When Hector Santiago talked about his battle for a big-league bullpen job last March, his motivation for breaking camp with the club was unusually forward-thinking:
Santiago would like to start a foundation in hopes of donating a baseball facility to the North Ward community of Newark, N.J., where he grew up so he can help kids can achieve their dreams despite tough odds.
"Baseball there is falling apart," said Santiago, a 30th round draft pick of the Sox in 2006 who pitched at Okaloosa-Walton (Fla.) Community College to throw in better weather against better competition and get noticed in front of scouts. "I want show those young guys back home you can do it. It doesn't matter where you're from."
The stories about Santiago's goal of the foundation popped up later in the year as the Sox made their trip to Yankee Stadium in June. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey wrote a nice profile about Santiago's Newark upbringing. His dad, Hector Sr., played a massive part:
"My dad was a big influence on me," Hector Jr. said. "His involvement in baseball is what kept me going. He was always bringing me to the park to play. Always."
Growing up above a floor-covering store in the North Ward, and raised by a single mom, Hector Sr. started working as a flooring installer as a teenager and continues in the same job to this day. He would sometimes bring his son to job sites with him, so he could observe the hard work, up close. But he also spent most of his off hours working with Hector on the game, and toting him around the city to his own fast-pitch softball games so the boy would be exposed to the sport as much as possible. And out of harm’s way.
While he was in the area, he invited kids from Newark's North Ward Center Little League to catch the Friday night game. The next evening, he stopped by his old neighborhood for a meet-and-greet at the recreational complex.
Santiago's major-league profile has yet to be determined, but his charitable endeavor received a big boost thanks to Jerry Crasnick at ESPN.com, who drew a lot of attention to Santiago's trip to Newtown, Conn, with a lengthy feature published Tuesday.
Santiago drove up from Newark last Friday to visit with the community's kids, many of whom haven't been able to process the trauma. Given Santiago's lack of name recognition and the lack of a White Sox connection in Connecticut, it seemed like an odd fit. Santiago didn't know if he could make much of an impact either, but the fact that he went out of his way to arrange the visit stood out to the school's administrators:
Santiago's initiative was more of a mom-and-pop operation. Several weeks ago his agent, Brian McCafferty, called to see whether a visit might be appropriate. But unlike other professional athletes, Santiago reached out to Newtown kids from schools beyond Sandy Hook. His New Jersey roots and affiliation with an unfamiliar team made an instant impression upon Monsignor Weiss and Mary Maloney, the school principal at St. Rose.
"It was genuine. It was heartfelt. It was his personal outreach. That's what made this different,'' Maloney says. "This wasn't the White Sox calling and saying, 'We're sending him.' He brought himself to the table, and that's where the connection came with the kids.''
Santiago didn't know whether his words would carry enough meaning -- or the right meaning -- for the kids, but apparently he didn't struggle to command their attention. As it turns out, he might have created a small pocket of White Sox fans in Yankee territory.
Reading the article makes it easier to draw connections between these efforts, whether it's inviting Newark Little Leaguers to Yankee Stadium, visiting Newtown children or congratulating inner-city Chicago baseball players who signed letters of intent. As he tells Crasnick, he's trying to engender enough goodwill that when he has the money to start building his Newark foundation and facility in earnest, others might be as willing to help.
If that video isn't enough motivation to read the article, there's Don Cooper cooping:
"He's got ants in his pants,'' Cooper says. "He wants to work, and you'll see him out there throwing every day before the game. It's our job to get him to pitch with more and more focus. You'd rather tame a tiger than push a mule.''
Update (2:00 a.m.)
Santiago opted out of pitching for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He started the offseason excited by the idea, but as the prospects of his future in the rotation brightened, he became less enamored with pitching outside of the White Sox's plans. He told Scott Merkin:
"It's just bad timing. Right now, with [John] Danks, I can be a rover: starter or spot guy. I don't want to risk it, go over there and have some doubt that I'm ... . I'm all for the White Sox. They mean everything."
It's for the kids!