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Santos makes most of opportunity

Santos makes most of opportunity

Ask Omir Santos about his eight years of drifting through the Minor Leagues in outposts like Staten Island and Battle Creek, Tampa and Trenton, Scranton and Norfolk, and he shakes his head, remembering all the burgers and buses on the long trail to the Majors.

"I didn't have an opportunity," the Mets catcher said. "If you get an opportunity in the Minors, you have to do good."

Santos followed his own advice. Eventually, the Major League opportunity came when he was called up to fill in for injured catcher Brian Schneider. Given a chance, Santos carved a spot on the Mets roster for himself by producing some of the team's most memorable moments this season.

• There was his first Major League home run, a grand slam against Florida on April 27 that made him the third player in franchise history to hit a slam for his first Major League homer.

• There was the two-out, two-run homer in the ninth inning at Fenway Park on May 23 that beat ace Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, who had struck out the two previous hitters.

• There was the game-winning single in the bottom of the 11th inning that beat Florida, 2-1, on May 29.

• And there was the on-target throw that retired Ryan Braun for the final out in a 1-0 victory over Milwaukee on April 18.

Santos has three homers and 18 RBIs in his first 105 at-bats and was hitting a productive .276. Manager Jerry Manuel likes his short, compact swing and the Mets pitchers like the way he calls a game behind the plate. The combination has won him a job.

Santos began his professional career as a 21st-round Draft choice by the New York Yankees in 2001. This was not an ideal place to get an opportunity in the Majors because the Yankees have one of baseball's best catchers in Jorge Posada.

"You play in the Minors, you have to keep working, keep doing good, make a good impression," Santos said. "It lets them know they can count on you anytime. But the Yankees, when they need something, they don't look in the Minors. They look someplace else."

Santos pressed ahead. He was an All-Star in the New York-Penn League one year, led Eastern League catchers with a .996 fielding percentage another. There were two straight trips to Spring Training with the Yankees as a non-roster invitee as one of a group of players who get reassigned early.

"It's not frustrating," Santos said. "But sometimes you get a little disappointed."

At the end of 2007, Santos was cut loose and signed with Baltimore as a Minor League free agent. He spent the majority of the 2008 season at Triple-A Norfolk and then was called up for a brief look in September when rosters expanded to 40 players. It was nothing special, just one hit in 10 at-bats and another release at season's end.

This time, though, he had caught the eye of the Mets front office. When New York expressed an interest, Santos jumped at the opportunity and made the most of his non-roster invitation to Spring Training.

"I had a good spring," he said. "That's why I'm here. When they sent me out, they said, `Do good, and you'll be here soon.'"

When Schneider got hurt, Santos got the call to share the Mets catching duties with incumbent Ramon Castro. The rookie knew he was on the roster bubble when Schneider was activated because very few teams carry three catchers. Santos was matter-of-fact about his prospects, saying if he was sent back, he'd just work harder to return.

"I'm glad I'm here," he said. "I'm glad for the opportunity."

It turned out that Castro was the one to go, traded to the Chicago White Sox. Santos had earned his keep with perseverance and timely performance.

The burgers and buses were in his rear-view mirror.

Hal Bock is a freelancer based in New York.

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