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.
Santana looks at me askance. "What do you want from me?" he says.
I tell him that he's a great baseball player, and that I want to write the story of how he came to be one.
"Go down to the dugout and wait for me," he says. "I'll be there in five minutes."
Santana's story begins in Venezuela, where in some places baseball rivals bullfighting as the national pastime. In recent years, Venezuela has become a fertile crescent of future MLB all-stars, including Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordoñez, and Miguel Cabrera.
Most of those stars come from Caracas or Valencia, two cosmopolitan cities near the northern coast of South America. Santana hails from Tovar, in the state of Mérida, further south in a remote, mountainous part of the country, where the rocky landscape doesn't yield easily to baseball diamonds.
Growing up, Santana played soccer, basketball, even volleyball more frequently than baseball. "But baseball was a passion," Santana says, growing more amiable as he continues his story. He fell in love with the game through his father, Jesús. A dark, slender man, Jesús was a shortstop in the Venezuelan national leagues. "People knew who Jesús Santana was," says Pedro Aracho-Sanchez, a former Venezuelan ballplayer from Valencia who now lives in north Minneapolis. "There weren't too many Santanas who played baseball. Mostly they were all priests."
As boys, Johan and his older brother Franklin often tagged along to their father's games. The ballparks were half the size of those found in the United States, but ravenous fans packed the grandstands. Johan was so enamored with imitating his father that he even used his glove, though it was made for right-handers. "I didn't know you could play left-handed," Johan says, laughing at the memory.
Jesús never made it to the big leagues, mostly because he had to work as an electrician to provide for his wife and five children. But by age 13, Johan displayed a natural talent, albeit as an outfielder. Within two years, he was playing in a nationally televised tournament, which is how he caught the eye of Andres Reiner, a scout for the Houston Astros.
"I liked his athleticism," Reiner says. "I saw him throw a ball in from centerfield, and I started to believe he could pitch."
Reiner contacted the Astros front office, asking for $300 to travel to Tovar and sign Santana. But this was in September 1994, and Major League Baseball was locked in a strike; the Astros weren't looking to sign fresh talent. Yet Reiner persisted, calling his bosses in Houston every week, until finally they relented.
That November, Reiner and his wife rented a car in Valencia and drove some 10 hours to Tovar. Santana's house was so off the beaten path that no one at the local police station knew where to find it. Finally, a firefighter led Reiner to the front door of the Santana home, a three-bedroom house crammed with the family of seven.
"These were people of humble means, but they were proud," Reiner says. "It was a small but clean home. We spent most of the time in the family dining room together."
The Astros had a baseball academy in Valencia, but Santana's parents were reluctant to let their son leave school. Reiner, eager to groom a young prospect, told them that there was a school at the academy, and that 15-year-old Johan could pursue books and baseball at the same time.
Eventually, the parents relented, and by January 1995, Johan was in Valencia and homesick. "The toughest thing for you to do as a young person is to leave your family," he says. But he stuck it out, practicing in the ballpark during the day, studying in school at night, and swallowing tears when he spoke with his parents on the phone.
In time, baseball became Johan's solace. He realized he wanted to pursue it as a career, which meant dropping out of school. "I told my dad, 'I'd like to take my chances on baseball, and if I fail, I will go back to school,'" Santana says. To sweeten the deal, according to Reiner, Johan offered to pay for his four siblings to go to college when he cashed a major-league paycheck.
Jesús acquiesced. When Santana turned 16 in March 1995, he signed with the Astros.
As Santana made his way through the Houston farm system, Reiner kept an eye on him. "We talked all the time, and I was certain he was being groomed to be a major-leaguer," Reiner says.
Others began taking notice too, including scouts from the Minnesota Twins.
In winter 1999, the Florida Marlins had the first pick in the offseason "Rule 5" draft, and the Twins had the second. The Marlins wanted Jared Camp; the Twins wanted Santana. The teams struck a deal: Florida drafted Santana, the Twins picked up Camp, and the teams made the trade. Considering that Camp never made it to the major leagues, swapping him for a two-time Cy Young winner may be one of the all-time great steals in baseball.
By the time Santana arrived in the Minnesota farm system, he could throw a good fastball—about 92 miles an hour—and had a nice slider. But his control was erratic—he threw as many balls in five innings as many pitchers throw all game. Still, there's more to pitching than precision, and the Twins liked what they saw.
"Most of it was visual, how he handled pressure, how he intermingled with teammates, what happens if an error was made behind him, what happens when somebody gets a home run off him, those types of things," says general manager Ryan. "You could tell he was raised right."
One April night at the Metrodome, Santana is locked in a pitchers' duel with Cleveland's Fausto Carmona, a previously unremarkable pitcher having a career season. The two hurlers work efficiently, and after just 45 minutes, the game enters the fourth inning. Santana quickly gets two outs, then stares down second basemen Mike Rouse.
Santana has already struck out Rouse once tonight, with three fastballs, two clocked at 93 miles an hour and one at 94. But this time, Santana won't rely on power alone.
His first pitch floats over the plate about chest high, a slider that doesn't break. Ball one. Next comes a low slider for a called strike. Then Santana throws a pitch that looks exactly like the first one—same speed, at 83 miles per hour—except that it's called for strike two. Rouse fouls off a 93-mile-per-hour fastball. Then comes the change-up. Rouse lunges as the pitch flutters in at 78 miles per hour, and he's way out ahead. The lefty pulls it foul down the first base line. The next pitch is a devastating slider, 86 miles an hour. Rouse strikes out again.
The series of pitches is vintage Santana, mixing cunning with physical prowess.
"It's more about being aggressive and mixing everything you have, and trusting everything you have," Santana explains. "The key is to make sure everything looks the same when you deliver the ball. That's what I focus on. If you do something different when you throw your fastball versus when you throw your change-up, they'll know."
Bad change-ups are easy to hit; good ones make even the best batters look like bush leaguers. To throw a change-up, pitchers grip the ball with three fingers and a thumb. The idea is to throw with the same motion and arm speed as a fastball, but the grip puts a spin on the ball.
Pitchers don't want to throw too straight. They want to place their pitches in the strike zone, with movement just as the pitch crosses the plate. Lefties, for whatever reason, tend to have more natural movement. Santana has it in spades.
Santana throws a straight change and what's called a circle change, where he holds the ball by making an "okay" sign with his fingers. He learned it during a 2002 stint in the minors from Bobby Cuellar, then the pitching coach for the Twins' Triple-A farm team in Edmonton.
"We moved my index finger from the middle, in between the seams, to the top of the seam," Santana explains, demonstrating in the dugout by bending his calloused left thumb around the side of the baseball. "Then we moved the knuckles—instead of being in between the seams, they're going to be on top of the seams. So it felt like the ball would be in my hand the whole time, and it's not going to be easy to come out. So you can have the same arm speed as a fastball, everything looks the same."
With the new grip, Santana could throw the change-up at roughly 78 miles an hour—12 to 16 miles an hour slower than the fastball the batter is anticipating.
Adding the third pitch—fastball, slider, and now a change-up—to his arsenal turned Santana into one of baseball's most dominant starting pitchers. In the 2003 season, he started 18 games and finished the season 12-3. The next year he went 20-6, throwing a league-leading 265 strikeouts in 228 innings pitched. Opponents' batting average against him was a paltry .192. During one stretch that summer, he won seven straight games. In another, he allowed just two runs in 40 innings. As one hapless opponent later said: "It's like he's reading your mind."
When the season was over and Johan returned to Tovar, he found his parents' doorstep littered with baseballs, caps, and photographs. Each day, Santana dutifully collected the items, signed his autograph, and left the memorabilia outside for the adoring fans to collect.
The attention only grew more intense after he was named the Cy Young award winner in late 2004. Venezuelans stormed his family's house and their church in Tovar. Santana had to go on national television to keep the peace. President Hugo Chavez gave Santana the country's highest medal of honor, and his government provided five security guards for Santana and his parents, brother, three sisters, wife, and baby girl. Such is the price of being a national hero.
Reiner, the scout who discovered him, says that after Santana won his first Cy Young, he called to say he wanted another. When he won a second, Santana called and told Reiner that he wanted to win a third. "It's not the money or the fame," Reiner says. "He wants to be the best, no matter what, and that's how all the greats are."
During an April bullpen session, Santana is giving his catcher fits. One pitch smacks the mitt with such force that the sound reverberates around the Metrodome like a gunshot; others are bobbled or dropped.
Santana's pitches move all over the place—dropping, tailing, and cutting. This is what is commonly referred to by ballplayers as "stuff," and it isn't clear Santana always has control over it. What is certain is that Santana's "stuff" is nasty even when he's just going through the motions.
"I remember catching [an early] game against the Blue Jays, and I couldn't believe the stuff coming over the plate," recalls A.J. Pierzynski, a former Twin who has the unique perspective of catching for Santana and now hitting against him for the Chicago White Sox. "There's no one better. He's the total package."
Ask anyone why Santana's pitches are so effective, and they'll talk about the ball's movement five feet before crossing the plate. They also talk about "arm speed," which means every throw looks like a fastball; hitters can't tell what's coming until it's too late. Good pitching thrives on making the batter guess, but Santana concedes that sometimes even he's surprised where the ball ends up.
"It can catch up to him if he's not careful," says Jack Morris, known for pitching the greatest game seven in World Series history: 10 gritty innings of shut-out ball to win the 1991 championship for the Twins. "I try to convince him that he's never going to catch Nolan Ryan, that he should give up on that, and give his best pitches for more outs. But it's all about trying to be the strikeout king. He enjoys that."
Statistics aside, Santana has emerged as a team leader. He's the first in the dugout to greet a player who scores a run and he exudes a contagious confidence. With Santana as their ace in the hole, the Twins feel they'll rarely have to worry about a long losing streak.
Just take one look at him on the mound. When Santana strikes a batter out, he hops to his right, his glove hand on his hip, looking every bit like the matadors he grew up admiring.
The question is whether the Twins can afford to keep him. Though Santana has said he'd like to stay, the decision may be dictated by market value.
The prospects for resigning Santana took a major hit in the offseason when the San Francisco Giants signed Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126-million contract, the richest ever for a major-league pitcher. Zito, a lefty who had pitched for the Oakland A's, was considered one of the best hurlers in the American League. But he's no Santana. That he would attract that kind of free-agent cash will surely inflate Santana's value.
This spring, Sports Illustrated ran an article claiming Santana was unhappy with the Twins' lack of diligence in trying to sign him to a long-term contract, a report the pitcher promptly denied. No one within the organization will indulge in speculation about Santana's future. "He's stated publicly that he wants to stay with the team," Terry Ryan says, and leaves it that.
At just past 4:30 on an April afternoon, two and half hours before the Minnesota Twins are to take on the Baltimore Orioles in an early-season series, manager Ron Gardenhire is gingerly negotiating his way from the field to the clubhouse—he has a bum knee. The lineup card has been filled out, scouting reports digested, the media sated. Waiting is the hardest part.
Santana arrives in the clubhouse and catches the manager's attention. Gardy whirls around, curses his knee—he'll have surgery on it in a couple of weeks—and disappears down a hallway into the bowels of the old dome. Minutes later, he returns carrying two of Santana's game uniforms. He hands them over to Santana, who promptly hangs them in his clubhouse locker.
Despite his curmudgeonly moments, Gardenhire is an avuncular sort, and it could very well be that he's merely doing a favor for Santana. Then again, a reasonable man—and Gardenhire is certainly one—would be wise to keep his ace happy.