By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
The first thing you notice are his shoulders. Johan Santana's frame is hardly Herculean—he barely stands as tall as his listed six feet, and he's smaller than some of the reporters waiting for him to speak after the Twins' 2007 opening-night victory. But his shoulders are broad and square, enough to carry a whole team.
The quest for a sound bite begins. A reporter points out that Santana has started more than a year's worth of home games without a loss—a streak of 17 wins. Santana generously deflects credit to his teammates.
"They scored runs when we needed them," he says in a Spanish-inflected accent. "They pick me up, big time. That's the kind of team we are."
Does his arm feel okay?
"I feel better than last year at this point."
Was he pulled from the game too early?
"I feel good about the pitch count."
Do his teammates feel they're going to win when he's on the mound?
"We pick each other up and support each other. Everyone knows what he has to do."
Again, What does he think about his streak of starts at home without a loss?
"I don't try to do anything different."
The game of cat and mouse continues for about five minutes, a fine example of how today's professional athletes reveal next to nothing in post-game interviews. Santana is congenial but stoic, never once speaking off script.
You could forgive Santana's circumspection. Baseball is a game of secrecy, and pitching, more than any other position, relies on deception.
Yet Santana's status as one of the game's best players ensures his place in the spotlight. This season, the 28-year-old left-hander is featured in two team commercials. One even plays on his fabled change-up—Santana repeatedly accelerates and brakes an SUV on his way to the ballpark, while passenger and relief pitcher Joe Nathan grows carsick. It may be the first time a specific pitch has been used to promote the prospects of an entire team. But it is, arguably, the best pitch in baseball.
It's not just the home crowd that's rooting for him. Two years ago, when the American League Twins were playing the National League Los Angeles Dodgers in L.A., the line of autograph hounds stretched more than 100 yards.
This was after Santana won the 2004 Cy Young award, the first Venezuelan to do so. Not long after, Sports Illustrated called him "the world's best pitcher." After Santana won another Cy Young last year, a reporter for The Sporting News declared that Santana "is so much better than any pitcher in the A.L. you can write his name on the award for the next five years."
In a statistics-obsessed sport, Santana's numbers best those of any other left-hander in 50 years—better than Koufax, Carlton, or Vida Blue. Aaron Gleeman, who runs a respected sabermetrics website, puts it in perspective in an email: "Santana has a .706 career winning percentage. That leads all active pitchers (ahead of Pedro Martinez) and ranks second in baseball history behind only Spud Chandler (who pitched for the Yankees 60 years ago)."
Even Santana's rivals speak admiringly of his arm. C.C. Sabathia, the Cleveland Indians star pitcher—and one of Santana's competitors for the Cy Young award this year—isn't afraid to bow down. "He's the top," Sabathia says. Present company excluded? "No, he's better," Sabathia confesses, a rare moment of real humility from a professional athlete.
That's heady praise for a player who five years ago was an unknown commodity. Raised in a remote town in the Andes Mountains, Santana was plucked from obscurity. But through what Twins general manager Terry Ryan calls "coachability," Santana transformed himself into one of baseball's best pitchers.
Teammates and fans call him "Yo-Yo," not only a play on his first name, but also an apt description of his pitching arsenal: Sometimes it seems as if he has the ball on a string, manipulating its flight long after it has left his hand. He's unhittable because he's unknowable, and that's just the way he likes it.
For all the drama of Major League Baseball, there's plenty of boring downtime. Before a game in April, the relief pitchers play poker, as usual. A few players watch another game on the big-screen TV in the corner. Mike Redmond, backup catcher and noted exhibitionist, takes Full Monty pictures of himself with his cell phone and waves around an LCD screen bearing his manhood.
Even in this anything-goes environment, Santana is not an easy guy to pin down. For weeks he eyed me suspiciously, brushing me off whenever I asked for an interview. But on this day, as I linger outside the clubhouse—driven out by Redmond's graphic cell phone photos—Santana finally confronts me.
"How many times are you going to go around and ask people questions about me?" he asks.
I follow Santana into the clubhouse, where he strikes up a conversation in Spanish with other Latino players. I'm not fluent, but I think I know enough to tell that he's complaining about the guy with the reporter's notebook. "You know, I'm picking some of this up," I tell him.