Santiago's dedication to giving back is unrivaled

Santiago's dedication to giving back is unrivaled

ANAHEIM -- Angels starting pitcher Hector Santiago will tell you, with sincerity and conviction, that he wasn't the most talented baseball player in his hometown of Newark, N.J., even though he's the only one in his group who wound up playing professionally.

"There were a lot of kids growing up that had a lot better stuff than me, threw a lot harder than me in the same age groups, hit the ball a lot farther than me, ran a lot faster than me," Santiago said. "But I think a lot of them got distracted."

Santiago hopes to change that for the next generation.

The 27-year-old left-hander is already one of the game's most benevolent and congenial players, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who attends many charity events, signs for every fan, consents to every interview and dedicates most of his off-the-field time to charitable efforts.

But Santiago's greatest passion resides in the northern section of New Jersey, where baseball is lacking and drugs and gangs are increasingly more prevalent. He wants to build an indoor baseball facility that kids can use year-round in hopes of getting signed, or earning a scholarship, or simply occupying their time in a productive manner.

The cost, Santiago projects, would be about $2 million.

He's already starting to look into some land.

"That's going to help out the community huge, because we're going to have a facility where we can actually invite scouts," Santiago's father, Hector Sr., said. "Right now, I have maybe 10 kids that can probably at least be signed. But where do you get to showcase them? We can do it on our field, but who wants to come out in 40-degree weather? By having an indoor facility, we have something somewhere that we can showcase 24/7, all year round. And that's his goal."

Santiago's desire to help was instilled in him by his dad, who has dedicated his entire life to volunteering throughout his community. Hector Sr. recently announced his retirement from all of that work -- not to mention his day job installing carpeting and flooring -- because he wants to live by Santiago, his daughter and two granddaughters in Arizona.

"The community is devastated," Hector Sr. said of his retirement, chuckling. "But it's time for my kids and my wife. I've been married 32 years, and it's always been everything else except my wife."

When the Angels pass out their community-appearance calendar for players to check off the events their schedules allow them to attend, Santiago marks every single one. He catches every ceremonial first pitch, assists at the baseball clinics, attends all of the hospital visits and shows up for the school-reading programs, even if they occur on the days he's starting.

He runs Santiago's Soldiers, an ever-expanding group of inner-city Little Leaguers who mainly hail from Santiago's hometown. He buys their equipment, upgrades their facilities and invites them to Angels games, purchasing thousands of tickets this season alone.

When devastating tornadoes ripped through Oklahoma in 2013, Santiago sent a care package to a teenage girl who lost her home and all of her supplies for college.

And in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, he took a drive to Newtown, Conn., to meet with a group of kids affected by its aftermath.

"He is a unique individual," Angels vice president of communications Tim Mead said. "He loves people. He genuinely loves people."

Growing up, Santiago had his parents to help keep him in line. He also benefitted greatly from the Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities program, a Major League Baseball initiative that provides free baseball and softball in distressed neighborhoods. But the RBI program is no longer readily available in Santiago's hometown, and now there's a major void.

Said Hector Sr.: "We're losing kids to the streets."

Santiago's aspirations for an indoor facility began after his freshman year at Okaloosa-Walton College in Niceville, Fla. Santiago was looking for an indoor facility to train at back home, but both of the ones he knew about had closed down. He had nowhere to go.

"At that point I was like, 'All right, if I ever get an opportunity, if I ever play professional baseball and I get to the big leagues and I can somehow join with somebody, get something up and running, I'm going to do it,'" Santiago said. "That's been the goal since that time, and it's kind of becoming a reality right now."

Santiago will return to the Northeast in December to meet with his representatives. They'll talk about next season, and they'll talk in greater detail about how they can get that indoor facility off the ground.

Before that, though, Santiago is getting married.

He's been spending most of his recent time in Puerto Rico to help his fiancee plan it all out. But he made a quick stop back in Newark, N.J., over the weekend. There were Little Leaguers to meet with, a dinner benefiting local police officers to attend. And at the last minute, his father asked him to spend some time with his friends' four children.

Four turned to six, six turned to 14, and before he knew it, Santiago was hosting yet another full-scale event. Hector Sr. told the group that his son could only stay for an hour because he needed to catch his flight back to Puerto Rico.

"Well, Hector made me look bad because he stayed another hour and a half playing catch with the kids," Hector Sr. said. "But that's him. That's Hector. And I always tell him I love that from him because he doesn't forget where he comes from."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez and Facebook , and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.