Like many autograph collectors, Hector Santiago admits he is intimidated by the big stars.
“Yeah for sure,” he said. “Who wouldn’t be?”
Last year, for example, he spent most of the summer trying to work up the courage to approach Albert Pujols for his signature.
“I wanted to get an autographed ball,” Santiago said. “And I said, ‘man I know he’s busy.’ It’s only going to take two seconds of his life.
“But I don’t want to add those little two seconds.”
He never did get that baseball signed. He’ll have a chance to try again this year, though, because unlike most autograph collectors, Santiago has an in — he shares a clubhouse with Pujols.
A left-handed pitcher, Santiago made 24 starts for the Angels last year and had a 6-9 record and 3.75 earned-run average. And he was especially good in the second half, winning five of seven decisions with a 2.98 ERA, helping the Angels rally to a division title.
Despite that success, he struggled with self-confidence, which led him to give Pujols, Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and other teammates a wide berth.
“I didn’t know that,” Pujols said with a wry smile. “That’s good to know. That I intimidate people.”
For Santiago, however, it was more a sign of respect than fear.
“I put more pressure on myself because I wanted to prove to them that I’m one of you guys. I’m on the same team,” said Santiago, who pitched in parts of three seasons for the Chicago White Sox before joining the Angels last season.
“So instead of me thinking one pitch at a time, one hitter at a time, one inning at a time, I was thinking ‘I’ve got to get to the seventh’ before I threw a pitch. It’s hard enough to get a hitter out, much less to think seven innings [ahead]. It was so much added stuff.”
Santiago is far more secure about his role this year because he is likely to start the season in the Angels rotation.
“They know what I can and I know what I can do,” said Santiago, who had his best spring start his last time out, holding Cleveland to one earned run in 4 1/3 innings. “It’s that confidence where you just believe in yourself, and you believe in them for believing in you.”
Don’t confuse that confidence with cockiness, though. On the days between starts, the quiet Santiago is nearly invisible in the spring clubhouse. He dresses next to the minor league players on “Rookie Row,” across the room from Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and the rest of the Angels’ established pitchers.
His locker is also the one nearest the bathroom, which creates its set of, well, issues.
But it also means everyone comes by at least once a day, which is great for Santiago. Because although he’s now self-assured on the mound, he says he’s still star-struck in the clubhouse.
“I got to play with the best player in the big leagues on my team. So that’s awesome,” he said, nodding in Trout’s direction. “And then I grew up watching Pujols.”
A New York Mets fan from New Jersey, Santiago spent many summer nights at Shea Stadium. And he still considers himself a baseball fan, albeit one with privileges, so he gets goose bumps just talking about the first time he walked into a big league clubhouse with the White Sox in 2011.
“I saw my jersey and I was like ‘man, that’s crazy,’ ” he said. “And on the other side of the room was [Paul] Konerko. And [Jake] Peavy. And [Adam] Dunn. All those guys.
“Now you come in and you see all the jerseys and you’re used to it. So you’re comfortable.”
But still a little in awe, which is why Santiago continues to collect autographs. Last year he got Sandy Koufax’s and this spring he sent a jersey to the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse for Buster Posey to sign.
“I can’t even give you a number on how many autographs I’ve gotten since I’ve been in the big leagues,” he said. “And I probably never would have gotten them if I wasn’t a major leaguer.”
Being a major league player has also taught him a lot about the art of autograph signing. For example, Santiago says he has a number of baseballs adorned with indecipherable signatures, so he always adds a huge "#53" — his uniform number — below his autograph.
“You want to kind of take care of them,” he said of the fans. “Because they’re there, they’re supporting you, they’re rooting for you. So it’s tough to say no.”
And that brings us back to Pujols, who sought Santiago out after a recent game to praise the pitcher’s wicked new slider. For most that would have been a sign that they had arrived.
But although Santiago happily took the compliment, his newfound confidence apparently only goes so far.
“I’m still like ‘I don’t know how far I can push this.’ Just because I’m on the same team doesn’t mean that we’re comfortable enough to have a conversation,” he said.
Or exchange autographs.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11