Over the years, more than 200 players have made the long journey from Venezuela to the major leagues. The list includes a fistful of current All-Stars like Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, a galaxy of older stars like Dave Concepcion and Andres Galarraga and even Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio.
04/09/2008 12:40 PM ET
Santana's journey from Venezuela
The stud lefty experienced struggle at every step
By Hal Bock / Special to MLBPLAYERS.com
None of them, however, was more of a longshot than Johan Santana, who grew up in the remote town of Tovar, a map dot hidden away in the northern Andes mountains, a town better known for soccer players than Major League prospects.
Santana, a two-time Cy Young Award winner with Minnesota, is now the top-of-the-rotation ace of the New York Mets, acquired for four prospects during the offseason and signed to one of the richest contracts in baseball history. His job was to make the Mets forget last season's depressing September collapse that cost them a playoff berth.
Santana settled in quickly with his new team, splitting his first two decisions and allowing just three runs in 14 innings. It was a continuation of the dominance he has displayed since 2004, when he won his last 13 decisions. Coming into this season, he led the majors over the last four years with 70 wins, a 2.89 earned run average and 983 strikeouts.
The switch from Minnesota to New York has been seamless for the left-hander so far.
"It's a different league, a learning experience," he said. "I know what I am capable of doing. I know there are a lot of expectations. I know exactly what it takes for me to do my job and I'm always willing to do what it takes."
On Opening Day against Florida, Santana struck out Hanley Ramirez, the first batter he faced in his new league, and Matt Treanor, the last batter he faced, before leaving the game after seven innings. It was a statement of sorts for him.
"He is tough," new teammate David Wright said. "He hides the ball so well. He makes adjustments so well.''
He is, in a word, dominant.
Not bad for a pitcher who spent four years in Class A, trying to master his craft.
Santana grew up using hand-me-down equipment from his father, including a glove for right-handers, even though he was a natural lefty.
Scout Andres Reiner, working for the Houston Astros, spotted the kid playing center field in the national championships and was impressed with his athleticism and arm strength -- by then he was throwing left-handed. So Reiner made a 12-hour drive over remote roads to Tovar and convinced Santana to come to the Astros baseball academy.
The Astros organization moved him to the mound and he was not exactly an instant success. In fact, the left-hander was ready to go home after six weeks but Reiner convinced him to stick around.
Still, Santana seemed to make little progress in the low minors, going 19-21 with a 4.77 earned run average. The Astros were dubious about the young man's prospects and decided not to protect him on their roster in 1999. He was a Rule 5 draft choice by the Marlins, who then traded him to the Twins.
Santana spent 2000 with the Twins, appearing in 30 games, five as a starter, and sporting a 6.49 ERA. He missed most of 2001 with an elbow injury and, by 2002, found himself in Triple-A Edmonton where he was tutored by pitching coach Bobby Cuellar, who helped him develop a devastating changeup.
Within two months, he was back in the Majors, this time to stay. After graduating from the bullpen to the Twins starting rotation, he quickly became a mainstay of the staff. He went 8-6 that season and 12-3 the next year. By 2004, he was 20-6 and was a unanimous winner of the Cy Young. He repeated two years later, when he went 19-6.
Hitters say the mystery of Santana is his ability to throw all of his pitches from the same arm slot. It is almost impossible to adjust from a 95-mph fastball to a 74-mph changeup when both look the same as they leave Santana's hand.
"He's one of the best," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "It's a pleasure to watch him work."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York City.