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Bennie Says He’s Ready : But Padres Offers Their Reasoning to Give Benito Santiago Seasoning

Times Staff Writer

Bennie and his jet arm will be in Triple-A this summer.

But Bennie says: “Every time people see me play, they say: ‘That Bennie, he’s a good catcher.’ See, I’m ready to play in the big leagues this year. I’ll go to Triple-A, but I’m ready. I can hit. I can run. I can call good game and I play great defense. Isn’t this what a catcher needs?”

But the San Diego Padres think this catcher--Benito Santiago is his full name--needs more seasoning.

“I am not so sure they know what I need,” he says.

His reasoning--the rifle that is his right arm. In pregame infield practice, regular catcher Terry Kennedy throws and then Kennedy’s backup, Bruce Bochy, throws and then Santiago throws.

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“After seeing Bennie throw, people must think I’ve got a sore arm,” Bochy said.

In Puerto Rico, where he grew up and where his reputation is still growing, they dare not run on him during winter ball.

“If I try to steal on him, I go halfway and then I go back,” said teammate, roommate and running mate Mario Ramirez. “A lot of guys in Puerto Rico do that.”

Santiago said: “Oh yeah. Seventeen people try to get to second on me in Puerto Rico and I throw them out 15 times.”

Sometimes, he throws out runners from a kneeling position. Sometimes, he stands up, winds up, pauses, finally throws and still gets the runner.

“Yeah, he stalks guys,” said Tom Romenesko, the Padre director of minor leagues and scouting. “We’ve been working with him not to do it.”

And don’t forget the rifle shots that come off his bat. Against the Cubs last weekend, he hit a grand slam off Warren Brusstar.

“They tell me he’s a good pitcher, too,” Santiago said.

But the Padres have done some reasoning, too. Kennedy, their starter, has lost 18 pounds and is expected to be quicker defensively. Bochy, a seven-year veteran, just signed a new contract. They’ll both stick in 1986.

This reasoning means Santiago needs one more season. Maybe more.

“Most kids are impatient,” manager Steve Boros said. “He’ll be in Las Vegas, though. He’s an outstanding prospect. He can catch and throw, and he’s hit everywhere he’s been (.298 last year at double-A). He has a great future in baseball, but not now.”

Now, just the other day, Santiago was wondering out loud what the Padres thought of him.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “He don’t play me. Give me a chance, and I make that club. But I don’t know what they think. One day, (general manager) Jack McKeon talked to me for a couple of minutes, but it was nothing. I didn’t ask him anything. I say ‘How you doin’ and to Boros, I just say ‘Good morning.’

“But Carmelo (Martinez), Mario (Ramirez), (Tony) Gwynn, Tempy (Garry Templeton) and Goose (Gossage). . . . They all know I can play. Tempy tells me sometimes: ‘You’re ready.’ I should be playing. I can play here. All I need is the chance.”

He will not get it this year.

It’s been said that impatience is not a virtue. So he must control himself. Part of the problem is that he originally is from a poor part of Puerto Rico and suddenly is surrounded by the Steve Garveys of this world. The big money is so close, but so far away. Last year, Santiago needed 16 root canal jobs done to his teeth. He had never been to a dentist before.

Romenesko called Santiago’s financial background “frightening.”

But Santiago said: “My whole family is together. We live in a big house.”

Speaking of big, he is.

Currently, he stands 6-foot-1, and his feet are a good couple of feet long. A baseball gets lost in his palms.

He turned 21 last Sunday, but he might still be growing.

“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “My father is 6-5. I think I’ll stop at 6-2 or 6-2 and a half. I’ll probably weigh 210.”

Ramirez, eavesdropping, nodded.

“He will gain (weight),” he said. “That boy can eat. Every hour, room service.”

Santiago calls club sandwiches “clubhouse sandwiches.” He eats a lot of them.

“And steak, too,” he said. “Everything, man. I get hungry. I’ll eat anything.”

These Latino players are different. To them, baseball is life and life is baseball. When it rained on Monday and the Padres’ game was canceled, Martinez and Ramirez and Candy Sierra and Sandy Alomar and Santiago went outside by the pool and played catch. Other Padres relished the day off. But those guys couldn’t sit on the bench for one day, so no wonder Santiago can’t stand sitting for an entire spring.

In Puerto Rico, they play year-round. The first leagues are for toddlers, and they’re appropriately named “The Pampers League.” After that, there’s the Willie Mays League and the Sandy Koufax League and the Pee Wee Reese League and so on.

Santiago played on each one.

But when the Padres signed him in 1982 and sent him to Yuma to prepare for something called the minor leagues, he was confused. Fortunately, a man named Paco asked him for his autograph one day, and he had someone to speak with.

To this day, he and Paco are friends, and during spring training, Santiago and his wife, Blanca, and their baby girl, Bennybeth, stay at Paco’s home in Yuma.

Paco always asks Santiago why he doesn’t play more.

Santiago said Monday: “Listen, scouts have told me Pittsburgh and the Dodgers are interested in me. But scouts also told me San Diego not want to give me away. I’d like to stay here. I like the organization. I’m happy here. Just please give me playing time.”

Oh boy, wait until Santiago hears what Larry Bowa, the new triple-A manager, said the other day. Bowa will have Mark Parent, another promising catcher, in Las Vegas along with Santiago, and he said: “I’ve got a problem I don’t relish. They’ve both got to play, and I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

Also, Sandy Alomar Jr., the son of the Padre first base coach, will be catching at double-A this year, and he might be the best one of all. At age 19, he has better defensive mechanics than Santiago and Parent.

Santiago shrugs: “I consider myself superior to those guys. I can do more things. Just give me the chance, and I show you.”

During Tuesday’s game here, Kennedy struck out and a fan said: “Put Benito Santiago in!”

No chance.


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