with a double and scoring the only run in an otherwise disappointing 12-1 rout Thursday by the St. Louis Cardinals. "That's baseball, and that happens.

"That was no fun to me, but what am I going to do? That kept me in my house for two months. That was a tough time for me. And I hope it never happens again. Man, that was tough."

The past six months have not exactly been a slice of heaven, either.

Santiago was arrested in December--but later exonerated--for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. He lost his contract arbitration hearing in February, and was so upset, he said he would leave the Padres upon becoming a free agent in the fall of 1992.

Early this season, Buck Rodgers, then the manager of the Montreal Expos, attacked Santiago's defense--Santiago is a three-time Gold Glove winner--and said he was no longer among the top 10 catchers in National League. Then, two weeks ago, Santiago was benched by Padre Manager Greg Riddoch for lack of hustle.

What effect has all this had on Santiago?

He says none, but in his last 11 games--after the benching incident--Santiago has 19 hits in 43 at-bats for a .442 average, one home run and nine RBIs. Overall, he's hitting .272 with six home runs and 32 RBIs, one fewer RBI than he had last season when he was hit by San Francisco's Brantley.

"I'm just coming to the ball park and trying to have fun," Santiago said. "I'm just trying to keep a clear mind . . . nothing negative. I have my mind clear right now.

"To me, I think I'm having a good year so far. I'm putting some pretty good numbers up. If I continue to be patient and swing the bat like I'm swinging right now, everything will be great. But I don't want to set any goals. I'll just wait until October and see what I get.

"But so far, you know, I'm looking good up there, and I play hard all the time. I don't know why (Riddoch) came up with that. I don't appreciate that at all. Because now I go to every ball park and, you know, people think I'm lazy and stuff like that. And I'm not like that."

One believer is Cardinal Manager Joe Torre. For a team like the Cardinals, which was second in the majors in stolen bases entering Thursday's game at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, Torre said Santiago presents major problems.

"He changes our game plan quite a bit," Torre said. "When we're playing the Padres, we'll hit-and-run more rather than try to steal off him because of his ability."

Case in point: In their three meetings so far this season, the Cardinals have not attempted to steal even one base, though they were credited with one when Bernard Gilkey advanced to second on Atlee Hammaker's pick-off throw in the first inning Thursday.

"You can see he has confidence in himself," Torre said. "And he's playing exceptional ball right now."

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