ANAHEIM, Calif. — As Angels lefty Hector Santiago was closing in on his first win of the season in Texas a few weeks ago, a group of Little Leaguers from New Jersey all gathered around a TV to watch their hero sponsor and coach whose money, time and dedication helped power them to a championship run.
But in many ways, they’re his heroes.
While the noted MLB do-gooder has received praise and publicity for visiting Newtown, Conn., following the Sandy Hook shooting and helping an Oklahoma family that lost its home in a tornado, Santiago has been making a difference in the lives of many for years by sponsoring a Little League program called Santiago’s Soldiers.
"It tells you what drives Hector is people," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He’s the kind of guy you’re really pulling for."
The word "sponsor" may not do it justice. Santiago has been working to revive baseball in his hometown of Newark, N.J., even before he was being paid to pitch. Bags, balls, batting practice screens, gloves, fencing at the field and travel expenses — Santiago has provided it all. Now Santiago’s Soliders has expanded to a series of teams at a park that he’s trying to turn into a full-scale baseball complex. It’s his way of giving back to the program that produced him.
"I started off just helping a Little League team and kind of sponsoring their traveling, equipment, gear and uniforms, stuff like that," he said. "It’s just kind of helping out the team that I played for and giving them some uniforms and getting them to travel outside of New Jersey. I’m just kind of helping out the team and their coaches and stuff like that."
Santiago tends to downplay the work he does. It’s no big deal, he says. His father, Hector Sr., was the one making sacrifices.
The Santiago boys would wake at 5:30 a.m. on game days. Their father would do maintenance work on the field, pumping water, reinforcing the fences and any other necessary tasks in order to get the field game-ready. He would then umpire, always giving his paychecks right back to the league to be able to make further improvements to the field.
"My parents have always done the same thing. My father has always been giving back," Santiago said. "He used to be the one on the field raking, trying to get the water off so we could play, helping out umpiring. From umpiring, he would give away his $40 checks, he would give them to the Little League organization so that we could try to get new fences, and they actually re-did the facility."
There was never one resounding moment or any specific instance that made Santiago decide to give back. This is just simply the way he is and it’s what his parents taught him.
"He just kind of instilled it in us that we’re going to kind of give back and it just happened that when I was in the big leagues it was just something I wanted to do," Santiago said. "It wasn’t something forced on me where he said, ‘You have to do this.’ No, it was just something that I knew growing up and I just kind of kept running with it."
He started small, some bags and balls here and there and lessons when he had the time. But then once he could afford it, he began to build the program up to what it is today. His first major merchandise contract and his first big league paycheck went to the team.
Safety was a concern for the Santiago family then, as it is now. Newark was and still is gritty. The kids playing baseball easily could be swayed from baseball or even worse, harmed on the field. Santiago saw friends end up in trouble. Baseball, which he says is dying in cities like Newark, and those 5 a.m. wakeup calls that came along with it, kept him out of it.
His goal is to build a new indoor hitting facility for Santiago’s Soldiers to allow the kids to play all year round. It gives them a safe place to be, helps develop a work ethic and gives them something to strive for.
He’s the kind of guy you’re really pulling for.
-- Angels manager Mike Scioscia
"We’ve had places, you know, batting cages, but they would get so packed out. Now they’re like all closed down, there’s maybe like one facility that’s still open and it’s probably on the down side," he said. "I think it’s just a different game now, it’s not the same where the parents are there, are all the time making sure their kids are going out and giving their all. The kids play, they play their hardest when they’re on the field, but you don’t see that extra, so we’re trying to get a new indoor facility back home where they can play all year round. We don’t have to just do it in the summer."
Santiago wants his kids to have dreams. He had one in particular, a kid he calls Coco, who never made travel teams and was far from the best kid on the field. But he wanted it as bad as Santiago did, and right now he’s in Puerto Rico at Carlos Beltran’s camp.
Dream as big as Santiago and he’ll show you that with work and support, there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished.
"I had 10 players better than me on my team. But I went above and beyond," he said. "You just kind of want to get them out there and let them know that you’re supporting them and then they come out and bring a trophy home and it’s nice."