LEAWOOD, Kan. -- It's just before noon in a spacious two-story house surrounded by lush trees in a peaceful cul-de-sac about 20 minutes from Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, and the race is on.
Ervin Santana tilts his head back, inhales the aromas of his childhood and quickly navigates his way around the toddler toys in the living room. He then speeds through the steamy kitchen and runs straight to his usual spot at the dining room to join his family at the head of the table.
It's lunchtime in the Santana household and the pitcher's mother, Consuelo, is visiting from the Dominican Republic, which means her famous rice, beef, salad and gandules (pigeon peas) will be served at 12 o'clock sharp, so everyone better be seated by the time the platters hit the table.
"This is heaven," Santana said, smiling. "This is just like Santo Domingo."
This is a normal day for Santana when the Royals are in town for a homestand. The days usually consist of video games or a game of catch with his 5-year-old son Jonathan and tea parties or "doll time" with his daughter Sofia, 2, and their mother, Amy. There are also laughs with his older brother, Cristian, and father, Juan, when they visit. Consuelo is there sometimes, too, and she's always beaming with pride for the life her son has made.
But there are always the Dominican-style lunches with the family, prepared most often by Amy, but sometimes by Consuelo, on the table at noon. It's a small taste of the D.R. in the Midwest, and it reminds the pitcher where he comes from.
Santana was an Angel, he's currently a Royal, but he'll always be a son, a father, a husband, a brother and a proud Dominican.
"I was born in a neighborhood called Lavapiés in San Cristóbal," he recalled. "I was raised playing basketball and baseball. Growing up, there was a point in which my father told me to quit basketball in order to focus solely on baseball, since basketball wasn't a sport in which I could make a living. It is popular in the Dominican Republic, but it's not big enough so I could become a pro. So I focused on baseball. I played center field, shortstop and I pitched. I had a good arm, and I hit . Then, my coach told me, 'We are going to turn you into a pitcher, since it's the fastest way so you can get signed.' And I became a full-time pitcher."
Santana signed with Angels as a teenager in 2000. It was not an easy transition.
"I came into the United States without knowing a single word of English. Nothing," Santana said. "It was a very tough moment for me. The good thing about it was that after every game, at 2 or 3 p.m., we had to attend English classes. It was mandatory for us. After classes, I headed out to the mall, so I could try to practice any little English knowledge I learned, you know. It was broken English. I tried to see if people understood me, and I bought the stuff I needed. I didn't know how to cook. So if we went to a restaurant, we chose a place in which the menu had pictures in it."
Santana cried at night during his days in the Minor Leagues. Consuelo cried all of the time because she knew her son was homesick and hungry. Their solution was a simple one: Dominican food cooking lessons.
"When I was learning how to cook, I had to call my mom and be on the phone for a while, and ask her how she cooked gandules, how she cooked the rice," he said. "I learned, but I had to stay on the phone for a long time."
A tradition of cooking was born. It's been passed on.
"When he's not traveling, he only wants to eat at home. Sometimes, when he's away, he just doesn't find stuff to be quite right," Amy said. "His mom taught me how to cook. So when she's not here, I get in charge of the kitchen. But when she's here, I take a break and she cooks."
Amy jokes that Ervin would probably make a good comedian, not cook, if he were not a pitcher. The father of their children is silly, she says. He also has a quiet side.
"We like to sit down outside with our kids at home, and he plays a lot with them," she said. "Sometimes, our girl wants him to brush her hair, and he does it. When I'm twisting her dreadlocks, he's in front of her doing the brushing and I'm on the other side twisting. He plays house with her. And he 'gives milk' to her dolls, and they have their tea parties."
But make no mistake, Santana can also be serious. He scowls when he talks about his "game face," and he's optimistic the Royals can make it into the playoffs. The right-hander is 9-9 with a 3.23 ERA in 30 starts for the Royals this season. Santana, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, went 96-80 with a 4.33 ERA with the Angels in eight seasons before he was traded to Kansas City last October.
Santana threw a no-hitter for the Angels on July 27, 2011, against the Cleveland Indians, and it's still the best memory of his professional career.
"Innings come, innings go. And I don't really think about [the no-hitter], since the other team had scored an unearned run in the first inning," he said. "Until the eighth inning, fans start to yell, 'He's throwing a no-hitter! He's throwing a no-hitter!' And I realize it's true. We were traveling to Detroit that day. And I honestly didn't have a chance to celebrate. Not a single chance. It was interview after interview. I had to sit by my hotel room waiting for an interview to start. So I did nothing."
What Santana did was celebrate during his lunch with his family. In the end, it was more than enough.
"Every day at noon, this meal is my favorite part of the day," Santana said. "We are all together as a family, and it's a very special time for me."