A Chilly Spring : Padre Catcher Benito Santiago Can't Wait Until the End of Season So He Can Leave San Diego as a Free Agent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

'It's sad because this is my last season in San Diego. It's not my choice, it's their choice.'

Benito Santiago's eyelids begin to flutter. He relaxes, closes his eyes, sucks in his breath, then exhales slowly, visualizing the future.

They will be sorry. Once he leaves, they will find out what they are missing. Then, they will wish they had treated him better. They will be sorry . Santiago opens his eyes, gently strokes his goatee and smiles. This is his dream. The San Diego Padres can't ruin it this time.

In eight months, it will be Santiago's turn.

No more arbitration. No more arguments with management. No more taunts and obscene phone calls from Padre fans.

Santiago, perhaps the most talented catcher in the game, will be a free agent at the end of the season. He says he will listen to the Padres, if they feel like talking, but knows it probably will be a waste of time.

"You know they won't pay me," he said. "Everybody knows that."

Santiago has been with the Padre organization since he was 17. They brought him to this country. Soon, he will be making more money than he ever knew existed when he lived in poverty in Puerto Rico.

"I feel sad because this is my last season in San Diego," Santiago said. "It's not my choice, it's their choice. They could have signed me. I've given them every chance. Instead, I always have to go to arbitration.

"No more. Those days are over. I want to play for a team that wants me, a team that respects me. A team that treats me fairly.

"Man, that's going to be a nice feeling."

Santiago, a three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, will be one of the most attractive free agents next winter. At least two teams privately say that Santiago will be their No. 1 priority. In Los Angeles, there are two teams that might need help with the expected departures of Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers and Lance Parrish of the Angels.

Benito Rivera Santiago, the skinny kid who was picking tomatoes and washing cars on the streets of Puerto Rico less than 10 years ago, is going to be a very rich man.

How prepared is he for fabulous wealth? Santiago recently took out a $10-million insurance policy.

"I know I can almost set my family up for life just from the money I'm making now," said Santiago, who won an arbitration award of $3.3 million. "In my country, if you make $5,000 a year, you're a rich man. But what am I, stupid?

"You think I let the Padres sign me for nothing? Come on, I'm not Tony Gwynn, who loves San Diego so much he'll stay here for anything. If the New York Mets offered Tony Gwynn $25 million, or (the Padres offered) $12 million to stay in San Diego, I know Tony would stay in San Diego.

"I love San Diego. What city is better to live in the whole country than San Diego? But what am I going to do?

"The (Padre) owners say they don't have the money. I don't believe them. I think they just won't spend it. Believe me, if they keep doing that, and lose me, we could be like the Houston Astros. We could be like a triple-A team.

"You have to spend money to make money, and we don't do that. It's crazy. It's even like that with the football team (the Chargers). It's the best city in the country, and they screw it up."

The Padres could have signed Santiago to a four-year deal for $17.5 million a year ago. Santiago and his agent, Scott Boras, said they might even have settled for about $15 million. The Padres turned them down then and now can't afford Santiago's price.

It will cost at least $25 million, maybe $30 million, Boras said, to get Santiago as a free agent. The Padres aren't even expected to bid.

"We didn't want to be irresponsible and set the benchmark for catcher's salaries and we refuse to do it now," said Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager. "We have fiscal responsibilities too. If we had given Benny that contract last year, we would have given him $1.5 million more than Will Clark.

"Who would you rather have? Come on, there's no comparison. We're not talking Johnny Bench here."

The question is how long it will be before the Padres attempt to trade Santiago.

"We haven't got one offer, not one single offer for Benny," McIlvaine said. "What does that tell you?"

Said Santiago: "It tells me they're looking for excuses. They don't want fans to be upset when I leave. They're going to say, 'He wasn't that good anyway.'

"It's crazy. I give San Diego everything. I give them Gold Gloves. I give them All-Star games. I give them Silver Slugger awards. I give them a 34-game hitting streak.

"But my whole life there, I feel like I've been going against the traffic."

Now, the catcher with the golden arm is headed down a one-way street out of town.

"Maybe the road will go to Los Angeles, no?" Santiago said. "The Dodgers need a catcher, and I would prefer to stay in the National League. If not them, maybe the Angels, it'd be nice to stay in California. I love New York. Miami could be fun, too, because it's the closest city to Puerto Rico."

Santiago walks into his bedroom, and carries back a handful of fan mail. He proudly shows favorable letters. The nasty ones, those that call him greedy, are ripped into pieces.

But Santiago understands the fans. He was given away by his mother when he was 3 months old, and grew up on the streets of Puerto Rico. He is well-acquainted with poverty.

Said Santiago: "Most of my friends are either dead or in jail. One of my best friends was shot in the stomach. My cousin, the one I always was with, is in jail for the rest of his life. He was found guilty of killing four people."

When Santiago left Puerto Rico and signed with the Padres, he wondered if it might be more difficult to survive in this country. He was sent to Reno, the Padres' former Class-A affiliate, to play for $456 a month. Rent was $400.

"I don't have any money to eat," he said. "I have no TV, no furniture, nothing. I went into the street to find (couch cushions) in the garbage. That's my mattress for six months."

Even now, there is no need to tell Santiago about life's everyday problems. He and his wife, Blanca, are legally separated. Santiago lives in Del Mar, and will move to La Jolla before the start of the season. His wife and two children live in Chula Vista.

"I get treated better in other cities than my own," Santiago said. "I remember we were on the last day of a trip last year, and I said, 'Oh no, I got to go to San Diego. I got to battle with the fans again.' "

If Santiago never has been fully accepted

by San Diego, Boras believes it stems from the player's early days with the Padres, when Santiago feuded publicly with his manager and a few teammates.

"Benny was a much different person back then," Boras said. "He resisted authority, and did not respond to management's desires. But if you were back in Puerto, and saw the way the police harassed Benny, you'd understand.

"A lot of Benito's cousins, and friends, associated with undesirables. There were a lot of drugs around. So basically it was guilt by association.

"But no one's ever given him a chance."

Santiago is the only National League catcher in the last four years to hit 15 homers and drive in 75 runs in a season--which he has accomplished twice--but he is no fan favorite.

"I can't explain it," Santiago said. "In life, it seems like most people have trouble remembering things. In San Diego, they have trouble forgetting things."

It started in 1987, when Santiago finished the season with a 34-game hitting streak, batted .300, and was a unanimous choice as National League rookie of the year. What is remembered? Santiago decrying the pitching staff.

His offense slipped dramatically the next season, but he began to dazzle fans by throwing out runners from his knees, winning his first Gold Glove. What is remembered? Santiago walking out of spring training for a few hours during a contract dispute.

In 1989, Santiago was selected to his first All-Star game, and won another Gold Glove. What is remembered? The team's closed-door meeting during which Santiago screamed expletives at former manager Jack McKeon.

Santiago was having perhaps his finest offensive season in 1990--batting .317 with nine homers and 33 RBIs--when his arm was broken by a pitch by San Francisco Giant reliever Jeff Brantley. What is remembered? Pitcher Bruce Hurst asking to be traded after a game against Philadelphia because of Santiago's pitch selection.

Last season was Santiago's best since his rookie year; he batted .267 with 17 homers and a personal-best 87 RBIs. What is remembered? Santiago throwing a helmet toward the dugout and hitting Padre Manager Greg Riddoch. Or Santiago criticizing Padre fans.

"I think if Tony Gwynn had thrown the helmet, it would have been viewed as an accident at the inception and not as an act of aggression," Boras said.

Santiago has apologized for all his indiscretions. He says he is sorry he made life difficult for those around him. And two years ago, he began seeing a psychologist for help in controlling his aggression.

"You don't have to be crazy to see one," he said. "I just open up my head to this person, open my mind. It's helped me.

"I was young and immature, anyway. I'm only 26. Everybody makes mistakes. But I don't get in trouble in the streets. I don't get in fights. Why can't people forgive me?"

Said McKeon: "I think the trouble all these years is that Benny's been the scapegoat. Everybody always pointed the finger at him. Every time the pitcher had a bad game, it was always Benny's fault.

"You can't be popular if your own people run you down."

Even today, Santiago is criticized for his pitch selection.

"It's one of the main reasons I quit," said former Padre pitching coach Pat Dobson. "I had enough of Benny. I couldn't do my job. I wanted Benny to at least look over to the bench for pitches, and he refused to do so. I complained to Jack and Greg, asking them to back me up, but they didn't want to upset Benny.

"I decided I wasn't going to put up with that anymore. The job didn't pay me enough. It wasn't worth it."

Santiago complained that Dobson always spoke to the pitchers, and never to him. McKeon ordered the coaches to quit fueling the criticism.

"I got sick of it," McKeon said. "The pitchers have the ball in their hand last. If you don't like what he calls, throw something else. Throw it where the hell you want."

Santiago's catching has improved dramatically, according to Padre veteran Ed Whitson. Others are not so sure. Those in the Padre management refuse to comment publicly.

"I don't understand these complaints," Whitson said. "To me, he's the finest catcher in the game. Without a doubt. No comparison.

"I mean, the first time I ever saw him, I said, 'We've got another Johnny Bench here.' The more I saw him, I realized, 'What am I talking about? Bench's arm doesn't even compare with Benny's.' "

Opponents have tried to steal 45% fewer bases against the Padres in his last three full seasons than the National League average. And he is durable. He was behind the plate for 151 games last season, the 13th-highest total in major league history. The last time anyone caught more games was 1982, when Gary Carter caught 153 for the Montreal Expos.

"It's fun to watch teams come in here, and totally change their running game," Gwynn said. "Vince Coleman comes to town, and he won't even run because of Benny. There's not a catcher in the league who can do what he does.

"The sad part is that I don't think people will realize just what he's done and what he means to this team until he's gone."

Santiago walked off the plane in Puerto Rico last month, saw his adopted father, and began crying in his arms. He had recently won his $3.3-million arbitration award, the largest ever for a catcher, and it finally hit home.

"I used to think if I make $5,000, maybe $10,000, I'd be a rich man," Santiago said. "Now, I get $3.3 million, and it feels like all the money in the world. It feels like $100 million.

"But it won't change me. Benito Santiago never will change. Even when my friends barely have any money in their pocket, they say, 'Benny, let me buy you a beer. I'll get your beer.' My friends in Puerto Rico treat me the same.

"I'm still going to wash my own car, just like I did growing up. I washed so many cars I couldn't wait to wash my own. I could pay $200 for someone to wash my car, or buy the best car in the world, but I don't do that."

Santiago plans to buy his sister a house and refurbish his parents' home with his first check in April. He already has donated money for a playing field and a van to youth baseball in Puerto Rico. Now, he is trying to persuade his 69-year-old father to retire, to quit carpentry work and his side job as an airport shuttle driver.

Santiago insists that money isn't important, only pride. If he is the best catcher in baseball, he wants to be paid accordingly.

"I ask for good money last year," Santiago said. "They say, 'Have a good year, and we'll give you money.' I have a good year, and I still have to go to arbitration. They didn't give me a raise. The arbitrator gave me raise."

The Padres, who offered Santiago $2.5 million in arbitration, say Santiago's victory may turn out to be well worth the $800,000 difference.

Riddoch and the coaching staff already have noticed dramatic behavioral changes. Santiago has requested extra batting practice. He is setting up behind the plate, even providing a target to pitchers instead of letting his glove droop. He agreed to sit in the pitchers' meetings, to study hitters' tendencies. And yes, he is chatting amicably with his manager.

"Greg Riddoch and I get along great," Santiago said. "He treats me good. He respects me."

Said Riddoch: "It sounds strange, but when I got hit in the head with the helmet last year, it might have been a blessing in disguise. It's like it brought us closer."

But the Padres still are waiting to see if Santiago's improved disposition carries over into the season.

He says it will.

"I've been through a lot, man," he said. "If I was just an average player, they would have run me out of here long time ago. But I think this could be my best year.

"I don't give 100% this season. I give 200%."

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