It’s very seldom that something in this line of work gives me a chill or a thrill.
Don’t mistake that for me taking watching baseball for a living for granted; rather, even such a cool experience like seeing MLB ballparks becomes a bit more mundane when it’s a daily occurrence.
It’s just part of the deal.
But the most recent thing that would qualify along those lines was meeting Johan Santana over the weekend. It’s not that I don’t have the chance or opportunity to run into pitchers of his caliber on a regular basis. Justin Verlander used to come through here multiple times per year. Corey Kluber still does.
But Santana was the pitcher of my early adulthood, when my Twins fandom hit a fevered peak before I decided I wanted to do this as an unbiased journalist rather than a struggling college student collecting pennies to pay for my season tickets.
So meeting him for the first time was pretty terrific.
Santana was in town for his induction into the Twins Hall of Fame — which took place on Saturday — and in doing so he was enshrined among some of the all-time greats like Kirby Puckett and Harmon Killebrew, as well as some of his terrific contemporaries like Torii Hunter and Brad Radke.
In fact, it was Torii who — after emcee Dick Bremer opened the program — introduced Santana on the way to getting his Hall of Fame jacket from Rod Carew.
Torii and Johan were teammates from 2000-07. Hunter was the uber-athletic outfielder who still needed a bit for his swing to come into its own, while Santana was the skinny kid who Terry Ryan plucked out of the Rule 5 draft out of the Houston Astros system.
One thing Santana kept reiterating during his media availability on Friday was that he never really thought making an exclusive club like this was a realistic goal. A quick glance at his minor-league stats reveals an unremarkable 20-year-old lefty who had just thrown 160.1 ordinary innings with A-level Michigan in the Midwest League.
- 4.66 ERA
- 1.35 WHIP
- 150-55 K/BB ratio
His best single-season ERA to that point was 4.36. His minor-league ERA for his entire career — even after going back to Triple-A Edmonton for a stretch in 2002 — was still an ugly 4.70. But maybe there was a small glimmer of hope: one of his teammates on that Michigan team was a year older than him, and had similarly average numbers. The 21-year-old made 22 starts to Santana’s 26, and posted a 4.46 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and nearly identical walk and strikeout rates.
That was none other than Roy Oswalt, who won the 2005 World Series MVP, made three All-Star teams and was a top-10 finisher in the Cy Young balloting six times.
But how young was Santana when the Twins took a chance on him? Even now, nearly 20 years later, he still won’t turn 40 until midway through next year’s spring training.
But on Saturday night, as he opened up his speech, he said that people kept asking him if he was really retired. Santana has already appeared on the MLB Hall of Fame ballot, which goes to show just how long it has been since he has actually thrown a big league pitch.
Nearly six years to the date since Santana took the mound against the Washington Nationals — Aug. 17, 2012 — the lefty told 27,000-plus fans at Target Field, a venue he never even played at, that he was going to formally announce his retirement. In doing so wasn’t going to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, but rather catch one from his son, Johan Jr.
It was the bow on a wonderful night where the rain stayed away long enough for fans to see a two-hour, 45-minute game — 21 minutes longer than the rain delays the night before — with intros of each Twins Hall of Famer in attendance and a lot of laughs and wiped away tears in the meantime.
Santana has never forgotten about Minneapolis, even though more than a decade has gone by since he was last in the city.
The first thing he was in the airport was Signature Flight Support, which is where the teams fly in and out of when they hit the road. “Well, that hasn’t changed,” Santana thought to himself before he began the trip downtown.
But when he got downtown, it all came flooding back.
“Driving into the city, I saw the Metrodome — or, US Bank Stadium now — and when I saw that, I couldn’t believe the Metrodome was (previously) there,” he said. “That was home. That’s where everything happened. That’s where all the magic happened. That’s where we got to know all these guys and hang out and all the great memories we had happened there. Now that’s not there anymore.”
The words carried a tinge of sadness perhaps not totally expected from a player who saw his entire Twins career in one of the ugliest venues in the league at the time, but also were ones that carried weight when realizing his career began and ended in a Twins uniform with just that one building.
Santana still misses the Metrodome to this day.
“Oh no question,” he said without hesitation when the question was posed. “That’s where everything happened. It is unbelievable. You can’t see it anymore. It’s been over 10 years since my last time in the Twin Cities. I couldn’t believe that. When you look back, you can’t believe that’s where we used to park, where we used to drive in and where we used to put gas on at that gas station there. I was just like “Wow.”
“It’s the same setup kind of thing, but it’s missing that perfect place we used to call home. A lot of people didn’t like it. We loved it. A lot of players from other teams hated it. We loved it. Because we knew what to do and we called it home. When you feel comfortable at home, you do good things. That’s exactly what happened.”
But with that said, Santana felt a special connection to Target Field on Friday when he walked into the building for the first time.
“Now when I walk in here — even though I didn’t play here and this place wasn’t built when I got traded — I was happy because I was part of this,” he said. “We are a big reason why this ballpark is here right now. We are a big reason why this team is still here right now. I remember going back in time when they talked about contraction. They wanted to get rid of this team. We were like “What’s happening here?” Now you have a beautiful ballpark and the fanbase is unbelievable. You’re going to have Twins baseball for a long time. I’m happy for that. If you ask these guys they will feel the same way because we did it together.”
Like most Rule 5 picks, Santana’s leap to the big leagues was an immense one. His success was not immediate. In fact, through Santana’s first two big-league seasons, his ERA was 5.90 in 129.2 innings. His WHIP was 1.71, and he was striking out just slightly more batters per nine innings (6.4) than he was walking (4.9).
It was in 2002 that things started to click, as Santana headed to Triple-A Edmonton to work with pitching coach Bobby Cuellar. That’s where the vaunted changeup conversation begins, Santana said.
After working almost exclusively in relief over his first two seasons, the Twins wanted to stretch Santana out in 2002. The only real way to do that during the season is to send a guy out to the minors to start a progression — something like 30 pitches, then 45, then 60 and so on — before bringing him back in a month or so.
Let’s just let Johan tell the story:
“The thing is with Bobby, when I went back to Triple-A in 2002, and he was the pitching coach,” Santana said. “They sent me back because they wanted me to be a starter. In order to be a starter, you have to have at least three pitches, you know? I had my changeup, but in the bullpen it couldn’t work. You can’t throw a changeup like that just coming in from the bullpen.
“When I went to Triple-A I had the opportunity to work every single day. With Bobby, we put ourselves into it. It wasn’t as much about the grip as it is the confidence of throwing the pitch and working on my arm speed. Then we tweaked it a little bit. I was like, “Bobby, I feel like I need to have that pitch in my hand.”
“Most of the time they tell you that you want the changeup to come out of your hand nice and loose; I was the other way around. I wanted to make sure I had the same grip as I had on my fastball. That’s how I feel when I have my fastball, like I have the ball in my hands. That how it was with the changeup but with a different grip. The difference was the arm speed and the release point; when I threw the ball, I wanted to make sure it looks just like a fastball. That’s what I was working on. We spent about two months working on it. I remember working in the middle of the game working on pitches and pitch count on a 3-0 throwing a changeup in a Triple-A game. You have no choice but to throw strikes there. So I was challenging and forcing myself to take command on that pitch.”
The Twins brought Santana back and he made some starts in 2002, but wasn’t fully entrenched as a starter. He made 14 of his 27 appearances out of the rotation, and started to look like a wild horse who was maturing into a thoroughbred before the very eyes of Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson.
In fact, Santana told a humorous anecdote about discussions he had with J.C. Romero around this time. Romero was working as a starter and secretly wished to work as a reliever instead, while Santana’s wishes were the exact opposite.
Eventually it happened.
Santana had a remarkable 2.99 ERA in 108.1 innings, and perhaps even more impressively fanned 137 batters in 108.1 innings (11.4 K/9). But it came with a cost; Santana led the league with 15 wild pitches.
But despite the impressive amount of improvement the then-23-year-old lefty had made, he still wasn’t made a starter right out of the gates in 2003. Well, it was originally the plan for him to be one — until Kenny Rogers was still available on the free-agent market very late into spring training.
The 38-year-old Rogers signed a deal on March 17, and with that Santana was shuffled back to the bullpen to start the year. Of Santana’s 45 appearances that season, 18 came as a starter — and the results were impressive overall: 3.07 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 1010 WHIP.
In fact, it garnered Santana enough down-ballot votes that he finished seventh in the Cy Young voting that year.
All the while he was working up the ranks with the Twins, he was a tireless worker on the field and off it. He liked to keep things loose and have fun, but he had a different gear on game days and when it came to work, he wasn’t going to let somebody do more.
“That’s when everything just went over the top because we worked every time,” Santana said about his daily work with Anderson after his return to the big leagues in 2002. “Every single day. There was not a day that I wouldn’t want to work. I wanted to long toss. I was long tossing with my fastball. I was long tossing with my changeup. I wanted to make sure I had that arm speed so that everything would look the same.
“After that, it was just about confidence. I had the self-confidence that I could throw any pitch in any count. I wasn’t so into throwing first-pitch fastballs or whatever, but about making adjustments as you go. But I also wasn’t a guy who went through a scouting report to see every hitter’s weaknesses. I just was going to go with whatever I had and they could adjust to me. I don’t have to adjust to anybody. That was pretty much how it was.”
Once it became clear to Santana that he was going to be a starter moving forward, he was able to reflect on what had been, and what may have been yet to come.
“I remember when I was in the bullpen I was like, “Just wait for that moment. Whenever that happens, don’t let go,” he said. I was so mentally prepared that I was just waiting for that opportunity. But I had a couple years under my belt and knew how to handle things once you cross those lines.“
But after all that work and positive progress, 2004 started out relatively poorly for Santana. At the end of April, his ERA was 5.40. A month later, it was even worse (5.61).
By the Midsummer Classic, Santana had chopped it down to 3.78 with a run of seven straight starts with two or fewer earned runs.
It was after the break where Santana just completely went bonkers. Over his final 15 starts of the regular season, Santana had a 1.21 ERA, .443 OPS against and 129-23 K/BB ratio in 104.1 innings pitched.
Santana won all 13 of his second-half decisions; the Twins were 14-1 in his starts. His first of two Cy Young awards with the Twins was imminent.
“I was very proud about that,” Santana said of his second-half stretch in 2004. “You don’t think about how much you’ve accomplished at that time. I was just competing. I was being challenged by the other teams. I always wanted to be a better and better challenge. I wasn’t even thinking about how good I was. It was about, “How much better can I be?” It was about getting better and competing with the whole thing.
“Everything was there. I wasn’t trying to do anything different. But at the same time, having the support of all your teammates and letting everything loose……you know I used to play music and have fun and let everything loose and not think too much. When you think too much, then it’s tougher. You’re putting pressure on yourself. To me, it was just “I know what I’m going to do, give me the target. Just do it. Don’t think about it.”
Santana’s four-year run as a full-time starter for the Twins (2004-07) ranks among the best, if not the outright best stretches of its kind in club history. Santana had a 2.89 ERA over that time frame, 9.7 K/9, a WHIP of 0.99 and won a pair of Cy Young awards and could have easily won three in a row in a just world.
But instead, Santana had to settle for three straight top-five finishes.
With Santana’s contract slated to be up after 2008, the rumors heated up that the Twins — still three seasons away from moving to Target Field at this point — were going to have to move their star left-hander in advance of his age-29 season.
When it happened, it had all the sizzle of year-old fireworks.
Rather than getting prospects from Los Angeles like Matt Kemp or Clayton Kershaw, Yankees like Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera or Joba Chamberlain or Red Sox like Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Jed Lowrie — all of this is a mix of unconfirmed rumors and the wish list of a 21-year-old BW at the time — the Twins landed the following package from the New York Mets:
- outfielder Carlos Gomez
- starting pitcher Philip Humber
- starting pitcher Kevin Mulvey
- starting pitcher Deolis Guerra
On a joyous occasion like being inducted into a team’s Hall of Fame, it might seem unusual that a subject like this would come up.
But when asked about what Santana would change if he could alter the course of his time with the Twins in just one way, he got very serious and appeared to be a little sad when he spoke.
“I would have liked to stay here longer,” Santana said. There’s no question about it. One of the toughest things that happened to me was when they told me they had to trade me. I was like, “Wow.” I couldn’t believe that. Everything I knew then was because of them. I couldn’t believe that. After that, I understood the whole thing was business. It is what it is. There’s a reason for things. Then I had to go. But that’s one of the things…we were so close. We were like a couple pieces from going all the way. Instead of adding, we were taking away. That was kind of tough. When you get that close to winning it all, it’s a different game. That’s the only thing.”
As much as Twins fans lament the deal from their side, it wasn’t like it totally worked out wonderfully for anyone involved.
Santana never played a playoff game outside a Twins uniform. While he threw a no-hitter with the Mets on June 1, 2012, it’s universally understood that it was the beginning of the end for him. He threw 134 pitches that day, and made just 10 more big-league starts before closing it down for the rest of the year in mid-August.
And little did anyone else know, but for the rest of his career.
He had an 8.27 ERA in those 10 starts. He averaged less than five innings, walked 18 batters in 49 frames and gave up an astonishing 13 home runs — more than three times as many as he’d given up the entire season to that point.
Santana opened the 2013 season on the disabled list, and oddly enough, current Twins video scout Jeremy Hefner was tabbed as his likely replacement in the Mets rotation.
Hefner spoke glowingly of his limited time with Santana in the Mets organization. Nobody worked harder than Santana even then, Hefner noted, and from a leadership and fun standpoint off the field, few were better, he added.
Santana wound up missing the entire 2013 season due to a re-tear of the capsule in the front of his shoulder — the injury that cost him the entire 2011 season — and that was that. He made a number of unsuccessful comeback attempts, including signing with the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles one was cut short after he blew out his Achilles tendon in early June, and the Blue Jays one ended almost exactly a year later due to a toe infection.
The Twins, meanwhile, got virtually no production out of the players they acquired, and slunk deep into the depths of the AL Central in a battle they’re still waging to fully emerge from.
So indeed, Saturday was a good time for reminiscing about the good times for Santana and former teammates. Michael Cuddyer, Hunter, Luis Rivas, Juan Rincon and Cristian Guzman were on hand as the sextet posed for pictures Friday afternoon in the Sid Hartman press conference room.
“ (It’s been) amazing,” Santana said about reconnecting with his old teammates. “I haven’t seen them for a long time. (Just) talking to them. When I saw them, memories just come back. That’s a pretty cool feeling. I’m looking forward to seeing more of those guys and definitely, it’s amazing once the time passes by and you go back in time, how great a group of guys we had but also how close we were.
“(Getting a World Series) didn’t happen, but at the same time memories last forever. We have great friendships. We worked very hard. That’s something I’m very proud of.”