Santiago wowed fans with throws from his knees

Catcher to be inducted to HOF with Templeton on Saturday at Petco Park

Santiago wowed fans with throws from his knees

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

If Benito Santiago had to do it over again, he might not have ever left the San Diego Padres.

"Probably my best years were in San Diego," Santiago said. "I played for a lot of teams, but my first seven seasons in the Major Leagues were with the Padres, and in their farm system before that.

"I remember San Diego the best because the Padres gave me my first opportunity."

And Padres fans still remember Santiago, who played with the Padres from the end of 1986 through 1992.

Santiago and shortstop Garry Templeton will be inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame Saturday night during ceremonies before the Padres-Phillies game at Petco Park. The ceremonies will begin around 5:15 p.m. PT with the game starting at 5:40 p.m. PT.

As a Padre, Santiago was voted to the starting National League lineup for three All-Star Games in six seasons. Only Tony Gwynn was voted an All-Star starter more times than Santiago. The former catcher is the only Padre other than Gwynn to win three Silver Slugger awards.

Santiago was the catcher who threw out runners from his knees. He owns the longest hitting streak in Padres history at 34 games. That 1987 streak that ended on the penultimate day of the regular season is also the longest ever by a Major League rookie and a Major League catcher.

"And it could have been 51 games," Santiago said. "I got a hit in the final game of the 1987 season. Then I opened 1988 with a six-game hitting streak, and hits in 14 of the first 15 games."

Santiago recalls the most memorable hit in the streak being a ninth-inning bunt single against Reds' reliever Frank Williams during the season's final weekend to extend the streak. He was 0-for-3 when he placed a perfect bunt down the third base line on his final at-bat.

Santiago finished his rookie season right at .300 with 18 homers and 79 RBIs, and he was the first of two Padres to be honored as the NL Rookie of the Year (shortstop Khalil Greene was the second in 2004).

As a Padre, Santiago had a .264 average with 85 homers and 375 RBIs in 789 games -- averaging more than 125 games a year behind the plate in his six seasons.

But the offensive numbers were almost secondary to Santiago's defense.

"I loved catching and making plays," Santiago said. "And I loved throwing out runners from my knees. I'd catch the pitch and just whip the throw without jumping up [out of the crouch]. It became my thing with the fans. They wanted to see it."

And tell others they had seen it.

"I think I was the first infielder to catch one of Benny's throws from his knees," Templeton said. "I was already impressed with his arm strength, but that kind of arm surprised me. Not only was the throw a rocket, it was right on target.

"When he fired the ball, I thought, 'Oh my God.' Benny said it was just something he picked up as a young player... natural instinct. Well, we had never seen anything like that before. Santiago started showing up on those national highlight shows."

"That became my play," Santiago said of his trademark throw.

But Santiago's years in San Diego were also difficult at times. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Santiago didn't speak English fluently when he reached the Major Leagues at the age of 21. He also didn't fully understand all questions people asked him in English.

"Sometimes I said things I didn't really mean to say the way they came out," Santiago said. "Not knowing English made it hard. Jack McKeon was the general manager and then the manager. Jack understood me. I survived because of him."

Santiago said Templeton also played a large role in his development as a Major League player.

"I am so blessed to be going into the Padres Hall of Fame at the same time as Garry," Santiago said. "He was one of the guys who really taught me how to play the game. Tempy helped me and Roberto Alomar when Roberto was a rookie the next year.

"But it was tough for me to survive in that atmosphere because I didn't have a great background, and I didn't speak English. Sometimes, what I said got me in trouble. But I know what the Padres and the people of San Diego mean to me. To be going into the Padres Hall of Fame is an honor. I am very excited because I enjoyed playing in San Diego."

Santiago left the Padres as a free agent after the 1992 season, and he signed with the Marlins as a free agent. He played a total of 17 seasons and 1,978 games for nine different teams. Santiago retired in 2005 at the age of 40 with a .263 average, 1,830 hits, 217 home runs and 920 RBIs.

"When I returned to San Diego as a player, I always got applause, and that made me feel special," Santiago said. "They remembered me and the way I played the game.

"I enjoyed playing there. I never played with another team as long as I played for the Padres. But I was very young when I was in San Diego. Back then, I didn't know what I was doing. Knowing more today, I should have stayed there."

FROM THE SCORECARD

• In addition to inducting Templeton and Santiago into the Padres Hall of Fame Saturday night, the club will honor Ford C. Frick Award winner Dick Enberg before Friday night's opener in San Diego. Enberg was recently inducted into the broadcasters wing of the National Hall of Fame.

• Third baseman Yangervis Solarte was 2-for-4 Wednesday night to extend his hitting streak to a personal-record 11-straight games. Solarte is 19-for-44 (.432) during the streak with three doubles, two triples and two home runs for seven RBIs and seven runs scored. The streak is the longest by a Padre this season.

• Shortstop Alexi Amarista was 1-for-3 Wednesday, and he is 7-for-16 in a four-game hitting streak with two doubles, two triples and a home run for five RBIs. Before that Amarista was 0-for-23.

• Brett Wallace made his first start at first base Thursday afternoon after homering as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning Wednesday night. He is 5-for-13 with a double, two homers, five RBIs and four runs scored since July 21.